For those of us who have filled out Oscar predictions most of our lives—whether casually or obsessively—the Short Film categories used to be a perennial black hole of guesswork: unless you were a frequenter of the festival circuit, it simply wasn't easy to see most of the nominees. In recent years, however, that has mercifully changed. Shorts HD and Magnolia have packaged the films in all three major short categories into four feature-length anthologies—one for Animation, one for Live-Action, and two programs for the Documentary Shorts—that are now playing in select theaters around the country. (For those who don't happen to live near one of these theaters, a few of the shorts are available online now, and the rest will be available online and through video-on-demand services starting Feb. 25th, a week before the Oscar ceremony.)
While making the shorts widely available in theaters is categorically a good thing, it can, in the watching, feel like a mixed blessing. The beauty of shorts—if I may state the obvious—is to be found in their shortness, in the efficient and self-contained purity of their accomplishments. Like reading a good short story, watching a great short film can feel like a perfectly measured sip of a unique vision, one that resonates more powerfully because it is not a moment longer or shorter than it needs to be. However, experiencing a bunch of short films back-to-back over two hours can feel like being forced to speed-read an anthology of unrelated short fiction: no one work is allowed to linger in the consciousness for more than a moment before we are swept into what may be the radically different tone and textures of the next. (The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Shorts TV has linked the films with jarring and mostly unfunny scenes of two "hosts"—an animated ostrich and giraffe—who make snarky comments about various animated celebrities they've worked with in the past. This linking material is not merely unnecessary: it actually disrupts the mood and trivializes the art form this presentation is supposed to celebrate. Note to Shorts TV: next time, a simple fadeout between the films would be perfectly sufficient, thanks.)
So the cinematic presentation called The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Animation is, by its very nature, a mixed bag, but the individual quality of the films makes it well worth seeking out. It presents the five shorts in contention, with three additional "Highly Commended" shorts included to round the experience out to roughly feature-length.
The only one of the Oscar nominees that will have been widely seen already—because it played before the theatrical release of Frozen—is Disney's Get a Horse, directed by Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim. A technically impressive bit of meta-Mickey, Get a Horse begins as an old-style, black-and-white, Academy-ratio cartoon, and then shatters the fourth wall to explode into color and wide-screen, CGI 3D. Its play on the conventions of cartoon physics is decidedly clever, and the visual achievement is remarkable, but the paper-thin story feels increasingly mean-spirited as the cartoon proceeds. (Sure, Peg-Leg Pete is a bad guy, but—after watching him endure several minutes of gleeful postmodern punishment from Mickey and his friends—I couldn't help but feel bad for this simple old-timer trapped in an aggressive world he never imagined. Who's the bully here, anyway?) The other problem with showing Get a Horse in this format is that it's meant to be seen in 3D, and showing it in 2D with the rest of its compatriots considerably blunts the film's real charms. (I highly recommend seeing this one in glorious stereoscopy with Frozen—which is a good movie you should see anyway.)
The most visually imaginative entry is undoubtedly Laurent Witz's Mr. Hublot, the story of an obsessive-compulsive, agoraphobic man who finds his fastidious world turned upside down when he rescues a stray dog who grows to alarming proportions. The narrative itself is very simple and predictable—though that doesn't prevent the tale from being moving—but the real charms are to be found in the rich, precisely realized cyborg world that Witz creates. The overall vision is gorgeous, and nearly every frame is packed with fascinating, evocative details. If I had to place a bet on the outcome of the Oscar race, I'd pick Mr. Hublot's combination of emotional accessibility and creative bravura to carry the night.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden's Feral is my favorite among the nominated films. The haunting story of a wild child found living among wolves, and of his imperfect assimilation into human society, Feral is by far the most poignant reminder in this year's batch that animated films can be art, not just entertainment. With dark, beautiful visuals that evoke woodcut prints, and a wordless, expressionistic narrative about the clash between freedom and civilization, Feral is the only one of the Animated Shorts that I felt could have benefited from being longer: the moody spell it weaves is powerful and unsettling, but at only 12 minutes one can't help but want to stay under that spell a little longer, and see its themes explored more fully. (Feral is available to rent for $1, or buy for $2, at Vimeo.)
Taking its inspiration from a Japanese myth that tools and instruments acquire souls after 100 years, Shuhei Morita's Possessions is the tale of a wandering craftsman who takes shelter in an abandoned temple, and find himself confronted with the restless, unsettled ghosts of objects. Colorful, imaginative, and just plain weird, Possessions was one of my least favorite entries on first viewing, but it has lingered in my mind, seeming richer and deeper the more I think about it. Stylistically, Possessions captures the flatness of Japanese prints: it seems at first glance to have the least interesting animation style of all the nominees, but Morita transforms that flatness into an active, even hectic three-dimensional world in a way that is remarkable and stunning. And ultimately there is something sad and powerful in this notion that everyday objects have souls, and something universally moving about the themes of abandonment—and the desire to be useful—that Morita's peculiar ghost story conjures.
Rounding out the five Oscar nominees is Max Lang and Jan Lachauer's Room on the Broom, which will remind animated-short aficionados of 2010's The Gruffalo. (It should: like The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom is an adaptation of a rhyming children's picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.) Featuring a star-studded cast (including Gillian Anderson, David Walliams, Timothy Spall, and narration by Simon Pegg), Room on the Broom is a simple story about a clumsy witch who acquires an unwieldy menagerie of creatures to accompany her on her increasingly crowded broomstick: the cat resents the arrival of the dog, the dog and cat resent the arrival of the frog, and so on—but all the members of this new-found family may be necessary to defeat the menacing dragon with a craving for witch-and chips. Whimsical, gentle, and genuinely funny, Room on the Broom is the longest (at 24 minutes) and most family-friendly crowd-pleaser of the entries.
Three non-nominated films complete the theatrical package of The Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animation, which include Pixar's The Blue Umbrella (which—while simple and a little derivative—was the only good thing about seeing Monsters University last year), and A La Francaise (a raucous film about the French court of Versailles re-imagined as chickens). The best of these, however, is unquestionably Eoin Duffy's The Missing Scarf, the deceptively childlike tale of a wise squirrel who wanders the woods in search of the titular item, dispensing advice and homilies to help various woodland creatures cope with their various anxieties. Narrated by George Takei, The Missing Scarf begins as a sort of self-help parable for children, and quickly evolves into a hilariously bleak exploration of anxiety and the meaninglessness of existence. One suspects that only the film's jet-black, nihilistic humor prevented it from seizing an actual nomination, but for those with the right (read: slightly twisted) sensibility, The Missing Scarf is a surprising, audacious gem.