No matter how much of an Oscar completist you are, by the time February rolls around, it's usually the short films that remain on most people's to-see list. Fortunately, ShortsHD has made it much easier to catch all the nominees in one place since 2006, by screening them together in theaters around the country. Over 200 theaters will feature animated shorts, live-action shorts, and documentary shorts in separate programs beginning Feb. 10. Now the hardest part of Oscar preparation is deciding whether it's worth it to watch Madonna's new movie to round out your costume design obligation.
This year, the animated shorts category presents five strong nominees, including an expected entry from Pixar and another from previous nominees. The five films are:
A Morning Stroll by Grant Orchard and Sue Goffe
This witty UK short offers three perspectives on a strange, apparently true, event -- a chicken climbing up a stoop, knocking politely with its beak and being let inside. We're introduced to the scenario in the 1950s via minimal line drawings before shuttling off to the present day (which looks a lot like an early Xbox game) and then to 50 years ahead into a post-apocalyptic future.
The middle segment seems to be setting up a denouncement of our technology-obsessed age, but any hint of didacticism is snuffed out by the frenetic future third, which diverts from the formula nicely. This is the least substantial of the nominees, but it's plenty fun.
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg
Joyce and Oldenburg sure do pluck the heartstrings with their beautifully animated, saccharine-saturated film, which might do the same thing for books as Toy Story did for toys. The film's maximalist approach incorporates computer animation, traditional animation and live-action miniatures in its tale of a book-lover who's transported to a magical world filled with sentient, leg-sprouting books.
The titular protagonist, a cowlicked Buster Keaton lookalike, discovers the transformative nature of reading (a black-and-white to color transition is straight out of Pleasantville) and the rewarding nature of getting to know a good book. The film prods the soft spots of the heart while laying the sentimentality on a little too thick in its anthropomorphizing of old, dusty tomes and sprightly young picture books. I tried to resist, but I was moved anyway.
Dimanche (Sunday) by Patrick Doyon
One of two Canadian entries, Dimanche is a winning summation of the thin membrane between childhood reality and imagination. A boy entertains himself at his grandparents' house by sticking coins on the train tracks that run parallel just outside. Every Sunday, the train rumbles through and the pictures clatter down off the wall. There are established rhythms, and as the boy begins to notice instances of doubling and repetition, his imagination takes him to absurd places.
Featuring an unfussy hand-drawn style and a palette packed with cool earthy colors, Dimanche stands out for its singularity among the nominees.
Wild Life by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby
Previous nominees Forbis and Tilby cement the notion that Canada has the upper hand in this year's race with Wild Life, a tale of aspiration and delusion in the Canadian wilderness. An Englishman heads to Alberta at the turn of the 20th Century to try his hand at ranching, but his optimistic letters home belie his lack of success. At the same time, textual intertitles present facts about comets, whose lonely, doomed trajectories seem to portend the cowboy hopeful's fate.
Animated with gorgeous impressionistic images, Wild Life lives comfortably in the worlds of wry humor and bleak fatalism. While its documentary-style talking heads push the film into territory seemingly more modern than necessary, Wild Life is likely the best western of the year. (Sorry, Rango -- you've probably got the animated feature category locked if it's any consolation.)
La Luna by Enrico Casarosa
Pixar's 11th short film nomination (it's won only three times -- no domination here) is helmed by first time nominee Casarosa, and predictably, it's utterly delightful. A little Italian boy is taken out by his father and grandfather to be introduced to the family business. They row out to the middle of the sea, anchor themselves and extend a long ladder skyward.
La Luna isn't as inventive as last year's Pixar nominee, Day & Night, but the adorable, wide-eyed moppet who discovers something magical about the world he lives in is firmly in Pixar's wheelhouse, and the film's gently observed sight gags are sweet. The short will be attached to June's release of Brave, but it's worth checking out early.