Film Review: The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2015: Animation

Disney’s wonderful canine tale 'Feast' is the standout in this year’s program of Oscar-nominated animated shorts.

It’s hard to believe, but sometimes things don’t go Disney’s way. Take last year, when Luxembourg and France’s upstart Mr. Hublot took the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, over Disney’s miraculous Mickey Mouse comeback cartoon Get a Horse!, one of the most dazzling examples of 3D showmanship in memory. Yes, Mr. Hublot was striking and clever, but Get a Horse! deserved the Academy trophy.

This year, it will be another injustice if Disney’s Feast (paired on movie screens last fall with Big Hero 6) doesn’t win the Oscar. It’s the clear standout in a field that includes other shorts of merit, but nothing as delightful and crowd-pleasing. Conceptually, it’s just about perfect: the story of a stray dog, the bachelor who adopts him, and the man’s rocky romance, all told from the point of view of that irresistible canine and focused nearly exclusively on the food said canine eagerly devours. It begins with the abandoned pup licking a wrapper outside a fast-food restaurant, then meeting his future owner, who tempts him with French fries. Cut to Winston the dog’s new home, where he receives a steady diet of puppy chow, soon supplemented by leftover bacon and eggs, spaghetti, tacos, and whatever else his slovenly master doesn’t mind sharing. Then, the man meets and begins dating a waitress with healthier priorities, and poor Winston’s meal options change radically as veggies replace junk snacks; the pup must return to bland old dog food, which his master’s girlfriend considerately tops with a sprig of parsley.

The couple argues, she walks out, and he drowns his sorrow in fattening food, much to his pet’s elation. But an errant sprig of parsley triggers a memory in the dog and, like the legendary Lassie, it’s Winston to the rescue of his owner’s love life.

In a brisk six minutes, Feast tells a funny and relatable story with masterful economy, and all within the restrictions noted above. Debuting director Patrick Osborne, who was head of animation on Disney’s Oscar-winning (and equally romantic) Paperman, captures the behavior and movements of a dog with an observant deftness that will charm any canine lover, with just a soupçon of anthropomorphism. This instant classic is yet another sign that Disney Animation under John Lasseter’s leadership has reached the same level of excellence as the fabled Pixar.

Feast’s closest competition in the Oscar race is the very inventive The Bigger Picture from Britain. Director Daisy Jacobs mixes media and techniques in a way I haven’t seen before, with two-dimensional characters painted onto flat surfaces interacting with real miniature sets and props. The story itself centers on a very adult dilemma, as two brothers bicker over the care of their elderly, dying mother. The decision to have the faces and torsos of the siblings immobilized on various walls was perhaps intended to underline how wearying such situations can be on a family. Surreal touches like a vacuum cleaner sucking up all the people and objects in a room help enliven this morose but creatively intriguing short.

The USA’s The Dam Keeper is the first collaboration of Pixar art director Robert Kondo and painter and children’s book author Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi. It tells the story of a young pig who monitors a windmill dam that keeps poisonous clouds from overtaking his town; despite his quiet heroism, he’s bullied at school every day by his diverse animal classmates. But then he’s befriended by a new student, an amiable fox (of all species!) who likes to draw caricatures. The tale takes a dark turn when the fox seems to join the others in ridiculing the lonely swine. Executed in a style favoring blocks of muted colors, this alternately gentle and bleak 18-minute fable is a worthy addition to the Oscar race.

The two-minute A Single Life from The Netherlands is an efficient little cartoon with a “Twilight Zone”-like premise. A mysterious LP record of the title song is delivered to a young woman, who discovers that moving the needle back and forth on the disc propels her backwards and forwards years in time. Faster than she can handle it, she’s pregnant, a mother, a child again and then an old woman. Unfortunately, the record also skips and stutters from time to time (literally). The rude final gag will surely make you laugh, and perhaps gasp. Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins and Job Roggeveen are the directors.

The weakest of the nominees is the 13-minute Me and My Moulton, a Canada-Norway co-production. Norwegian director Torill Kove, who won the Oscar in 2006 for her short The Danish Poet, offers the apparently autobiographical story of a girl and her two sisters in 1960s Norway, who beg their parents for a bike they can ride together. The rambling anecdotes encompass their next-door neighbors’ domestic troubles, her architect’s dad having the only moustache in town, her oddball grandmother, and so on. Trouble is, her memoir isn’t nearly as eccentrically special or captivating as she thinks it is. The cloyingly wholesome narration doesn’t help, but the crayon-drawing visual style is reasonably attractive.

In all, not a vintage year for the Academy’s chosen animated shorts; we’ll be surprised if Feast doesn’t swallow the competition.