a theatre, film & pop culture review
There’s a clear delineation amongst the nominees between the more formally experimental animation and the consumer-friendly eye-candy. The problem is that none of them have anything clever to say; all the stories here are slight, so it’s just a matter of what kind of visual the Academy will go for. What they typically go for are the whimsical shorts with the Pixar look — whether or not they’re actually Pixar doesn’t really matter.
On the experimental side, there’s Shuhei Morita’s Possessions. Inspired by the Japanese legend of “Tsukumogami,”in which tools and other objects obtain souls after 100 years of silence, it follows a lost handyman as he takes shelter in a hidden shrine within a forest one rainy night. This particular short feels cut from a longer piece, and that’s because it’s only one segment of a four-piece anthology called Short Peace. While it’s a vibrant work of anime, with some clever touches like ridiculously cute umbrella-frog, the lack of thematic fulfillment will work against it.
Demonstrating equally slight storytelling, but more inventive artistry is Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden’s Feral, which has won several festival prizes and was nominated for the Sundance Film Festival’s Short Film Grand Jury Prize. Told in impressionistic strokes of various shades of gray, it’s dialogue-free story about a feral boy rescued from wolves by a kind stranger and who is civilized, only to discover that humans can be just as vicious in packs as any animals. While its malleable visuals are refreshingly minimal, the simplistic story won’t cut it in the long run.
Even if voters were leaning towards the more adult fare, their votes would likely split between Feral and Possessions, leaving us to more seriously consider the three kid-friendly, rainbow-colored offerings. Max Lang & Jan Lachauer’s Room on the Broom at first seems like a top contender with its starry cast — Simon Pegg narrates and Gillian Anderson stars as the witch, with support from Sally Hawkins and Timothy Spall — and the same creative team behind The Gruffalo. A children’s fairytale (based on the 2002 bestseller by Julia Donaldson), it’s about an unlucky witch and her frustrated cat who continually make room on their broom for other outcasted critters. At nearly thirty minutes, this modest tale is stretched terribly thin, and though the friendly animation looks just like a storybook come to life, the similarly-realized Gruffalo failed to win its respective year, which doesn’t bode well for Broom.
Which brings us to the just as simply told Get a Horse!, an almost too easy win for Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim. What it’s got going for it: It’s been seen by just about everyone, voter or no, as it preceded all screenings of the ultra-popular Frozen (the likely winner of Best Animated Feature). It’s also the first Disney animation to ever be directed solely by a woman (!). Most importantly (for voting purposes), it’s been awhile since our favorite mouse has starred in his own short, so there a nostalgia factor, especially considering the filmmakers utilized archived sounds of Walt Disney’s voice for Mickey’s dialogue, and it’s half hand-drawn and in black and white (a clear aim for the Steamboat Willie sentimentalists among us). It’s a classic Mickey-saves-Minnie story in which Peg-Leg Pete chases our hero, who ultimately crashes through the movie screen and into an off-puttingly bright, 3-D CGI present day. This latter bit is not done well (the CGI looks a bit funky), and while the Mickey-gets-meta gimmickry of him bounding back and forth between the two forms is cute and clever at first, it’s a thin, repetitive piece, and it ultimately comes off as a bit smug. No one likes a smug mouse, especially not following a year in which Disney offered one of its most magical, Oscar-winning pieces in years (Paperman). The cynic in me, however, knows that despite all its flaws, it has a very, very good chance of winning.
But voters have skipped over the most popular studio shorts before (Pixar’s La Luna and Day & Night) in favor of the more whimsically crafted cartoons (The Lost Thing, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore), and Mr. Hublot sure looks like a Pixar film even if it isn’t. A steampunk, almost-nod to Wall•E, this dialogue-free French short features an OCD robot shut-in, with aviator goggles and cloaked in a leather trench coat, who forms an unlikely friendship with an adorably life-like mechanical dog that puts a cog in his otherwise ultra-controlled life. Unlike the other nominees, Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares’s quirky, super-detailed work feels as though it’s nicely building to a funny pay-off, and it looks great to boot. Despite the bigger-than-life presence of the Mouse House within this category, Mr. Hublot is still the safe bet for your office Oscar pool.