Spotlight on 2015's Oscar-nominated Animated Shorts
As the Oscars grow near, the time has come for the shorts, usually the least seen of all Oscar-nominated films (except perhaps the foreign language category), to make their rounds at the local cinemas. January and February are a good time to check these lesser-known works of art out as the mainstream chains are a wasteland of desolation and Mortdecai. Below is a look at the five animated pieces, which are paired with a few close-calls that did not quite make the cut (the program is 9 total shorts running about an hour and twenty minutes in total).
The first short in the screening was Me and My Moulton, a fourteen minute Norse/Canadian co-production from writer/director Torill Kove. It concerns a family of five, a mother and father and three young daughters. The middle daughter has her eye on a bicycle for the family, but the mother and father have slightly different ideas about what they want for their daughters. The parents stray a little off the beaten path with their love for abstract modern art, and their father’s scandalous moustache (the only one in the town, purportedly). The children pine for a simpler life, looking at the much more traditional family unit living below them as a model, only to find that tradition does not always lead to the best results. The animation style and color scheme is vibrant and cartoony, fitting its quirky subject matter well. There is a lot of charm and a few of the jokes hit very well (one specifically about three-legged chairs is a delight), but Kove never really gives much of a reason for the short’s existence. It is one of the longer entries in the category, but by its credits it feels like little more than a trifle. An enjoyable trifle, but a trifle nonetheless.
Second on the docket was Feast, the nominee of the five that the most people will have seen, as it accompanied Disney’s November release, Big Hero 6. The story of a relationship told through the eyes of the man’s dog is a cute one, as the dog becomes increasingly miffed with the way his master’s diet changes once he shacks up with a hipster barista girlfriend. Being a Disney short, it needs to take a turn for the poignant, as the relationship deteriorates and the dog is reunited with his junk food at the expense of the man falling into a deep depression. It is all quite reminiscent of 2013 award winner Paperman, with its look at a relationship aided by a third party. It is likely the most professional of the nominees, a slick, well-animated crowd-pleaser that likely has the inside track for a win here. It’s very good, but it does not have the same illusory impact of something like Paperman.
Third was The Bigger Picture, which seems to be most pundits’ choice for the best of the five, and from an animation perspective at least it is easy to see why. An innovative mix of stop-motion animation and often life-size paintings, it has an incredibly striking style that immediately catches the eye. Telling the story of two brothers and their ailing mother, The Bigger Picture is a somber affair. One of the brothers is clearly more successful and thus in the better graces of their mother, while the other seems shrouded with stress and despair trying to keep his life together and care for a parent who seems to see him as more of a nuisance. While it certainly features the most impressive art of the five nominees, there was something of a distance to its story and characters that never entirely sunk in. Thus, it is a wonderful sight to behold, but never amounted to much more than that, though the potential is more than present.
The shortest of the bunch came fourth, the computer animated A Single Life, clocking in at just two minutes. It is a simple premise, in which a somewhat crudely animated girl listens to a song that shares the film’s name only to find that moving the needle on her record player magically warps her to corresponding periods of her life. It’s quite clever in action, a fast-paced, punchy and humorous little short that could not even imagine to overstay its welcome. The final downbeat is a lovely visual joke and crowd-pleaser. Perhaps if the animation had been a little more polished there could be more to this one; it’s probably the most enjoyable of the bunch, but nothing much lingers in the mind after it ends.
The final short of the five, The Dam Keeper, is arguably the most impressive, a work from former Pixar animators Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi. Telling the story of a young pig tasked with the upkeep of a windmill perched at the top of a dizzyingly high dam over a sleepy hamlet, the only defense mechanism that holds back a suffocating cloud of black ash from taking over the town, it is a film about the cruelty of bullies and being forced to grow up too soon, exceedingly dark and moody in its charcoal-y art style. This tiny, squat pig, cute if not for his gas mask that looks more like a medieval torture device than an air filtration system, has a lonely and aggressively difficult life, one of cumbersome responsibility. His sooty face is the source of ridicule from his school-mates; these moments will resonate greatly for anyone who suffered similar fates as children. The one beam of light in the darkness is the addition of a new student, a young, energetic fox who immediately takes a shine to the protagonist, giving him a real companion for the first time in his life. The Dam Keeper has the most story of the five and is the longest, and it very much takes advantage of every frame of its running time. Alternately beautiful and despairing, the art hints at this vibrant dystopic world, always managing to find the light even when the world is at its darkest. The film feels bigger and more substantial than its counterparts, the sort of piece that could easily be a full feature had the directors chosen to go in that direction. The highlight of the program and one of the better shorts of recent memory, The Dam Keeper is something special indeed.
All of these shorts are quite good, with The Bigger Picture perhaps lagging behind the pack despite having arguably the most impressive animation and Me and My Moulton also on the lower side of the scale, but one cannot really go wrong with any of them. Come to the theater for The Dam Keeper, stay for everything else. It is tough to go wrong with this year’s crop.