Curious which Oscar-nominated animated short film will win the Academy Award on February 26? Well, I'm no prognosticator and I honestly don't really care which little-known filmmaker takes home the golden statue. But I am happy the Oscars exist and have the animated short category because it means that moviegoers have at least one chance a year to see at least five (supposedly) exceptional animated shorts in the theater. There's usually at least one in the bunch I'm not that in love with, but even 4 out of 5 makes for a great program, especially when the best films are really something special. And maybe you, like the Academy, will enjoy them all.
This year's Oscar-nominated shorts will be released to theaters this Friday, February 10. I've seen all five of the animated shorts and have ranked them in order of my favor below with review and preview notes.
1. “La Luna”
I know it’s somewhat obvious and boring to name a Pixar short as the best, but I’m no constant Pixar champion. I do think they produce some really weak ones, including those that get nominated (“Boundin’” for example), and anyway they don’t win all the time. In fact, they haven’t won the Oscar in this category in a decade. Last year they did actually deserve it with the clever 3D piece “Day & Night” and now they deserve it again with this 7-minute Italo Calvino-inspired short written and directed by Enrico Casarosa, previously a story artist on “Cars,” “Ratatouille” and “Up” and head of story on an upcoming Pixar feature.
So what makes the short so wonderful? It’s the most basic, timeless and magical kind of storytelling, and cinematographically, with its blend of computer animation and watercolor/pastel backdrops, it’s the one short among these nominees that I wish I’d seen on the big screen (I still can, I suppose). It features three generations of males in a family of moon sweepers. I guess I shouldn’t give away entirely what that entails, but it involves a fresh yet familiar kind of myth about the moon, something that could be as lasting, at least for the sake of children’s wonder, as the lunar deities and the Man in the Moon. With its kinship to Georges Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon,” I think this is to “Hugo” what the next film is to “The Artist” (maybe that means the next film will actually win?).
Watch the trailer:
2. “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore”
Keeping somewhat with the theme of celebrating old movies, this hybrid of miniatures, computer animation and 2D animation fits well in this year’s Academy Awards roster. The 15-minute work begins in New Orleans as a Katrina-like storm busts through the French Quarter while the title character, a bit of a mash-up between Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, is reading a book. Even the words are blown off the pages and eventually an obvious “Wizard of Oz” allusion brings Mr. Morris Lessmore through the air and then grounds him in a now-black-and-white disaster area. But soon the playful Katrina stuff is gone as the man comes across a house filled with flying, clapping, piano-playing, life-giving books of all shapes and sizes. Think of it somewhere between the extremes of Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Pagemaster” with a touch of “Pleasantville” thrown in.
While I appreciate its ability to tell a story without dialogue, I think it helps too much that the story here has little sense or reason behind it. And is it saying that literature will fix all of the Big Easy’s problems? This short does look great, however, and you can tell this film is written and directed by a veteran author of children’s books and producer of animated features such as Louisiana’s own William Joyce, who has worked for Pixar, Disney, Fox Animation and now (for an upcoming feature adaptation of his series “Guardians of Childhood”) DreamWorks Animation. Co-directed by Brandon Oldenburg, a conceptual artist who previously worked with Joyce on “Robots.”
Watch in full:
3. “A Morning Stroll”
Continuing the streak of relatively dialogue-free shorts with homage to old cinema, this is an amusing cartoon inspired by a very short story by Linda Elegant titled “The Chicken,” which is allegedly real and therefore included in Paul Auster’s “True Tales of American Life” (also posted in full here). The original tale simply involves the sighting of a chicken on what seemed to be an independent morning stroll down the street and up to its residence, where the bird knocked on the door and was subsequently let inside.
In only 7 minutes, Grant Orchard (2003’s “Welcome to Glaringly,” which you can watch here) expands on the surreal idea with three separate reenactments in three different time periods, each rendered in a corresponding animation style. The end of the third bit provides a kind of punchline for the whole thing after climaxing with a post-apocalyptic zombie attack. The first act is the classic cinema tribute in that it’s very simple animation presented as if projected with old-timey flicker. I’d love to see the rest of Auster’s crowd-sourced collection adapted with such fun and inventive bits.
Watch the trailer:
4. “Wild Life”
I’m sure I should like this one a bit more than I do. And I actually do think it’s quite good, but it’s directed by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, who really captivated us with their 1999 Oscar nominee,“When the Day Breaks” (watch that one here). Tilby also was nominated in 1992 for “Strings,” which I also find stylishly superior (watch that one here). I figure this sleepy, somber western tale of an Englishman trying to make it in the Wild West of Alberta in 1909, as an analogical comet flies by overhead (I assume it’s meant to be Halley’s), is not really worthy of being the work that finally gets the filmmakers’ their Academy Award unless it’s really for career achievement purposes.
Watch the trailer:
5. “Dimanche” (“Sunday”)
My least favorite of the five is this crudely drawn and slightly morbid tale of a little Canadian boy’s Sunday, which consists of church, company and coins, the last of which he flattens on the railroad tracks. Also squashed is a dog run-over by his family car and what appears to be part of his imagination. I lost interest in the story and the skewed traditional animation quite early in the 9-minute short, which was directed by Patrick Doyon, and I was disappointed that it didn’t at least have a cheap gag thrown in at the end. I’m just as upset that I would even wish for such a thing.
Watch the trailer: