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Short Stuff: The 2014 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts
by Jay Seaver

The definition of "short film" is broader than some might imagine, and the length of the various programs of short films nominated for the Academy Awards this year demonstrates this: As usual, the documentaries were all a half hour to forty minutes long, requiring they be split into two programs in most theaters; the live-action shorts make for a two-hour block... And all five animated shorts together run 47 minutes.

So, it's hardly surprising that the full program gets padded out with a half-hour more of fine animated entertainment. Among all of these, which is the best (or at least, the best bet if you want to pick up some points in your Oscar pool)?

"Me and My Moulton" isn't a bad bet; filmmaker Torill Kove has already won the category once and her new one - reminiscing about growing up as the second of three daughters of a pair of modernist architects that she wished were "normal" like the family in the apartment downstairs for parents - is funny, sweet, and occasionally rather clever. This is her third film to be nominated and could easily be her second win.

Part of the reason why is just how smoothly it demonstrates the competing impulses at play: Kove's drawings are simple and unpretentious as opposed to obviously stylized, and she has a great deal of fun with jokes that may seem kind of silly - lots of kids falling off their parents' weird three-legged-chairs - and the message to be taken from it is pretty clear. And yet, you can see that the modernism has influenced her: The animated Torill and her sisters line up precisely, for instance, and architectural drawings give parts of the movie structure. It lets the pride in her family's intellectual eccentricity mingle with her desire to connect more broadly in most every frame, letting what's already a good-looking and funny movie resonate just a little more.

Another reasonable prediction might be "Feast", if only because it was likely seen and enjoyed by the most people, having been attached to Disney's release of Big Hero 6. It really is an adorable little movie, following Winston, a stray dog taken in by a young man who is happy to share his greasy human food with him - at least, until he meets a girl with more sophisticated tastes.

As you might expect from a Disney production, it's a slick little short, although animated in a style more akin to the company's Oscar-winning "Paperman" (which director Patrick Osborne also worked on) than the more rigidly three-dimensional film it played with. It's also the sort of thing that makes one wonder about how editing is done in this sort of production, as Osborne and editor Jeff Draheim love cutting from scene to scene in a way that is so precise that it must be mapped out before as much as pieced together later. It's funny and adorable and it moves, even if the action is often kind of rooted, which is a nifty accomplishment.

Of the five nominees, Daisy Jacobs's "The Bigger Picture" is probably the most ambitious, design-wise: She and her animators appear to draw her characters right on the walls of her setting, although arms will stretch out to interact with objects in the foreground. It's a nifty bit of optical illusion - that interaction looks a bit off, and in giving it that sort of three-dimensionality, Jacobs tends to shatter the trick of the eye that results in the two-dimensional drawings scanning as 3D when the viewer looks at them.

It would be nice, perhaps, if the story wasn't roughly as flat as the drawings. It's a fairly simple story about one son being successful out in the world while the other is dutiful toward his ailing mother, although she doesn't seem to recognize him as such. It plays out in just about the way one would expect, only the mother seems batty enough that actions and motivations get rather muddled midway through. It's nifty to look at, though, as much as any of the nominees.

"A Single Life" is, more than many animated shorts, one joke, but it's a good one - a woman living by herself receives a strange vinyl record with apparent time-travel properties. In the movie's three minutes, the filmmakers hit most of the variations one is likely to imagine, but just because the gags are the ones that follow most obviously from the premise doesn't mean they don't work.

Because they do; the character model is simple but cheerful, establishing her personality and situation quickly. It's also malleable, which is of great importance with the gags being so visual. The song on the record by Happy Camper is pretty nice as well, and it's not hard to appreciate just how well the filmmakers get in, make their jokes and points, and get out without being overly sentimental.

Filmmakers Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tstsumi are inventive right from the start of their short "The Dam Keeper", as the dam in question is not a wall to keep water out but a windmill holding suffocating pollution away from its city of anthropomorphic animals. It's maintained by a young pig, whose attention to its inner workings leave him dirty and still unappreciated by his schoolmates, at least until a cute fox whose charcoal drawings tend to leave her with blackened paws sits next to him on the bus.

It's a wonderful little film, packed with great visual designs and details - it instantly conjures up a makeshift city in a post-apocalyptic world that has gotten too comfortable because it forgets about the smoke outside. Lars Mikkelsen's narration sets just the right tone, and the way the story plays out pulls no punches - the bullies who terrorize the pig are not pompous and ineffectual but cruel and focused, and what happens when he fears he has lost his only friend is genuinely scary and wrenching. The result is dramatic and impressive with just the right amount of softening from the funny-animal setting.

The first of four "Highly Commended" animated films to get the package padded out to feature length is "Sweet Cocoon", and it's one of the best examples of the French sense of humor I can recall seeing. It's a dialogue-free comedy about a fat caterpillar that just cannot fit inside its cocoon (which I don't think is the way such things work, but never mind that), needing the help of two older beetles. It's slapstick that somehow seems to have a certain level of restraint, whimsical cartooning that nevertheless hasn't had its more adult edges sanded off, and the occasional important bit that's actually kind of mean because there's a belief that you can push a joke further than you can in real life.

I dig it; the five writer/directors who collaborated on it come up with good gags and render them very nicely. Still, while I laughed at how this sort of thing goes from cute to cruel at the blink of an eye, that may not be everyone's bag.

Another, more specific, recognizable sensibility is that of animator Bill Plympton, who has produced new cartoons at an impressively steady rate for about thirty years now. His latest, "Footprints", is instantly recognizable as his, even if it is one of the trippiest things he's done in recent years.

It starts with a man awakened by a noise outside his door and chasing it, his brain imagining ever-worsening things. There's an eerie edge to it even beyond the basics of the set-up, as Plympton uses the style which has allowed his more comedic cartoons to be edgy to allow his protagonist's world and fears to be shadowy and undefined, even as his growing use of digital tools for compositing and coloring seems to give other elements a more solid presence than some of his earlier works, even last year's feature Cheatin'.

Continuing on the theme of distinctive styles, it would not be completely surprising if you figured "Duet" as being the short in this block that came from Disney - Glen Keane may be directing for the first time, but he's been the character lead for the stars of some of Disney's greatest hits (he was in charge of Belle, Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Tarzan, and Rapunzel), and I believe was at one point in line to direct a feature there. Instead, this short was made in association with Google, of all places.

It's a pretty terrific-looking short, about a boy and a girl (and the boy's dog) who have been drawn together since childhood, although their respective devotion to athletics and dance demand a great deal of focus. The style feels like raw pencils with what are often absent backgrounds, but despite that, the film really excels at communicating the pair's story - in a way, it distills the entire thing down to Keane's skills at character design and animation. Things play out to Scot Stafford's soundtrack in perfect harmony.

The last of the "Highly Commended" runners-up is "Bus Story", from Qubeçoise animator Tali, a tale presented in autobiographical style about a woman who, having always seen school bus drivers as cheerful and important parts of the community takes a job as one only to find that this good cheer can be hard to maintain.

At 11 minutes, it's one of the longer shorts in the program, and it's kind of flatly paced at that; things happen but they don't seem to lead to the conclusion so much as the end is just another event. It also suffers a bit from being what Chuck Jones called "animated radio", with a great deal of narration. The best bits of storytelling are visual, as seasons change with a whump or the narrator's eyes go wide with disaster. the style also fits the blue-collar atmosphere a story about a small-town school bus driver should have, though, with the characters having big hooks for feet and simple, exaggerated faces.

All of the shorts included are fairly impressive, though of the five nominees, "The Dam Keeper" is clearly the cream, and what I'd put down as the winner, although the pedigrees of "Me and My Moulton" and "Feast" may provide it with some competition.

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originally posted: 02/22/15 05:03:04
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