The Academy Awards may be more than a month away, but we’re starting our coverage early. In addition to the whiskey-soaked Oscar live-blog you know and love, BYT is reviewing all the short film nominees. I’m handling the animated shorts, Ross Bonaime is handling live action, and Toni Tileva is handling documentary. And starting this Friday, animated and live action shorts will be screening at Landmark’s E Street Cinema, while the documentary shorts will be at West End Cinema.
This years crop of animated shorts are an odd bunch, but not in a way I expected. They are all on the longer side – back to back, all five are maybe seventy-five minutes total – and all the shorts have little to no dialogue. Major themes are friendship, reconciliation, and loneliness. Let’s get to it!
Feral, directed by Daniel Sousa
This short is the most haunting precisely because it’s the most abstract. Sousa animates his film in black and white, and the characters are little more than silhouettes. He begins in the wilderness, where a boy lives uneasily with wolves and other animals. An adult hunter finds the boy, then tries to assimilate him into society. He gives the boy clothes, and leaves him in a school (it’s unclear whether it’s an orphanage or whether the hunter is the boy’s caretaker). Feral is dreamlike in tone and imagery, and its impressionism has a real impact. It’s tragic how the boy is caught between two worlds, and how he’s alienated from both. Sousa ends his short on an ambiguous note, and while it’s not exactly hopeful, there is real sympathy for a boy who will never quite understand his unhappiness.
Get a Horse!, directed by Lauren MacMullan
This is the Disney short that was shown before Frozen, and like last year’s winner Paperman, it combines hand-drawn animation with stunning 3D. Unlike Paperman, however, this one is all about slapstick and playing with the planes of reality. Mickey and Minnie are on a wagon ride, while Peg-leg Pete tries to pull Minnie onto his tractor. The black and white portion only fills a fraction of the frame, then Mickey and others fall out of the screen and land on the stage of an actual movie theater. The movie theater is 3D and in color, so the rest of the short is a clever game where Mickey and Minnie attack Pete with one slapstick humiliation after another. The transitions between the 3D theater and the screen within a screen are witty, yet there is none of the heart that helped Paperman take the prize. Instead, Get a Horse! is a goofy riff on Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., except Keaton is much more experimental/bold with the central conceit.
Mr Hublot, directed by Laurent Witz
This short is entirely wordless, yet full of rich visual detail. Witz imagines a Steam-punk world where everyone is an uneasy combination of man and machine. Mr Hublot, a tiny figure with lenses attached to his skull, has a running counter on his forehead that acts like a numerical id of sorts. Hublot sees a robot dog from his window, and tries to ignore it at first. It’s barking all day with enthusiasm, until it becomes a sad, pathetic creature. Hublot finally decides to save the dog, and the short is all about the unlikely friendship he forges (pun intended). Witz covers familiar territory here – the final reversal is familiar to anyone fascinated with the animated short medium – yet it works because his characters and atmosphere are otherworldly and welcoming in equal measure.
Possessions, directed by Shuhei Morita
This one is mostly wordless, but unlike the other shorts, the main character is given enough room to develop a personality. Set in feudal Japan, our hero is a repairman who gets lost in the forest during a rainstorm. He takes shelter in an abandoned shack, only to discover it has supernatural powers. It’s full of possessed items who have a bad attitude because they’re all torn and forgotten. At first, a series of umbrellas terrorize the repairman, except he recognizes the quality of the fabric and restores them to their past glory. He feels kinship with these items, and Possessions is all about respect and the dignity of restoration. The repairman is a likable figure because he’s enterprising and takes the supernatural shack at face value: he never gets upset or scared about what happens. Mortia’s animation looks traditional, yet there is attentive CGI, particularly when the repairman faces off with a dragon made up of garbage. The mix of moody lighting and a bright palette is eye-catching, and there is an unforced smile when the repairman leaves the shack with more than when he entered.
Room on the Broom, directed by Jan Lachauer and Max Lang
This is the newest children’s story brought by the team behind The Gruffalo, which was nominated for Best Animated Short three years ago. This one is an adaptation of the classic children’s book by Julia Donaldson. It tells the story of a witch (Gillian Anderson) and her cat. The witch keeps losing something as she flies through the air on her broom, and along her search she discovers new pets. Pretty soon she has a dog, a bird, and a frog. This kind of short is meant for toddlers – I’d imagine this is too sophisticated for a seven year old – but the animation is cute and there are enough visual gags so that adults will not be bored. The added bonus is the voice work: there are several recognizable voices, including Timothy Spall as a dragon, but Simon Pegg steals the show as the narrator. At first, I wasn’t sure it was him, but then I could hear how he switches droll irony for sincere delight. He’s a perfect fit for this material since the story would otherwise be too saccharine. How amazing would it be if there’s an adults-only version of this where all the rhymes are dirty instead of simple? I would actually pay money for that.
AND THE WINNER IS…
This is a tough race. Unlike the best couple years, there is no clear favorite. Granted, Get a Horse is the most ambitious, form-wise, but it has a modest story and I miss the full effect without the use of 3D (I did not see Frozen in a movie theater). If I were on the Academy, I’d give the award to Possessions. It has an interesting mix of animation styles and light effects, and its hero is atypical in comparison to the passive observers that populate most animated shorts. It’s downright delightful to see someone who finds joy in their work, even when faced with vengeful Japanese ghosts.