Film Review: The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2012: Animation

Pixar's La Luna and the New York-set A Morning Stroll are the standouts in this program of Oscar-nominated animated shorts.

A dazzling group of animators and animation styles are represented in this year’s Oscar shorts competition, although there is the usual dearth of stories featuring girls and women. Only one of the five animated shorts, Wild Life, is directed by women; they are second-time nominees, and their character is male. While the category is historically dominated by Western countries, a memorable exception is Japanese director Kunio Katô’s La Maison en Petits Cubes. It picked up the Oscar two years ago and remains an excellent example of the complex emotions which can be communicated through short-form animation.

Two outstanding entries this year are Pixar’s La Luna, about a young boy’s coming-of-age, and A Morning Stroll, a wry view of New Yorkers. While it is always difficult to predict winners in animated short subjects, last year three other films and Pixar’s popular Day & Night were overlooked in favor of The Lost Thing (Australia and U.K.), a whimsical short with a strong narrative structure. This suggests that Pixar, an Academy favorite, may move to first place. On the other hand, voters may not be able to resist the elemental 2D of A Morning Stroll, or the skillful mix of several animation techniques in The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, despite the latter having the weakest narrative among this year’s shorts.

Dimanche/Sunday (Canada)
In his nine-minute debut short, Patrick Doyon depicts a boy’s typical Sunday, which begins with church and ends up at Grandma’s house for dinner. We are meant to witness the harsh intrusions of the adult world through the boy’s eyes, and we do in Doyon’s wonderful drawings, but poor direction soon turns Dimanche into a series of violent incidents unconnected to the boy. The child’s father kills a dog on the road to Grandmother’s house, and a bear dies under the wheels of a train. In the first instance, the boy turns around in the back seat, and rather than a reaction shot of his face, we see crows descending on the carcass. The boy’s sly perception of adult behavior is hinted at in a series of incidents before dinner, but the satirical intent of Dimanche’s simply drawn, long-nosed characters, moving across a dun palette, is diminished by Doyon’s failure to maintain the child’s point-of-view. As a result, that seemingly vulnerable boy in the midst of a clattering, indifferent adult world is too grown-up to engage us.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (USA)
This charming and skillful mixture of stop-motion, computer animation and hand-drawn images unfortunately moves inexorably to the death of its main character. Co-directors William Joyce and Brandon Oldenberg also fail to adequately explain the life it purports to celebrate, that of Joyce’s mentor, publisher William Morris. For 17 minutes, the short revels in books which fly around like birds. It is a delightful image but one which proves too abstruse, especially given the static narrative. The main character, initially swept away by a storm while he is reading, lands near a building filled with books. He remains there amidst volumes that flutter and sit up, and at one point gives some of them away. The length and abstractness of Joyce’s screenplay for The Fantastic Flying Books works against what is at first a compelling visual representation of the character’s love of books.

La Luna (USA)
La Luna is a standout among this year’s nominees for its succinct storytelling and clever theme. Enrico Casarosa, making his directorial debut, began at Pixar as a story artist on Ratatouille. His short, nearly seven minutes in length, begins with the night journey of a boy, his father and grandfather. The three board a small boat, and the boy is given a cap, an acknowledgment of his inclusion in the masculine enterprise at hand. A humorous interlude quickly endears us to the characters, which look as though they were fashioned from wood. The “dialogue,” animation mumbo-jumbo, sounds nothing like Italian, the language suggested by the title, although this is a common practice in short-subject animation. (It increases international appeal; saves time and money in production; and keeps audiences focused on the picture.) Casarosa’s uncluttered frame, with its primary color scheme, represented in the lapis sea and the golden yellows of moon and stars, suggests a child’s storybook. In a perfect merging of style and content, the boy’s initiation into the family’s unusual business is accomplished with sublime brevity.

A Morning Stroll (U.K.)
A Morning Stroll must have struck a chord with New York City Academy voters because of its depiction of a sophisticated denizen with feathers. Had director Grant Orchard been a native New Yorker, he might have chosen a pigeon for the leading role, but he’s a Londoner and the star of his seven-minute short is an intrepid hen. Orchard follows her through the ages, all the way to the apocalypse, as she takes her morning stroll undeterred by several substantial impediments. The contrast between the plump, bouncy hen and the director’s stick-like characters and attenuated backgrounds is in itself hilarious, yet the hen also throbs with the life of the city and is the only living thing that shocks its self-absorbed pedestrians. Orchard started his animation career in 2D, and appears to have stuck with it; that distinguishes his work, which is delightfully quirky, a moving New Yorker-style cartoon. Like La Luna, A Morning Stroll illustrates a narrative mastery of the short form, although New Yorkers may argue against its subtext. A hen more dauntless than we are? Surely, it’s divine.

Wild Life (Canada)
Wild Life, by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, is less appealing than their 1999 Oscar-nominated short, When the Day Breaks, which won the Short Film Palme d’Or at Cannes. That film’s characters were domesticated animals living in the city; here, the protagonist is a British slacker who emigrates to the Canadian frontier in 1909. From the start, it is clear that he will never make it through the winter, and so the filmmakers compare him to a comet, mostly through intertitles. His dreams unrealized, the man soon turns to drink. Like When the Day Breaks, this 14-minute film is beautifully hand-drawn and painted, and is about the vagaries of living in unintended or unnatural ways, yet it is far more judgmental and therefore less entertaining. We encounter the animals in the 1999 short as we would in any other film, and in their unusual adaptations to city life, we see ourselves. In Wild Life, the editorial intervention of the comet distances us from the character. While it may speak to a historical Canadian experience that defies cultural translation, there is no mistaking its pedantic overtones, which are not tempered, as they were in When the Day Breaks, by the nostalgic, heartfelt humor of a singing pig.

The animation program also includes these additional “highly commended” shorts: Alister Lockhart’s Nullarbor, Sam Chen’s Amazonia, David Bass’ Skylight, and Serguei Kouchnerov’s Hybrid Union.