Each year since 2009 my wife and I have made a day-long date of visiting Keystone Art Cinema, the only dedicated art-film theater in Indianapolis, to view the big-screen release of the Academy Award nominees for Best Live-Action Short Film and Best Animated Short Film. Results vary each time and aren’t always for all audiences, but we appreciate this opportunity to sample such works and see what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences deemed worthy of celebrating, whether we agree with their collective opinions or not.
Presented below are my thoughts on this year’s five Animated Short Film nominees. Shorts International, which masterminds these theatrical releases, strongly discourages the nominated filmmakers from posting their works online for free, but it’s my understanding they’re available on iTunes, Amazon, and/or Video On Demand. If you live in a large city where they’re playing in theaters, this year you’re treated to silly framing sequences starring an animated ostrich and giraffe who work as stand-ins during Oscars ceremony rehearsals. Voices are provided by Red Dwarf alumni Kerry Shale and Mac McDonald.
Enjoy where possible!
Mr. Hublot: A gentle steampunk take on Wallace and Gromit, about the long-term relationship between a lonely clerk and a stray robot puppy that grows over the years into a bit of a behemoth. Their story is benign, but the intricate character designs and extensive backgrounds are served well on the big screen, though I would’ve liked a chance to pause for closer perusal.
Get a Horse!: You saw this in front of Disney’s Frozen — Mickey Mouse’s first Oscar nomination in years. Seeing it a second time gave me a chance to notice the little things in the lightning-quick transitions from 2-D black-‘n’-white to 3-D CG and back again, funniest of all being Horace Horsecollar wearing a Captain America T-shirt.
Feral: Animator Daniel Sousa’s variation on a Tarzan theme (little boy raised in the wild, then dragged back to a society he no longer understands) contains the most hand-drawn work of any contestant, conveyed in pen-and-ink hatching and minimalist tones that are a welcome change of pace from today’s eye-popping, overly calculated CG factory product. Gears are switched near the end for a largely metaphorical final act, the thread of which I lost somewhere along the way, but I was reminded of Bill Plympton in his prime minus surrealist humor.
Possessions: Shuhei Morita’s 3D-cel-animated project is one of four shorts featured in Short Peace, a themed anthology spearheaded by Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo. Morita’s sometimes hallucinatory contribution sees a samurai spending a night in a haunted hut, plagued by Tsukumogami (basically, ghostly household objects) that include giant mai-tai umbrellas and obi swatches. If you’ve ever watched a Miyazaki film, the feeling is similar — the animation itself is masterful, but if you’re not familiar with the right segments of Japanese folklore, you’ll be left dazzled but confused.
Room on the Broom: From the animators that brought you previous Oscar nominees “The Gruffalo” and “The Gruffalo’s Child”; based on the award-winning children’s book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler; featuring the voices of The X-Files‘ Gillian Anderson, Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew!), Academy Award nominee Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), “Gruffalo” vet Rob Brydon, and narrator Simon Pegg. That’s a sufficient pedigree for success, and the story of a witch who can’t stop taking on outcast animal hitchhikers is utterly charming. The celebrity voices aren’t why it’s my favorite of the lot. The winner is the witch’s non-verbal pet cat, who speaks only in cat snarls but steals all the scenes anyway.
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As is usually done for the Animated Short Film collection, the five nominees add up to a low running time, so three additional “Highly Commended” shorts were added to the theatrical release for value-added balance, presumably all near-misses for the Oscar ballot:
The Blue Umbrella: You saw this in front of Monsters University. It’s strange to see Pixar miss the cut while Disney takes the lead.
A La Francaise: Imagine a garden party in Versailles in 1700, except everyone’s a chicken but things are wacky and a few of them are libertines and the adult content rates around Level Mad Men. I probably missed some historical allusions or whatever, but if I want funny historical chickens we already have the decidedly non-bawdy Chicken Run.
The Missing Scarf: Internet superstar George Takei narrates Irish animator Eoin Duffy’s slightly demented fable in which an origami squirrel consoles other cut-paper animals who struggle with issues of failure, rejection, darkness, and existential dread. Much funnier than it sounds.