by Kathie Smith
In years past, Oscar completists wishing to satisfy their mock ballot with any sort of sincerity would have to abstain in the shorts categories—seldom would there be an opportunity for people outside the Academy voting pool to see these films included in Best Documentary Short, Best Live Action Short, and Best Animated Short sections. Things changed with the magic of the internet and most nominees started to emerge online in the spirit of both access and lobbying. At some point someone realized that people would most certainly buy a ticket for the package, resulting in the theatrical peddling of the Oscar shorts categories. Call it shrewd marketing, but I can think of no better way to watch these projects of passion—funded at a level that makes Hollywood blush—than seeing them on the big screen. And this is especially true with the animated selections, bursting with more visual style and innovation than you are likely to see in most features. The five shorts included are a delightfully varied mixed bag that has a little something for everybody.
Directors: Daniel Sousa (Feral), Lauren MacMullan (Get a Horse!), Laurent Witz, Alex Espigares (Mr. Hublot), Shuhei Morita (Possessions), Max Lang, Jan Lachauer (Room on the Broom)
Producers: John Lasseter, Dorothy McKim (Get a Horse!), Yasumasa Tsuchiya (Possessions), Martin Pope, Michael Rose, Daryl Shute (Room on the Broom)
Writers: Daniel Sousa (Feral), Paul Briggs, Nancy Kruse, Lauren MacMullan, Raymond S. Persi (Get a Horse!), Laurent Witz (Mr. Hublot), Shuhei Morita (Possessions), Max Lang, Julia Donaldson (Room on the Broom)
Runtime: 13m. (Feral), 6m. (Get a Horse!), 11m. (Mr. Hublot), 14m (Possessions), UK (Room on the Broom)
Country: USA (Feral), USA (Get a Horse!), Luxembourg/France (Mr. Hublot), Japan (Possessions), 25m (Room on the Broom)
US Distributor: ShortsHD, Magnolia Pictures
Animation often gets stigmatized as a genre for children, and the films nominated for Best Short Animation reflect family friendly inclinations with the exception of Daniel Sousa’s Feral, a somber take on the fabled story of the feral wild child. In Feral a lone hunter finds a young boy fending for himself against wolves, his attempts to socialize the waif are a failed experiment of nurture over nature. The animation, which occasionally flits off into metaphoric abstraction, mixes richly textured cutout-like figures and landscapes with stylized action, lending a handmade and painterly quality to the 13-minute piece. And while there is nothing inappropriate for children in Feral, it nonetheless has a sophistication and brutality to both its story and visuals that contrasts severely with its more light-hearted fellow nominees.
Lauren MacMullan’s Get a Horse!, however, marches to a much more playful tune. A blast from the past, this little ditty seeks to pay homage to classic Disney through a meta lens of visual shenanigans. Riffing on the style of early Mickey Mouse shorts, the Mickey-must-save-Minnie scenario shifts from a 2D hand drawn look to a full 3D computer generated extravaganza when Mickey pops out of the screen and into the theater. The computer animated Mickey taunts and tricks the hand-drawn villain by manipulating the screen like a flipbook and shooting a fire hydrant through the non-existent line of a cell phone. The movie within a movie setup is a lively 6-minute romp that relies on quintessential cartoon gags, still effective after all these years, but it’s little more of a self-reflexive technical showcase, boasting the use of the archival voice of Mickey from Walt Disney himself.
If awards were given to visual extravagance alone, Laurent Witz and Alex Espigares’ Mr. Hublot would be a sure fire bet for the golden statue. In an otherworldly place, Mr. Hublot, a sweet and shy machine man, lives a solitary life until he spies an abandoned machine dog from his precipice apartment. Our sympathetic hero takes in the poor little dog that becomes his best friend yet also a disruptive force in his perfect, quirky little life. In the case of this French production, the daring is in the details of an urban environment that is some kind of strange combination of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the videogame Bioshock, and Wallace & Gromit’s computer generated incarnation, but done with a mind-boggling sense of precision. Witz, Espigares, and their crew are talents that will likely be wooed by the video game industry, but here’s hoping they will have a chance to work outside of an 11 minute box in feature length regalia some time soon.
Possessions, directed and written by Shuhei Morita, opens with a prologue that introduces a legend of Tsukumogami: tools and instruments that, after 100 years, attain souls and can assert their power over humans. A man, in traditional Japanese peasant garb, seeks shelter from a thunderstorm in what seems to be an abandoned house. The eerie atmosphere is broken when the house, something of a repository, comes to life with the forgotten and broken items of yesteryear: a playful parade of damaged umbrellas, a seductive assault by a swarm of worn out kimonos, and a full on attack from household odds and ends left to their own Tsukumogami demise. Their victim, with an outward appearance of a rough and gruff warrior, turns out to be a master craftsman and the best friend a Tsukumogami could find, able to fix an umbrella or mend a kimono. Much of this unspools like a salute to the late great Japanese animator Satoshi Kon (Paprika, Millennium Actress), but with its own added flair and obvious budgetary limitations.
The longest one of the bunch at 25 minutes is Room on the Broom, a production for the BBC with star power to burn. The friendly witch tale based on the children’s book by Julia Donaldson secures the services of Simon Pegg for narrator and Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall, and Marin Clunes for a cast of characters that is surprisingly taciturn, given the talent behind the voices. Anderson plays an amicable witch who whiles away her time with her companion cat. They are a dynamic duo until the day they run across a sweet natured dog that asks, “Is there room on the broom for a dog like me?” Much to the cat’s dismay, the witch gladly finds a place for the dog on her broom, an episode that repeats itself with a bright green bird and a very clean frog. Room on the Broom, directed by Max Lang and Jan Lachauer, is simplistic in its message, but not to a fault. The characterizations—especially the dog that is always trying to console the bitter cat by patting it gently on the back—make this short animation pretty irresistible. If you are looking for a tip on your Oscar ballot, mark this one as a winner.
Assembling the five short films together is something that ShortsHD has taken perhaps too seriously: they have given the program two hosts—Martin the talking giraffe and Clive the talking ostrich—as if we were watching a variety show. The added production is not only unnecessary but also distracting from the work that stands on its own without introduction or wisecracks. The heterogeneity is part of the pleasure, and there is really no reason to smooth out the transitions. Devoid of the stigmas attached to most of the feature films (animated or otherwise), all five animated shorts, made off the grid of fame and fortune, have a refreshing air to their ingenuity and spirit. Although this showcase happens only once a year, it’s a reminder that this content is out there—at film festivals, museums, and on the internet—all year around.