2013 Oscar Animated Shorts

Short films are an easily misunderstood art form. At the Oscars, celebrity introductions of the short film nominees and winners often justify the importance of the category by citing shorts as a platform for future feature-length filmmaking. But the elements that make up a great short are hardly the same as those that make for a great feature. Here at FSR, we’ve made something of a habit of looking at short films on their own merits, as relatively brief works of storytelling with their own unique possibilities.

The short film category at the Oscars is typically a rushed-through affair so that the broadcast can proceed to more ratings-friendly moments. But the Academy Award-nominated short films make for some of the strongest categories of the event; all the nominees are, most often, very good. It’s also a level playing field. In the shorts categories, studio properties can compete with self-funded passion projects and film school theses.

Since they’re out in a handful of theaters today, here’s my take on the Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Short Film.

Adam and Dog

Synopsis: The biblical story of Paradise is retold through the eyes of man’s best friend. But when Adam meets Eve, Adam and Dog’s relationship becomes complicated.

Director Minkyu Lee’s film paints a graceful, contemplative portrait of nature and the various roles of living beings within it. The film’s widescreen framing allows the immersive landscapes to be perfectly integrated into the dramas between the various creatures that interact within these environments. This is a meditative, quiet, deliberately paced film where nature is a character itself, almost like an animated version of European art cinema.

Lee and his crew do a fantastic job of bringing the audience into the subjectivity of the dog while retaining an aura of emotional complexity throughout. The film’s subtle transition to Paradise Lost is particularly striking, and the whole film is beautifully realized through skilled two-dimensional animation.

Fresh Guacamole

Synopsis: A delicious-looking dish of guacamole is made through an array of unusual ingredients, ranging from rolling dice to hand grenades.

Adam Pesapane (also known as PES) was inspired by the work of Czech stop-motion animator Jan Svankmejer, and that influence is palpably on display here. The conceit is simple: PES takes ordinary objects and uses them against their expected function, transforming them in the process: a baseball is cut into a row of dice, a “tree” of lightbulb “jalapeños” into tiny monopoly houses.

The deft, surreal creativity of this short is almost unassuming because the brief event is as pleasant as a fresh bowl of guacamole.

Head Over Heels

Synopsis: A couple has grown so far apart over the years that they have each taken on different gravitational fields within the household: he lives on the floor, and she on the ceiling.

Perhaps the best thing about the claymation Head Over Heels is its devotion to the central premise outside the obvious function of the metaphor. Director Timothy Reckart and his crew at the National Film & Television School create an entire world of connective logic through which their central conceit can persist: the couple fights over which picture frame faces which direction, and when the house suddenly settles onto ground, the environment privileges one person’s gravity over the other.

The result is a surprisingly complex look at the enduring process of forgiveness and compromise necessary to sustain a long-term relationship.

Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare”

Synopsis: Maggie is dropped off by Marge at the Ayn Rand School for Tots, a heavily policed but completely unsupervised institution where she quickly adapts to its survival-of-the-fittest mentality and makes it her day’s goal to rescue a cocoon from an unwieldy butterfly-smoosher.

As is to be expected from The Simpsons, this short devotes itself to the comic potential of its premise with sly references and quick-paced humor. Instead of relegating itself to one-note political humor, however, Maggie’s devotion to the task of rescuing a would-be butterfly takes on an unexpectedly touching element, complete with a satisfying ending.

Still, as appreciably tongue-in-cheek as the short’s central premise is, this work comes across more as a well-constructed sketch than a properly autonomous work of short-form storytelling.

Paperman

Synopsis: A lowly office drone in postwar Manhattan uses paper planes to try to reconnect with a beautiful woman he met at a train stop.

This short has been carrying buzz and praise since it made its debut in front of Wreck-It-Ralph in November. Paperman is a solid and necessary reminder of Disney’s ability to tell simple and involving stories that carry quite a bit of emotional resonance, sans-Pixar. Furthermore, the hand-drawn blended-animation is astounding: the characters are drawn with stylistic particularity that provides them immediate depth, the period cityscape paints a world of detail, and the sequence where the paper planes follow the protagonist is pleasantly reminiscent of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence from Fantasia.

This is a moving and accomplished short. My only complaint is that the music tries a bit too hard towards the end.

What Should Win: Paperman will likely take home the prize, and it would be well deserved. However, the dog-lover and underdog-lover in me is rooting for the self-funded and equally impressive Adam and Dog.

The Academy-Award Nominated Animated Short Films open in limited release February 1. These five films are accompanied with three additional shorts: Abiogenesis, Dripped and The Gruffalo’s Child.


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