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2012 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts Review

February 25, 2012 | Posted by Jeremy Wilson

Unrated. (While a couple have themes that may appeal to adults, none of the short films are patently unsuitable for children)
Running Time: 110 minutes

Animated shorts have routinely been the most popular of the short forms; this is especially true in an age where the only feature films to include opening shorts are animated pictures (particularly from Disney/Pixar or Fox/Blue Sky). Therefore, it is no surprise that of all the shorts categories, Animated gets the most notice and best attendance in theatrical showings. This year’s group of nominees is coincidentally a somewhat accurate representation of the disappointing year many felt animation had as a whole. There are, however, some good ones to see and as a group, it is always educational and entertaining to see so many different short films grouped together.

The opening short in the program is Dimanche/Sunday, a 9-minute Canadian piece written and directed by Patrick Doyon. It is one of the two hand-drawn shorts in this year’s field and is about a boy fighting crushing small-town boredom on a Sunday visit to his grandparents. Every Sunday appears to go the same way, as the adults gab and the young boy flattens coins on the train tracks while letting his imagination run wild. It is not always easy to discern where fantasy overtakes reality, but in the end it doesn’t matter.

The animation is dull and rather ugly, a monochromatic style reminiscent of Sunday comics that no doubt is meant to reinforce the child’s boredom and consistent mundane routine. The problem is that boredom stretches from character to audience; early on, the short loses what attention it initially held as it simply seems to be going through the motions. That may be an effective representation of childhood boredom in a world controlled and dictated by adults, but it doesn’t necessarily make the viewing experience any better. Nothing feels like it really happens in the short and it ends rather abruptly. The coin on the tracks is obviously symbolically important; the problem is that whatever the intended symbolism or importance may be is lost on the majority of the audience. This was my least favorite of the nominated shorts and was not a great way to kick off the program.

Following Dimanche/Sunday is A Morning Stroll, a fun, 7-minute-long, BAFTA-winning short from the UK (Grant Orchard) that tells the same story three different ways. It is a simple, amusing cartoon based somewhat on the short story, “The Chicken,” by Linda Elegant. The original tale is about seeing a chicken on a normal morning walk which ends with the bird reaching its residence, tapping on the door and being let inside.

This story is transformed by placing it in various time periods: New York via 1959, 2009 and 2059. Each era is rendered in a slightly altered animation style (more befitting the times); the first scene’s animation (1959) is cel-shaded black and white lines, with 2009 reverting to candy-colored cel-shading. Finally, we get to 2059’s more fully realized 3D computer animation and the short’s eventual payoff – which is humorous and effective. I really liked the implementation of the animation style and bonus points are given for changing it up “with the times” (so to speak). It is subtlety funny, as iPhones, apps and a culture plagued by distractions and not paying attention leads to a twist/payoff fit for a memorable short.

The Third nominated short is another Canadian entry, Wild Life. If one didn’t know anything about our great neighbors to the north before seeing Dimanche/Sunday and Wild Life, the takeaway of life in Canada would be that its boring to the point of inducing depression-induced suicide. The flat whimsy of Dimanche/Sunday is nowhere to be found in Wild Life, a 13-minute short from Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby about an Englishman trying to make it in the wilds of turn-of-the-century Alberta and become something of a cowboy. As the short progresses, the young Englishman narrates a series of letters (with interspersed interviews of Alberta’s citizens) to his parents back home in Britain, as his situation slowly but surely deteriorates.

The animation – 2D brushed paintings for each individual frame – is actually fairly beautiful for the most part, with a climactic storm descending upon the Englishman’s small cabin is something to behold. However, it becomes a little less effective and more uneven when illustrating people and there is a hugely unnecessary and confusing sub-plot involving a comet. It has more charm and aesthetic value than its Canadian counterpart (Dimanche) and I don’t mind a somber, downer of an ending. However, it just never really connected in the way I think the filmmakers were hoping and we just never truly find ourselves caring what happens to this naïve bloke. It ends up being muted and muddled, a short with deserving animation and an intriguing look, but a bit hollow in its actual story/theme.

The first of two American entries in the category is The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, and I think it’s the short to beat. At around 15 minutes, this piece begins in New Orleans with a huge storm (resembling or echoing Katrina somewhat) blowing Mr. Morris Lessmore, his books (one of which he is in the midst of writing) and the town itself threw the air in a scene lovingly crafted in the vein of The Wizard of Oz.When they all finally land in the desolated remains of what was once their city, they now find a black-and-white nothingness. He eventually comes across a woman being lifted and flown through the air by books with little wings (they’re adorable) all in color. One of the books flies down to him (“Humpty Dumpty”) and leads him to a giant library full of lively, flying books. He spends the rest of his life tending to the books and library, eventually finishing his very own book, and thus commences the most effective conclusion of any of this year’s nominated (or even “highly commended” shorts included) animated short films.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is told without words and includes a number of obvious and subtle references to past cinema and literature. It is absolutely beautiful (William Joyce previously worked with Disney, Pixar and Fox Animation) and the kind of short that will connect with many people, particularly book lovers. If there is a complaint to be had about it, is that it constantly borders on being a bit safe and bland, and being overly precious at times. I didn’t necessarily think it crossed that line (thus ruining the short) but some might feel it did and be turned off by it. Ultimately, I think the ending really works for it and results in a touching, beautiful short film that is clearly the class of this group.

Pixar’s La Luna is the second American nominee and final nominated short. At a swift 7 minutes, it is also stands as the shortest of the nominated short films. It will be shown in front of Pixar’s upcoming feature, Brave, this summer, but it is competition this year and it is delightful from start to finish. The story is simple enough: a young boy goes out for the first time with his father and grandfather. The three of them sit in the middle of the sea in their tiny rowboat waiting for the moon to come out. When it does, the short playfully becomes magical as the men throw the boat’s anchor up in the air, catching the moon and holding it in place. An insanely long ladder is pushed higher and higher until finally the boy is at the top slowly being pulled in by the moon’s gravitational pull. Once there, the boy and the older men being their task – sweeping and cleaning up the “starfish” that land on the moon’s surface.

La Luna is heartfelt and absolutely beautiful, doing a great job of illustrating the awe and wonder the boy and we are feeling. It is a wonderful short and sort of makes one forget about Pixar’s Cars 2 miss, but it’s not totally perfect. It feels slight and could easily be described as nothing more than a trifle. All be it a lovely-looking trifle. Like A Morning Stroll and The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, there are no words in La Luna, only grunts and affirmative sounds coming from the accompanying adults. Its likeability and easy-to-look-at animation style may (and probably will) win many over, but those looking for a bit of nuance or depth may dismiss it as simply enjoyable.

Following the five nominated animated shorts are four more “highly commended” shorts that fill the program out to a reasonably average running time (the five nominees account for less than an hour of running time). The first of these is Skylight, the funniest and most entertaining short in the entire program. While it lacks the thematic and emotional resonance of Flying Books or artistic beauty of La Luna, it nonetheless manages to wring every laugh out of its clever premise. It is essentially a send-up of films employing found footage, documentary; half-”National Geographic” mockumentary, half-PSA on global warming and holes in the Ozone layer. It’s not deep in the slightest, but at 5 minutes, its laughs are a relief in the wake of other shorts that are depressing, sentimental (almost to the point of sappy) or completely whiff at an attempt at humor (see: further down below). It’s animation isn’t all that attractive or complex either, but again, with such a short running time its value lies more in breaking up the tone of the program and inserting some comic relief.

Unfortunately, Skylight is about as good as it gets concerning the “commendables.” The Hybrid Union is a somewhat baffling, tone-deaf short involving three mechanical robots racing away from an oncoming giant, menacing cloud of doom. This short felt half-baked and desperately in need of a few more rounds of editing. The 3D mechanical character animation was decent (reminisicent of Robots or Antz, but the concept was a bit all over the place. I didn’t see much of anything in it beyond something approximating the oncoming rise of hybrid technologies wiping away antiquated older mechanical forms. My father (who I saw these with) was adamant in saying how the short was referencing the issues of nuclear energy/technology (the short is from Russia), the cloud of doom harkening to the mushroom cloud we all know. I (and a few others) didn’t see it and I think that’s reading a bit too much into that particular short film, but it speaks to the problems in its tone and the theme(s) (whatever they may be).

Nullarbor certainly felt like the longest of the presented shorts (and not in a good way). The film clocked in at over 10 minutes and shows a man driving down the Nullarbor – an extremely long and straight road – in the Australian Outback. Various crude and generally unfunny shenanigans ensue as he desperately wants a cigarette he sees in another driver’s dashboard. A race of sorts commences as the two screw with each other. The animation is pretty ugly and its attempts at humor falls flat. Did I mention it drags?

The final short of the theatrical program is Amazonia, a short (about 5 minutes) film about an undersized, underfed and starving lizard in the “Amazon” whose attempts at feeding itself go unrewarded. When he meets up with a bigger, fatter amphibian friend, the newcomer tries to teach the little one how to fend for itself. However, their attempts fail as other larger, menacing predators lurk in the area. The art and animation style is overly cute to the point of nauseating; unfortunately, it is also the animated style I would expect a feature-length DreamWorks picture to employ (like Madagascar or Blue Sky’s Rio). The ending is equally nauseating in its cuteness, a sort of “gotcha” wink to the audience that falls flat. It holds none of the genuine truth or emotional depth of a short like A Morning Stroll and Flying Books AND lacks the artistic beauty to be found in something like La Luna or even Wild Life.

This isn’t the strongest group I’ve ever seen and it will depend on how much you enjoy sitting through a presentation of short films as to whether or not you will feel it was worth seeing. Other than the few decent laughs from Skyfall the “highly commended” shorts are there simply to pad the running time. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is a class short, even if it falls slightly short of its lofty ambitions and flirts with becoming a bit too precious. Obviously, it has been made available free of charge (legally) through iTunes and YouTube, and without its inclusion, this year’s Animated Shorts program would seriously be lacking. Pixar’s entry La Luna is a highly enjoyable short, full of whimsy and wonder. However, it feels slight and unsubstantial, especially compared to some of the others (even to previous Pixar shorts). Again, they are playing in a limited release at select theaters around the country, as well as being distributed by VOD through cable systems. A Morning Stroll could pull the upset over those two, but I don’t see it. In something of a weak year for this category, I believe The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is the only worthy Academy Award winner and it should walk away with the Oscar come Sunday night.

Final Individual Ratings:

*Dimanche/Sunday: 4.0
*Wild Life: 5.5
*A Morning Stroll: 7.0
*The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore: 8.0
*La Luna: 7.5

Skylight: 6.0
The Hybrid Union: 3.0
Nullarbor: 5.0
Amazonia: 4.5

Jeremy Wilson can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @Jpwilson1984

The 411: This isn't the strongest group of Animated Short Films that the Academy has ever put forth. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is the class of the group and the favorite to win the Oscar. La Luna is a delightful short, even if it is a bit of a trifle. Pixar should still be proud though, it is quite gorgeous. A Morning Stroll is also highly effective and poses a dark-horse threat to win the award. The Canadian nominees – Wild Life and Dimanche/Sunday – are disappointing and muddled. The latter in particular is ugly and awkward. The “highly commended” shorts that aren't nominees but fill out the theatrical program are nowhere near the quality of the top three or four nominees, with only Skylight providing entertainment value. Depending on your own personal tastes, you may want to search out the better shorts (or simply the five nominees) if you can, instead of paying for the whole program. However, I still think watching – and supporting – shorts are a good thing and so there is just enough here for me to recommend. Recommended.
 
Final Score:  6.5   [ Average ]  legend

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