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Mickey Mouse vies with Toaster Dog No clear frontrunner for Oscar’s animated shorts

(Animated and live-action shorts programs will begin on Friday, with documentary shorts opening on Feb. 14.) TheWrap will survey all three shorts categories with an eye to Oscar voting, beginning with the animated shorts.

“Feral”
Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden
The most minimalist and arty of the shorts, and in some ways the most evocative, “Feral” tells a weird little story about a wild young boy found in the woods and brought to civilization. Sousa and Golden work with suggestion, not explication. Faces are lost in shadow most of the time, and illustrated with the bare minimum when they’re not. The result is visually striking, enigmatic and unsettling, in a way that stands out in a field of more detailed, less impressionistic work. Typically, Oscar voters in this category have gone for the sparsest entry only when it tells an emotional and personal story; “Feral” has emotion and style, but that may not be enough to make it a favorite.


“Get a Horse!”
Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim
With a cast of characters that includes Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and the dastardly Peg Leg Pete, and the old-fashioned circles-and-tubes style of animation, “Get a Horse!” initially looks and feels like a lost Mickey cartoon from the ‘30s, an era when Walt Disney’s signature rodent was more unkempt and playful than than the icon he grew into. The short has fun with that style for a while, with old recordings of Disney himself providing Mickey’s voice — and then it shatters the fourth wall. Or since this is a 2D cartoon, does it shatter the third wall instead?

Whatever the correct terminology is, characters begin leaving the screen and appearing outside the cartoon’s confines in color and in 3D. The effects are a technical tour de force, but the action remains true to the spirit of the old cartoons as the film builds to a wild, slapstick, gag-heavy conclusion. During the recent years when voting in this category was restricted to members who’d seen all five films at special theatrical screenings, big companies like Pixar and Disney were routinely beaten by smaller, indie shorts. It was as if voters thought that the category was for the little guys, not the behemoths. But Disney’s “Paperman” won last year, when the entire Academy received screeners and was eligible to vote. Complicating matters for “Get a Horse!,” though, is that those screeners are 2D, which means that most voters won’t get to see the short in the format for which it was designed. That could diminish the dazzle factor, although I hear it’s pretty impressive in 2D, too.
 

“Mr. Hublot”
Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares
My rule of thumb in the animated-short category, as I suggested above, is that voters tend to go for most personal and emotional story. None of this year’s nominees are clearly personal, but “Mr. Hublot” — in which a lonely man with OCD adopts a stray dog — may be the most emotional.
It also may be the most gorgeously detailed and visually inventive. Witz and Espigares have created a world that seems to be assembled from debris: Mr. Hublot himself has a clicking counter in his forehead, while the dog he takes in is a clanking mechanical pooch with a toaster for a body.
This deliciously crackpot environment is enormous fun, and the action gets genuinely heartfelt when the dog begins to outgrow his new home. With echoes of a number of other recent nominees — among them “9,” “The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello” and the 2010 winner “The Lost Thing” — the thoroughly delightful “Mr. Hublot” just might have the ambition, scope, intricacy and above all emotion to win over voters.


“Possessions”
Shuhei Morita
Another marvelously inventive film visually, the Japanese-made “Possessions” is the story of a man who, caught in the forest during a storm, takes shelter in what appears to be an abandoned house. After a night there, though, the contents of the house — umbrellas, cabinets, even piles of rubbish — come to life and imprison him.
Based on a Japanese proverb that says possessions come to life after they’ve been abandoned for 100 years, “Possessions” is dramatically illustrated, arresting in its look and style  and, well, really cool to watch. A haunted house story like none you’ve seen before, it also leaves you with questions about what was real and what was imagined.
A win would make the film the first from a Japanese director since 2008’s “La Maison en Petis Cubes” — and more to the point, the most explicitly Asian film ever in a category in which Japanese animation has never gained the kind of foothold enjoyed by American, Canadian, European and even Russian animation.

“Room on the Broom”
Max Lang and Jan Lachauer
If you don’t count Walt Disney’s voiceover-from-the-grave on “Get a Horse!,” “Room on the Broom” has the category’s most high-profile voice talent. The British short has a cast that includes Gillian Anderson as a witch who keeps losing things and gaining passengers on her broomstick, and Simon Pegg as the narrator. Based on the British children’s book by Julia Donaldson, the film is the longest nominee in a category where weight and substance sometimes tip the scales. But it doesn’t feel as weighty as most of its competitors; instead, it feels like a fun, breezy, entertaining romp distinguished by a good sense of humor and wonderful character design. If voters are simply looking for the film that entertains them, this could be fighting it out with “Get a Horse!” But if they want more than that — as they usually do — then shorts like “Mr. Hublot,” “Feral” and “Possessions” could become real players as well. Like many of this year’s Oscar categories, this one is far from settled.

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