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The Academy Awards may be more than a month away, but we’re starting our coverage early. In addition to the whiskey-soaked live-tweeting you know and love, BYT is reviewing all the short film nominees. 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. The nominees tend to favor a hand-drawn feel, instead of the crisp CGI that dominates most feature-length animation. As with last year, major themes are friendship, reconciliation, and loneliness. Let’s get to it!

The Bigger Picture, directed by Daisy Jacobs

With an innovative animation style, one that mixes stop-motion 3D and hand-drawn figures, Jacobs tackles a subject that’s both universal and profoundly depressing: the inevitable decay of our parents. Her focus is on two estranged brothers who reconcile and help their mother once she gets very sick. The Bigger Picture inverts its visuals so that the characters are in the background, while the scenery takes front and center. And when I say “background,” I meant it literally: the characters are painted onto the walls, while Jacobs uses 3D to give depth to movement. The effect is like an innovative diorama. In one memorable sequence, one brother vacuums the living and each piece of furniture veers veers from inaction to dramatic suction before it disappears. Whenever there’s water, whether it’s in a tub or a rainy drive, Jacob abstracts the effect with crumpled cellophane. There’s a purpose to the flourishes in this short: action is what defines us, otherwise we’re wallpaper. Form and content are poignant here, but they do not exactly coalesce.

The Dam Keeper, directed by Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tsutsumi

Except for the narration at the beginning and end of this short, The Dam Keeper unfolds without dialogue, which is the secret to its power. The titular Keeper is a young pig, who lives atop a dam and heads into the town below for school. The first shot of the pig at school is instantly recognizable: his classmates are all different animals, and they jeer him for being swine. Shoulders slumped and looking despondent, the pig sits at the back without a friend in the world. His luck changes, however, when a fox joins his class, one who does not adhere to the social hierarchy that defines the pig’s life. Kondo and Tsutsumi use simple creatures, with imperfect edges and backgrounds, so that The Dam Keeper looks like the  imagination of animators who wants to comfort children who may feel like an outcast. The story of the pig and fox unfolds at a gentle pace, yet their faces contain genuine, albeit distilled emotion. 

Feast, directed by Patrick Osborne

Like Paperman, the terrific Oscar-winning short from two years ago, this Pixar short uses an invisible mix of CGI and-drawn animation. The brilliant thing about Feast is its perspective: the camera is always low to the ground, with a focus on a cute Boston terrier named Winston. Osborne starts with Winston befriending his eventual owner, and follows through meal after meal that they share. The focus is always on food – Winston has a thing for meatballs – and the cuts between meals are seamless. A story eventually develops, although it’s in the background of Winston’s life: his owner falls in love with a waitress, then falls into a funk after she leaves him. Winston’s inability to empathize with his owner creates ironic tension, at least until pup realizes something is wrong and decides to do something about it. The best shorts create their own sets of storytelling rules, and find ways to violate and/or tweak them. Feast is like that precisely because Winston is a fully-realized pet, one whose choices demonstrate why dogs provide the best companionship.

Me and My Moulton, directed by Torill Kove

With a simple style that’s mostly evocative – think Le Petit Prince, except without the fantastical whimsy – Kove’s short is a slice-of-life about growing up in Norway. A narrator explains that she’s the middle daughter of three, and that her parents are modernist architects. She focuses on her father, an aloof and strange man whose choices create a mild sense of alienation (his kinky mustache distinguishes him from everyone else in town). Kove does not add much story or suspense to Me and My Moulton: the narrator speaks with a mix of annoyance and nostalgia, as if her cumulative wisdom means that she looks upon her early life with regret. The “Moulton” in the title refers to a bicycle, one that’s handy and weirder than the bikes the other bikes in the neighborhood. Kove wants the bike to serve as a metaphor: the gift is eccentric and useful, just like her father. The message of this short is immediately familiar, particularly since animators all seem to have weird parents, so I’m surprised this one left a strong impression on the Academy.

A Single Life, directed by Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins and Job Roggeveen

It’s ironic that the Animated Short with the most directors also has the shortest running time. A Single Life is the only short that looks like it’s CGI, yet the animation is secondary to its clever premise. A young woman plays a record in her apartment, and she realizes the needle’s position on the record can move time forward or background. By moving the needle, for example, she’s able to advance time so that she’s pregnant and then with a child. The ease with which she moves forward and back is meant to illustrate how we perceive life: in the blink of an eye, we veer from an feeble toddler into an enfeebled senior citizen. And even with a short running time, A Single Life left a more lasting impression than several of the other nominees.

AND THE WINNER IS…

The two front-runners are Feast and The Dam Keeper. Both rely on cute creatures and the power of silence, and both have a style that mixes simple animation with impressive, polished details. If I’m being honest, the real winner is Feast. In this category, it’s Pixar’s award to lose, year after year. While this one doesn’t have the old school Hollywood charm Pixar’s best, Feast‘s forced perspective are about as compelling as Winston’s large, cartoonish eyes.

 

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