Review: The 2014 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Animation
Like this year's Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Short Films, the animated films have also been released in select theaters to give opportunities the opportunity to see these inventive works of art in the right environment. Unlike the live-action shorts, the animated nominees tend to be rather short, and have been padded this year to include three other animated films that were presumably Oscar also-rans. Bafflingly, the best animated short film on the program – by far – wasn't even nominated. What's up with that, Academy?
The Oscar-nominated animated short films are a mixed bag this year, filled with noble experiments and films whose story gets undermined or overwhelmed by the style. It's an interesting batch nonetheless, and they are reviewed here in the order they screen at the theatrical presentation: the Oscar-nominated Get a Horse!, Mr. Hublot, Feral, Possessions and Room on the Broom, followed by the not-nominated À La Française, The Missing Scarf and The Blue Umbrella. The films are interspersed theatrically with animated banter between an ostrich and a giraffe, who have sometimes amusing and sometimes slightly shocking stories to share about their careers in Hollywood.
Get a Horse!
Audiences may already be familiar with Get a Horse! The animated short film played before the hit animated musical Frozen during its theatrical run. Lauren MacMullen’s ode to the golden age of Mickey Mouse cartoons plays like gangbusters in a room full of excited children, but to more discerning audiences it is merely a clever, amusing accomplishment, not quite worthy of cheers but certainly worthy of appreciation.
Mickey Mouse (voiced by Walt Disney himself) is trying to enjoy a hayride with his girlfriend Minnie, but their slow-moving wagon blocks the car of his arch-nemesis Peg-Leg Pete, who knocks Mickey through the movie screen and into a three-dimensional, full color CGI world. Mickey struggles to get back into the 2D, black and white world where Peg-Leg menaces Minnie Mouse, leading to one amusing gag after another that plays with the notions of two-dimensionality, three-dimensionality, and the mechanics of motion picture projection. Only one gag, about an annoying movie theater patron with a cell phone, falls flat: the rest are either impressively conceived or genuinely hilarious.
Get a Horse! deserves a lot of credit for playing with the form and format of animated cartoons in a manner that feels appropriate to Disney’s earliest animated efforts, but it’s just a gag film. In a vacuum, it’s a real treat, but compared to some of the other shorts featured on the program Get a Horse! feels just a little lacking.
Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares co-directed this animated short about an obsessive-compulsive, agoraphobic man whose carefully calibrated life is turned upside down when he decides to adopt a robot dog. If that last part sounds weird, don’t worry: Mr. Hublot is also a robot man.
The mechanical nature of Mr. Hublot’s world feels like window dressing for an otherwise very simple story about lonely individuals finding each other, and making room for family despite the chaos it brings. The cybernetic world allows for amusing details (like the mechanical number generator on Mr. Hublot’s forehead that clickety-clack whenever he’s thinking hard), and seems to exist primarily to set up an improbably dark misdirection at the film’s zero hour, which I won’t ruin here. Suffice it to say, the bulk of Mr. Hublot isn't grim enough to suggest that this story won’t end happily, and yet the finale depends on the audience believing that the worst – and indeed, the most horrifying – conclusion is possible.
Although the plot hinders on a fundamental flaw, Mr. Hublot has a pleasing Jacques Tati sensibility that warms your heart even as it makes your head itch.
Daniel Sousa’s Feral is the sort of film I imagine would play in the movie theater around the corner from Henry Spencer’s apartment in Eraserhead: it is enigmatic and melancholy but hauntingly composed, and it probably speaks volumes about something or other that I would prefer not to think about very hard.
A young boy materializes next to a pack of wolves, is “saved” by a hunter who believes in tough love (emphasis on the “love”), and is sent to a school where his animal nature feels a little too appropriate for a playground full of unruly, judgmental brats. The blacks, greys and whites of the animation are stark in their hues, but alive within themselves, and fit the transmogrifications that propel the finale of Feral into the realm of the ethereal and somewhat baffling.
There’s an unmistakable air of danger in Feral, both within the plot and the animation itself. Although the story is a little too inscrutable to linger in the imagination, the film’s palpable dread has made a home in my subconscious. I suspect that Feral requires a code key to unlock the mysteries of its plot, which doesn’t offer quite enough clues to make pondering those unanswered mysteries worthwhile without the promise of a solution. But this is still a potent work from an impressive artist with something to say. I wonder what it was…
A wonderful little story about a failed haunting, Possessions is based on the conceit that after 100 years, tools and knick-knacks develop a soul of their own and play with the minds of the living. A shack in the middle of the forest is full of disused umbrellas and wallpaper which resent being thrown away, but the victim of their latest haunting has an unlikely reaction to their frightening appearances that may be the best thing that ever happened to everyone – and every thing – involved.
Shuhei Morita’s film features lavish 2D anime backgrounds and CGI characters, crafted with what appears to be the same cell-shading program used in video games like Borderlands. Certainly the effect is the same, but the contrast between the vibrantly living 2D surroundings and the comparatively fake-looking hero leaves the film feeling a little disconnected from its characters. If the characters had been 2D animated as well, it’s easy to imagine that Possessions would feel more natural and involving.
Fortunately the story is so clever and likable that criticizing the art style is just quibbling. Although Possessions is not the best animated short on the program, it is certainly the best film nominated for Best Animated Short at the Oscars this year: a witty, energetic story with a moral that is intriguingly unlikely, and refreshingly hard to debate.
Room On The Broom
Max Lang, the director of the Oscar-nominated short The Gruffalo (one of the best animated shorts nominated in recent years), is back with another adaptation of Julia Donaldson’s children's stories. Lang co-directs Room on the Broom with Jan Lachauer, and although the piece is amusing it lacks The Gruffalo’s wit, intriguing characters and unexpected plot.
A kindly witch (Gillian Anderson) flies through the sky with her grumpy cat (Rob Brydon), but she keeps dropping things from the broom. Every time they stop they meet a sympathetic animal who finds the missing item and asks if there’s “room on the broom” for them. The jealous cat balks, the witch always agrees, but by the time the broom is carrying the witch, the cat, a dog (Martin Clunes), a bird (Sally Hawkins) and a frog (David Walliams), it’s too heavy to stay aloft and gets them in trouble with a hungry dragon (Timothy Spall).
It’s freaking adorable, but Room on the Broom has an episodic, lackadaisical pace that leaves the film feeling long, and the simplicity of the plot doesn’t help either. The moral is thin, the jokes are thinner, and ultimately it just feels more like a harmless movie than a particularly good one. Fans of The Gruffalo, however, may be amused to see some of the cast make cameo appearances.
À La Française
À La Française, not nominated for an Academy Award but included to pad the program to feature length, is a series of silent gags about the 19th Century French aristocracy, portrayed as stuffy, slightly hedonistic chickens.
Substance is only hinted at: as these cocks of the walk enjoy their affluence, one chicken writes down every detail of their ridiculous lives, only to have his papers fly through the air and into the faces of those who would be humiliated or offended to learn what their fellow aristocrats are up to. By the end, the implication is that the papers might find their way into the hands of the people, who will probably do to the noblemen and noblewomen what people often do to chickens. Slice.
The dry humor of À La Française is amusing enough, even though the pacing is as drowsy as the cast of characters. But the film’s greatest detriment is the animation style, which features a lot of detail but poor interactivity between the CGI characters and their environment, resulting in a world that feels even more disconnected than Possessions. Nevertheless, À La Française is an intriguing little short, although it’s easy to see why it was left off of the final five nominations this year.
The Missing Scarf
The best animated short on the program, and bafflingly absent from the Oscar nominations, The Missing Scarf plays like a children’s storybook co-written by Don Hertzfeldt (Rejected).
Narrated by George Takei, who really tones down his George Takei-ness, The Missing Scarf tells the story of a squirrel who is missing his scarf. So he journeys into the woods to find it, asking other animals to help him along the way, but each animal has a dilemma of their own that’s distracting them. The squirrel has optimistic, useful advice for each of them until it encounters a bear with a troubling, existential dilemma that might not be as impractical as it sounds.
Writer/director Eoin Duffy’s animated storytelling is adorably simple until it explodes into the unexpectedly complex, and his use of iconography at the end is both playful and malevolent. The Missing Scarf is cute as hell until the world comes crashing down, and the clever, insightful contrast between those two extremes plays like an intentional and intelligent design, meant to impart something altogether serious and perhaps even important by the film’s conclusion. How the hell this didn’t get nominated for an Oscar is beyond me, and may in fact constitute a full-fledged crime.
The Blue Umbrella
The final short on the program, The Blue Umbrella, also played in theaters front of a CGI-animated feature from Disney. Audiences may remember it as the short that played in front of the underrated Monsters University, and as the one with the really catchy song, and as the one that was unintentionally kind of creepy.
A blue umbrella, presumably a male one, finds itself next to a red umbrella (presumably female) on a rainy day in the city. When the owners of the umbrellas head off in different directions, the blue umbrella tries to make its owner turn around, but winds up in the middle of the street, to the horror of the only slightly anthropomorphized objects around it. It’s a simple tale, and obviously a sympathetic one, but the nearly photo-realistic style employed by director Saschka Unseld plops The Blue Umbrella right in the middle of the uncanny valley, and the director’s dedication to subtle humanization of the inanimate characters leaves one feeling like their sympathy for these objects may be misplaced.
Or maybe we’ve simply gone insane, and are searching for connections when there’s nothing there. Perhaps if The Blue Umbrella had embraced this mental roadblock between the realism of the animation with the heartwarminess of its story, and made that the whole point, the film could have emerged as a meaningful treatise on the way the human mind finds allegories for itself where none technically exist, both in the real word where we name our cars and in the world of animation, where artificial constructs often come to life.
But the fact that the umbrellas have smiley faces on them seems to belie this interpretation, leaving The Blue Umbrella feeling instead like a sweet little tale, but one undone by stylistic ambitions that undermine its story. Damn, but the song is catchy though.