Film Review: 2011 Academy Award-Nominated Short Films: Animated

Those of us who began our romance with the movies when double features were preceded by cartoons will revel in some of the outstanding animated shorts nominated this year by the Motion Picture Academy.

Among the five current Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short Film in this annual theatrical package are two outstanding entries, Bastien Dubois’ Madagascar, Carnet de Voyage, a travel diary inspired by the filmmaker’s journey to that island nation, and The Lost Thing, which follows the exploits of a boy who discovers a unique creature while trolling a beach for bottle caps. Written and directed by Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan, it features a delightful menagerie of imaginary beings.

In the 11-minute Madagascar, Dubois’ journal springs to life from the page to recount a Westerner’s first experience with a Malagasy custom called famadihana, in which the remains of a relative are removed from a tomb and wrapped in a new burial shroud. It is a festive occasion in which the dead are celebrated with food and drink, rather than displays of grief. Dubois’ short moves fluidly among several types of images—two-dimensional black-and-white drawings, water-color paintings and pieces of embroidered cloth, still-lifes that suddenly begin to dance across the screen. All of these images transform into three-dimensions, or Dubois adds moving objects, such as cars, in stop-motion animation. He also cleverly superimposes receipts and tickets, the kind travelers save in their diaries, so that viewers can track the Westerner’s progress across the country. A wonderfully evocative score replete with local instruments puts the finishing touches on a short that celebrates The Road, and that is likely to be an Academy favorite.

The Lost Thing begins with a boy saying: “So, you want to hear a story?” Then, he recounts the tale that outstrips all others—a journey of meaning and identity, couched in a simple tale of serendipity. The lonely teenage narrator comes upon a bell, attached to a green appendage that juts from a large, red, ball-shaped object. It looks like something out of Jules Verne, and has a “lonely sort of look about it,” the boy remembers. That discovery begins his quest to communicate with the “lost thing” and, eventually, to find it a home. Through muted colors, and a careful attention to surfaces, such as the metal shell of the lost thing, its silky appendages, and even the fabric of an easy chair, the filmmakers create an incredible sense of intimacy, one that draws us into this strange narrative as a child would be drawn in by the mysterious palpability of a fairy tale. The Lost Thing, with a running time of 15 minutes, is an example of the short form at its very best, whimsical, thoughtful and fleeting.

Less effective are two six-minute shorts, Day & Night and Let’s Pollute. The first marks the debut of Pixar’s Teddy Newton, whose characters resemble Casper the friendly ghost. One is Day and one is Night, and at the beginning they fight for supremacy. The predictable ending arrives quickly. Short on imagination but with high marks for style is Let’s Pollute by Geefwee Boedoe. Persistent and mind-numbing, it “teaches” us, as did the crude educational shorts of another era, a skill, in this case how to pollute the environment.

The Gruffalo
, by Jakob Schuh and Max Lange, based on best-selling books by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, is strictly for young children, and perhaps only for those who appreciate the “gruffalo” monster. This one recounts the escapades of a mouse who meets many predators during his walk through the woods. A 27-minute short, it feels much longer as the identical encounter is repeated several times but with different animals. A classic tale for youngsters that pits a small creature against larger ones, its message is that intelligence will overcome all obstacles. The animation, which is excellent and reminiscent of early Disney films, does not resemble the books’ illustrations, but they are close enough that children will recognize all the characters, especially the horned and hirsute gruffalo.

The distributor of the Oscar-nominated short films in all categories, Shorts International, is including two additional animated short subjects in their package, and both will be shown at New York City’s venue, the IFC Center. Bill Plympton’s The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger and Moritz Mayerhofer’s Urs, centered on very different themes, are entertaining and well-produced. The first is a six-minute film about a calf who ogles a billboard with a picture of a hamburger and decides he’s perfect for the part. It is very different from Plympton’s previous work in cel animation—he’s had two Oscar-nominated shorts—but equally clever, especially because of its wonderful score by Corey Jackson. The calf’s “voice,” as well as that of its mother, is accomplished with music.

Urs, a 10-minute film, is the story of the eponymous character and his mother who live in a village long abandoned because of its location on a crumbling cliff-side. Urs has stayed put because his aging mother refuses to leave, but when their goat is killed by falling rocks, he decides it is time to go. His mother refuses to accompany him, so he straps her to his back and journeys up a mountain, the top of which he has imagined promises safety and beauty. The arduous climb is one that can be understood literally or symbolically, but Mayerhofer’s umbered color scheme makes it clear that this journey never ends, for Urs or for any of us.