Film Review: Academy Award-Nominated Animated Short Films 2013

Entertaining big-screen showcase for this year’s Oscar-nominated animated shorts, highlighted by the superb “Adam and Dog” and “Paperman.”

Every year at this time, the office Oscar pool becomes a little less daunting thanks to Shorts HD’s programs of the nominees in each of the Motion Picture Academy’s three short-film categories. The 2012 quintet of animated shorts ranges from minor but enjoyable to engagingly artful, with two exceptional standouts.

First up in the program is “The Longest Daycare,” which marks the first Oscar nomination for America’s favorite dysfunctional family, “The Simpsons.” (Their 2007 theatrical feature didn’t make the cut.) Shown in theatres before Ice Age: Continental Drift last summer, this five-minute short differs from the long-running TV series in two ways: It has no dialogue, and the focus is completely on the oft-neglected baby of the family, pacifier-addicted Maggie. Unjustly placed in the “Nothing Special” (rather than “Gifted”) area of the Ayn Rand Daycare Center, Maggie watches in horror as her nemesis, the uni-browed Baby Gerald, creates “abstract art” on the walls by crushing butterflies with a mallet. Our plucky infant heroine makes it her mission to rescue a soon-to-burst cocoon from a similar fate.

Directed by David Silverman, who also helmed The Simpsons Movie, “The Longest Daycare” has some fairly amusing sight gags, but really nothing to compare to the TV show when it’s at its wittiest. Many of the historical/folk-tale vignettes from the series’ long history would be far more Oscar-worthy as standalone theatrical shorts.

The program’s next offering is a big step up. Minkyu Lee’s “Adam and Dog” posits that man’s special relationship with devoted canines goes back even farther than we imagined—to the Garden of Eden. In gorgeously rendered, delicate, painterly landscapes, a scruffy dog (usually seen in widescreen long-shot) barks at a woolly mammoth, encounters a raccoon, chases fireflies, dodges a hippo…and then sees an odd creature who strides on two legs. The first man (looking somewhat like a bearded Berkeley undergraduate) offers the dog some berries, pats him on the head, and soon the two are inseparable. (The film also chronicles the very first game of “Fetch.”) But when Eve arrives in the Garden, the dynamic changes dramatically.

“Adam and Dog” takes a brilliant concept and develops it with immaculate care. Every frame is a thing of beauty, abetted by the excellent sound design of John Maximillian Repka. Dog lovers will especially cherish this 16-minute masterwork, up to the final poignant moments in a gray, post-apple world.

Next is a two-minute palate cleanser: “Fresh Guacamole” by PES (aka Adam Pesapane). Applying the magic of stop-motion animation, PES shows us how to prepare guacamole from the unlikeliest of objects. Step one: Start with a hand grenade. Step two: Grab an old baseball. The surreal substitutes are so clever, you’ll want to watch this one at least twice.

The fourth attraction is the only non-American entry in the race: the stop-motion “Head Over Heels,” from the U.K. Director Timothy Reckart finds a clever metaphor for a longtime marriage gone stale: Walter lives on the floor and Madge somehow passes her time on the ceiling, in a house that’s inexplicably hurtling through the air. Walter impulsively restores an old pair of Madge’s ballet slippers, but his sweet gesture is ruined by a comical misunderstanding that precipitates a major fight which sends the house crashing to Earth. Suddenly, down is up and up is down, and the couple’s strained relationship ultimately reverses itself too.

Like the widescreen “Adam and Dog,” “Head Over Heels,” with its elaborate and whimsical details of the eccentric house this singular couple shares, truly requires viewing on a big screen. It would also make an ideal curtain-raiser for the similarly themed Jim Sturgess-Kirsten Dunst sci-fi fantasy-romance Upside Down, which opens in theatres in March.

The final nominee, Disney’s “Paperman,” did get a high-profile theatrical release in November, opening for the hit animated feature Wreck-It Ralph. It was an unexpected pairing, since John Kahrs’ seven-minute short is not a child-oriented piece but a charming tale of adult love at first sight. Presented in black-and-white, it begins with a chance encounter on an elevated subway platform, as the breeze from a passing train blows a piece of paper from a young man’s folder into the face of the attractive young woman standing near him. They’re separated, but the man is amazed to see the woman again that same morning, working in the skyscraper across the street from his own New York office. He desperately tries to get her attention by sailing paper airplanes across the canyon that divides them; all seems hopeless until the paper that seemingly rules his workday seizes control.

Beautifully storyboarded and executed, with marvelous urban production design, “Paperman” could have actually been a live-action film until its fanciful climactic moments. Evoking the look of classic Hollywood boy-meets-girl stories, it makes a disarmingly romantic companion piece to the sour-turned-sweet “Head Over Heels.” “Paperman” and “Adam and Dog” look like the clear frontrunners in the Oscar race, and I’d have a hard time choosing between them.

Filling out the Shorts HD program to feature length are three recent shorts billed as “highly commended”: Uwe Heidschötter and Johannes Weiland’s “The Gruffalo’s Child” (U.K. and Germany), Leo Verrier’s “Dripped” (France), and Richard Mans’ “Abiogenesis” (New Zealand).