4.5 / 5 stars
Each year, the official release of the Academy Award nominations is soon followed by the unofficial whining about them. It’s practically become the national pastime of the entertainment world (and yours truly participates, sure), fans jabbering on about Oscars’ head-scratching choices and omissions. But sometimes Oscar voters get it right and, in the case of this year’s animated short film nominees, they got it really right. The five short films to make the final cut for 2013 represent a wonderful variety of stories and styles, with some familiar faces and ingenious ideas.
Though the short-film categories usually include the least-seen entries of Oscar night, two films in the animated contest have already enjoyed huge visibility: Disney Animation’s Paperman, which preceded Wreck-It-Ralph in theaters and Fox’s Simpsons’ spinoff, The Longest Daycare, which played on the big screen as an appetite-whetter for Ice Age: Continental Drift. The remaining titles in the category may be from smaller producers, but they don’t lack ambition or creativity. (In fact, for all its humor and sweetness, The Longest Daycare may be the least original entry of the bunch.)
With the exception of PES Films’ remarkable 90-second short Fresh Guacamole (more on that soon), all the films share a common narrative bond. From the elder folks’ miscommunication in Head over Heels to Maggie Simpson’s dedication to saving a butterfly, the animated shorts are all about people working to establish or maintain relationships. For Head over Heels, made by student Timothy Reckart at the UK’s National Film and Television School, stop-motion clay animation posits two characters at literal opposites: A grumpy man moves through the couple’s house standing right-side up, while the determined woman lives upside down, the pair pushing and pulling on household items that work whether they’re on the floor or the ceiling.
For the limitlessness the animated medium provides, this is a brilliant metaphor to act out, if perhaps a bit heavy. Head over Heels has the least polish and poorest pacing of the five films, but the animated gymnastics and sweet conclusion make it a worthy choice.
The most classically artistic film is Adam and Dog, an Asian-infused tale about humanity’s first man and first best friend. With contributions from big hitters like Glen Keane and Joe Johnston, filmmaker Minkyu Lee finds beauty in delicate moments, with characters mere lines on a distant horizon, a note-perfect soundtrack from composer Joey Newman leading the way. Adam and Dog won the animation industry’s 2012 Annie Award for this category and, minus the power of Disney and Fox, should really win on Oscar night.
Not to take away from Paperman, Disney’s trim, romantic, black-and-white marriage of animation styles from director John Kahrs (who has mentioned his work with Glen Keane as an inspiration). In the big city of the 1950s, a lovesick gentleman spies his dream girl while some 30 floors up at his paper-pusher job–the catch is she’s in the skyscraper across from him. Hundreds and hundreds of paper airplanes later and he’s still fighting to get her attention.
Paperman is, as one would expect from Disney, a beautiful fusion of art and story. With no dialogue and Christophe Beck’s wistful score, Kahrs’ short film hints at a technological future in the midst of a by-gone world of clean trolley cars and laptop-free desks.
Paperman isn’t the only nominated animated short without words: There’s not a line spoken in all five films. And none uses that verbal silence with the impact of Fresh Guacamole, an astounding stop-frame exercise that illustrates a pair of hands making avocado dip out of items like Monopoly houses and dice, every slice and smoosh a mastery of visual execution, surprise, and sharp, playful sound effects. It may lack the human emotion of its counterparts, but Fresh Guacamole is my pick of the bunch, and I’ve already shared it with others a half-dozen times. It’s the smallest, and most technically incredible, piece of a larger mural that Oscar voters can be proud of. Thankfully, there’s very little for the film pundits to whine about here.
The Oscar-nominated short films will screen in theaters throughout the world leading up to the Academy Awards presentation on February 24. You can find locations and times here (the site is a bit unwieldy, but you can see where the shorts are playing near you).