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Monday, February 24, 2014

Recent Watches: 2014 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

It’s hard to believe, for three whole years now, I’ve had a chance to see the Oscar-nominated short films. For a normal movie-reviewing pleb like myself, it really makes me feel included in the nomination process. Not that I get to vote or anything but I do get to see films that, once upon a time, few outside the Academy saw. I know I say this every year but I still feel that way. Short films are an under-appreciated art. The filmmakers and artists behind them work every bit as hard as those behind the glitzy, studio-backed fare in the major categories. The more recognition for them the better. As I did last year, let’s start with the Animated Shorts.

Mr. Hublot:

The first really noticeable thing about “Mr. Hublot” is its sound design. The steps of a cyborg across his home’s floor, the soft rumbling of the futuristic world outside, the clicking of a light-switch… All of this is adsorbing. The visual detail of the short impresses as well. The future is worn and rusty, buildings crowded against one another. I’d guess you’d call this look “ZeeRust,” a distinctly retro-style combined with a lot of ware and tear. Visually speaking, “Mr. Hublot” is probably one of the best looking of the nominated shorts.

The visuals and sound design are so impressive that you actually overlook the story a bit. The film revolves around a neurotic android living in the future. He seems to exhibit some obsessive compulsive tendencies, clicking a light switch multiple times upon entering a room. A speedometer clicks away on his forehead, seemingly showing his life expectancy. When agitated, which is often, the numbers speed by far faster. Mr. Hublot never leaves his home, only watching the outside world from his window, with the magnifying glasses attached to his head. The story’s conflict come when Hublot spots a stray robot dog across the street, slowly forming an attachment to the little pup. After nearly rescuing the dog from a trash compactor, an effective moment that generates some wry suspense, he lets the robotic mutt into his home. Slowly, the dog grows to a massive size, forcing Mr. Hublot to change his OCD-enforced life schedule.

The film is ultimately about that willingness to restructure your life for love. Anybody with a beloved pet is bound to understand the story’s message. The film illustrates its ideas with a sweetness, never coming off as heavy-handed. The final reveal, and solution to the dilemma, is a charming resolution. Directors Alexandre Espigares and Laurent Witz exhibit a few visual quirks, showing a scene from inside a clock-face at one point. A few montages are shown through sped-up footage, a clumsy but effective way to show the passage of time, accompanied by some pop music. “Mr. Hublot” works very well, is assembled excellently, and is definitely a forerunner for the prize. [8/10]


“Feral” has a nice sense of motion early on, following a pack of wolves as they chase after an elk. The film’s visual design is distinctive, mostly shadowy, abstract shapes moving against muted backgrounds. The story involves a feral child being adopted by a hunter, who attempts to indoctrinate the boy into polite society. This doesn’t go well, the boy mocked by other school children, eventually fleeing back to the wilderness.

“Feral” mostly works as a visual exercise. When the boy is first brought to the city, the buildings dance into view like paper on the wind, a nice moment that illustrates someone who has never seen modern society before. When dressed like a normal child, the boy’s shoes tie on their own. The story makes some interesting comparison between the pack of wolves and the mocking school children. There’s some visual touches that are left unexplained, such as the boy fusing with a wooden prison cell. “Feral” eventually devolves into pure abstraction, the ending continuing on without the audience. Whatever point the filmmakers were trying to make went over my head. Which is disappointing because “Feral” sure looks nice. [5/10]


“Possessions” is a Japanese film, inspired by that country’s rich traditional mythology. A man, carrying a box on his back, seeks shelter in a storm. Eventually, he comes to a small shack. The building is inhabited by tsukumogami, house-hold items that come to life after a hundred years of existence. While the ghostly items attempt to frighten the man at first, he defuses each situation with his skills as a craftsman and built-in curiosity.

Like all the other shorts this year, “Possessions” has an impressive visual style. The film opens in the dark, lightning giving us a brief look at our surroundings. The moodiness of the visual presentation reminded me a lot of “Ugetsu” and other traditional Japanese ghost stories. However, there’s a texture and richness to the design, each surface brimming with detail. Though starting out like a ghost story, “Possessions” ultimately reveals itself as a different type of tale. There’s a whimsy and a humor to the proceedings. Not to mention incredible color. A collection of dancing umbrellas, eyes peering between the broken spokes, seem more keen to entertain then intimidate. The second room, featuring haunted silk, is far more malicious, seeming to recall the kuchisake-onna legend a bit. One of the most charming things about the short is that, no matter how strange or frightening the apparitions are, the craftsman is only excited by their existence. Unfolding his detailed, complicated box, he mends the umbrellas and fashions the silk into a fine robe. He winds up being rewarded, in a way, for his kindness.

That sense of humor extends to the film’s style. Though animated in CGI, “Possessions” has a loose playfulness to its design that recalls more traditional Japanese animation. Funny, charming, and lovely to look at, “Possessions” is probably my favorite of this year’s nominations though I’m not sure if its idiosyncrasies will win it any favors with the Academy voters. [8/10]

Room on the Broom:

I guess the BBC is rolling out yearly adaptations of Julia Donaldson books. “The Gruffalo” and “The Gruffalo’s Child” were charming enough if overly simplistic. “Room on the Broom” actually isn’t an adaptation but instead one Donaldson wrote specifically for the small screen. The Gruffalo films weren’t Christmas specials but their winter settings moved them into that territory anyway. “Room on the Broom,” given its witch protagonist, seems to have been designed as a Halloween special. The Academy must really like Donaldson’s work since “The Gruffalo” was nominated and “The Gruffalo’s Child” was commended. I don’t dislike her but these films obviously play like the TV specials and children books adaptations they are.

Repetition is the word of the day here. A witch, traveling with her cat, collect a talking dog, bird, and frog over the course of the day, her broom becoming awfully crowded. She also incurs the wrath of a passing dragon. Despite being written for the screen, “Room on the Broom” still feels like a flimsy children’s book expanded to a half-hour. Long scenes of the individual animals explaining their plight go on. The dragon subplot really only exists to provide a flimsy climax. The way that is resolved is particularly unsatisfying. Donaldson’s prose is repetitive and honestly beneath the vocal talent assembled here. Simon Pegg puts as much energy as he can into his narration while Gillian Anderson is wasted as the frequently silent witch. At least “Room on the Broom” looks nice, skillfully combining CGI and stop-motion. [5.5/10]

Get a Horse!:

Disney continues to be stingy with shorts they own. 2011’s “La Luna” wasn’t included with the shorts package and neither was last year's "Paperman." I guess they figure, with “Get a Horse!” being attached to the hugely popular and enormously successful “Frozen,” it doesn’t need any more exposure.

Though I’d prefer “Mr. Hublot” or “Possessions” to win, it wouldn’t surprise me if Disney takes home the prize for this one. “Get a Horse!” cleverly combines traditional animation with computer-generated animation. (Sadly, and unsurprisingly, it is the only one of the nominated shorts to feature any traditional animation at all.) It also makes fantastic use of 3D visuals. The short plays out in two fields. A theater screen plays what, at first, appears to be a vintage Mickey Mouse short. However, as the short goes on, the characters on the screen literally break the fourth wall, breaking through the screen and running around it. It’s an especially clever execution, using 3D effects for something more then just jamming crap in the audience’s eyes. The short also returns Mickey Mouse to his more anarchistic roots, gleefully turning the tables on Black Pete when he kidnaps Minnie. It’s a good time and, hopefully, it’s success will mean more work like this from Disney in the future. [7/10]

Unlike previous years, Shorts.TV does not bog down this year’s presentation with an abundance of Highly Commended shorts. Only two additional shorts are attached this year. “A la Francaise” makes easy sight gags juxtaposing the behavior of 1700-era French royalty with chickens. There’s no story behind those sight gags, making it a trifle at best. “The Missing Scarf,” meanwhile, is equally simplistic but far more entertaining. A squirrel, presented as origami, searches for his missing scarf, questioning the animals he encounters, solving their existential quandaries as he goes. George Takai provides some hilariously dead-pan narration and the short’s animation is charming without being flashy. That’s probably why it didn’t get nominated. The ending is really unexpected too.

Last year’s presentation was hosted by former winners talking about the experience. This year, the host segments feature a talking ostrich and giraffe. The two animals are apparently standing in line for a Hollywood audition and trade catty stories about celebs they’ve met. The bumper segments are unusually vulgar and grating, distracting from any enjoyment the films bring. I hope next year they ditch the snarky talking animals and just focus on the wonderful, and sometimes not-so-wonderful, films being presented.

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