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 rankings of this year’s five Animated Short Film nominees, from the greatest to the most head-scratching. It’s my understanding all five nominated animated shorts can be viewed on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, and other similar sources. Links are provided for official sites or the next relevant thing available. Enjoy!
Feast: I already saw this in front of Disney’s Big Hero 6. At the time I described it as, “…the life and meals of a cute widdle doggie and you guys it’s TOTES ADORBS, though if I spoiled our own dog with as much people-food as this cute widdle doggie is gifted, I’d be in so much trouble. I think it’s also the first time I’ve ever encountered a story in which parsley is an antagonist.” Even today it was far and away the best short my wife and I saw of any kind, either animated or live-action. It seems wrong to go with the major-studio corporate submission, but the telling of a young couple’s story through the viewpoint of their dog’s mealtimes really is that sweet and imaginative.
A Single Life: At just over two minutes this Dutch CG quickie may be the shortest nominee we’ve ever seen, but this tale of an old 45 single that transports a woman back and forth within her entire lifespan — not nostalgically, literally — has the the breakneck wit and reflexes of Pixar in their heyday, and the allegorical acuity of a top-10 Twilight Zone episode.
Me and My Moulton: Torill Kove’s affectionate memoir of growing up in 1965 Norway with disconnected hipster parents is the most simply cel-animated nominee on the roster, but the consternation she shares with her two sisters will resonate with anyone who’s ever wanted to live normally despite Mom and Dad’s strange notion of what “normal” means.
The Dam Keeper: In which a young pig is in charge of minding a dam, or a windmill, or possibly both, finds himself bullied at school, makes a friend at long last, has a Three’s Company kind of idiot misunderstanding, and then there’s misery and casualties. The moral of the story is possibly that true friendship is a cherished moment that can and should happen to anyone, or maybe that you should look at an entire drawing before you judge it, but my takeaway was that perhaps it’s not a great idea to put the tiny schoolchild in charge of the thin line between happy town life and massive nebulous catastrophe. But that’s just me. My bafflement notwithstanding, I do admire that the entire piece is made up of thousands of lush hand-drawn paintings, and fans of Sherlock should enjoy the narration by Lars Mikkelsen, a.k.a. the nefarious Charles Augustus Magnussen. If only this short had been constructed within the stricter logical confines of his mind palace, perhaps this little piggy might’ve gone “Win! Win! Win!” all the way to Oscar.
The Bigger Picture: Two brothers bicker over the elderly mother who can no longer care for herself and needs their assistance with everyday living. This UK stop-motion project combines painstaking 2-D wall paintings with three-dimensional still-life setups for a most unusual approach to a heavy subject for us aging folks. The creators have enjoyed enough success at film festivals that they’re already shopping their follow-up as a Kickstarter project. I found the mixed-media approach so curious that I spent a lot of time trying to discern between what’s painted versus what’s real, and consequently lost track of the narrative thread at some point.
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As I said above, all five can be viewed individually through various streaming sources, but as with previous years’ shorts, the theatrically released collection includes additional “commendable” shorts to pad out the running time and help justify the ticket price. This year’s four Commendable bonus shorts bumped the total program up to a mere 77 minutes.
Sweet Cocoon: Two innocent bystander bugs volunteer to help a hopeless fat caterpillar fit into his undersized trappings so that he might transform into a thing of nonfat beauty. Old-school slapstick with a few fun sight gags is a bit overwhelmed by what sounds like egregiously wacky circus music.
Footprints: Onetime MTV animation staple Bill Plympton returns with a four-minute sample of the same distinct brand of distorted dream-state visuals and this time it involves a man tracking weird footprints across hallucinatory terrains and hours later neither my wife nor I could remember what it was about, assuming we ever understood in the first place.
Duet: I first saw this one back in June when its online release was a big deal on animation news sites. In 2013 Disney animator Glen Keane stepped away from the company after thirty-seven years of work-for-hire service and decided to pursue his own projects. His first effort since then, “Duet” is fluid and pretty and soothing and glowing, though its consciously limited palette has the look of a proof-of-concept animatic instead of a finished product. Keane’s company shares ownership with Google ATAP, but it’s still more ownership than he was entitled to on any of his Disney assignments.
Bus Story: The most outlandish fantasy of the entire lineup exists in the mind of a happy Canadian woman who harbors romanticized notions about the school bus-driver career track. I get the impression she never actually rode a bus when she was a kid, especially not through the Great North winter that turns the daily route into a death-defying gauntlet. If the weather doesn’t get to you, the unruly underage passengers will, or the unreasonable boss, or the numerous obstacles hiding in your colossal blind spots. By the end she’s learned her lesson, though the end results require a sort of spoiler-ish trigger warning for one particular pet whose role sees the dire opposite of the idyllic outcome of “Feast”.