Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts: 2013

The second package of Oscar-nominated shorts playing at the Nuart for the next two weeks (each requiring separate admission) are the animated shorts. From worst to best:

“Feral,” an unenjoyable short about a boy raised by wolves (for reasons never explained). A hunter finds the boy and brings him into the city and to school, where he attempts to survive using the lupine traits and skills he picked up in the forest. This short ends abruptly with an extended fade-out to oblivion.

The Japanese “Possessions” – about a big bruiser of a handyman who seeks asylum from a storm in a mysterious temple filled with haunted umbrellas, fans, and teapots – is the only short that got no applause whatsoever. You could hear a pin drop. Nobody seemed to like this microwave Miyazaka with clumsy dialogue and visuals like a bad Japanese LSD trip.

I liked but didn’t love “Get a Horse!”, the tribute to Walt Disney’s original Mickey Mouse cartoons that finds Mickey, Minnie and crew in a series of Rube Goldberg-esque battles with Peg-Leg Pete that straddle screens and styles from the 1920s to today. The short, which originally screened before “Frozen,” is highly inventive but fairly forgettable.

My second-place vote would go to the French “Mr. Hublot,” about an OCD apartment dweller in a future Paris (his forehead is like a giant odometer with a constantly updating four-digit readout) who adopts the small (well, at first) stray robot dog who whimpers at him from across the street. This short has a few charming visual touches and a storyline that’s sweet and generous of spirit.

The clear winner in my book – the most fully realized of the five – is the star-studded bedtime story “Room on the Broom,” about a relentlessly cheerful witch (Gillian Anderson) and the cat (Rob Brydon) who jealously guards both her affection and his place at the front of her broomstick. They must enlist the help of a dog (Martin Clunes), frog (David Walliams), and bird (Sally Hawkins) to stave off a fire-breathing dragon (Timothy Spall). Simon Pegg provides the witty narration. “Room on the Broom” follows in the mold of 2011’s “The Gruffalo” (which would have received my vote but lost to the also excellent “The Lost Thing”). It’s funny and charming, buoyed by an exceptionally talented voice cast and consistent visual wit, particularly in the character of the cat.

The program also includes three “highly commended” shorts, the best of which is “A La Française,” a witty reimagining of the court at Versailles as populated by a bevy of prancing and preening chickens. Very funny. “The Blue Umbrella” screened before “Monsters University” this summer. It’s Pixar’s unsuccessful attempt to replicate “Paperman,” with a blue and red umbrella trying to find each other again in the rain-soaked streets of the big city. Unfortunately, it’s too short, requiring the two to reunite very abruptly. A longer search would have led to a bigger payoff. Last and least is the detestable “The Missing Scarf,” a nasty and nihilistic short narrated by George Takei. It’s cynical and hateful and contrary to the spirit of the best of these works.

Finally, a word to Shorts HD, the company that deserves huge credit for packaging these programs and releasing them in time for Oscar voters and viewers to see them all. Please, please let these works speak for themselves. The live action shorts are broken up by interviews with such luminaries as the directors of “She’s Out of My League” and “What Happens in Vegas,” in which they expound vapidly on short film and anything else that enters their minds. (Matthew Modine refers to shorts as “bons mots” – rhymes with Don Kott – and “canapés,” which he pronounces “canopies.”) Between the animated shorts, meanwhile, we get a truly inane running conversation between an ostrich and a giraffe about working with Daffy Duck, Marge Simpson et al. You’d throw eggs at a comic telling jokes this bad. These idiotic momentum-killers genuinely detract from the experience. Axe ‘em.

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