Oscar picks: Animated Shorts

Are those animated shorts, or are you just happy to see me?

What I look for in artful animated shorts is something that appeals to both children and adults — as well as that combined entity: the kid in each of us.

The nominees

Feral (USA). The most abstract / avant-garde of the bunch. With broad brushstrokes, wild boys Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden introduce us to a silvery lad raised among wolves. He gets “rescued” by a shadowy hunter on horseback, who tries to civilize him, sending him to school in laced shoes and cravat tie. We witness that you can take the boy out of the woods but can’t take the woods out of the boy. Not much of a chuckler, but artsy.

Get a Horse! (USA) Get a life, Disney animators! That’s what we need: another homage to Mickey Mouse and the history of Disney animation.  Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim start with a vintage-style black-and-white cartoon reel, and when the villain Peg-Leg Pete knocks our hero “into next week,” out from the screen pops Mickey in full-blown, 3-D color. I’ll admit I found the flipbook section kinda cool (reminded me of “Ragtime”), but I wasn’t enthralled as the characters continued to cross the barriers of time and technology, using a full arsenal of cartoon gags. Gag me.

GAH0

Mr. Hublot (Luxembourg / France). Seems that every year a few “boy and his dog” shorts creep into the list. I thought “Feral” might satisfy that requirement, but had no idea this stop-motion, computerized hybrid by Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares would handsomely fill the bill. In a non-organic world of gizmos and gears, the OCD Mr. Hublot repeats the mechanized motions of his day … then spies a stray robotic dog from his industrial perch, which he invites to disrupt his ordered world. Their eventual bonding and “flowering” make the meat of the story. Beautiful.

Possessions (Japan). Although the two-dimensional, painted animation (not quite anime) is a bit off and the vocalizations are gruff (in Japanese, with subtitles), this folk story adapted by Shuhei Morita stuck with me like a nightmare. A Mr. Fix-It character gets caught in a storm and must take shelter in an abandoned house, where a bunch of junk is stored and “comes to life” to teach him a lesson about materialism. I doubt non-reading or non-transcendent kids would get much out of it, though.

possessions-main

Loved the scene with the giant-sized cocktail umbrellas. I need a drink!

Room on the Broom (U.K.). As soon as this started, I suspected it was another installment from those “Gruffalo” folks, Max Lang and Jan Lachauer. When the squirrel and snake characters made cameos, I knew. Ho-hum. Set against the neat rhymes like a formulaic picture book  — witch with a cat on a broom encounters  dog, bird, then frog, interacts with each, and all-together-now fight off dragon — it was so predictable that I checked my watch. Good for kids and low-IQ adults.

My pick & prediction: Mr. Hublot

If you are lucky enough to screen the nominees in the over-produced compilation making the rounds in select theaters, you’ll also get also-rans, or “highly commended,” shorts.

My favorite of these was “The Missing Scarf” from Ireland, narrated by George Takei. This spoofs the “Room on the Broom” rhyme-query style to the delight of science fans everywhere. The whimsical French delight about stuffy chickens at Versailles, “A La Francaise,” had me in stitches. From the USA comes one to cure your rainy-day blues: the Pixar-made The Blue Umbrella, a charming love story combining live action and stop-motion animation that reminded me of 1956’s award-winning “The Red Balloon.” (Also, what’s with all of the umbrellas this year?) Would have relished seeing the umbrella one nominated over “Get a Horse!” Topsy-turvy world, this.

 

 

Taking a long shot at Oscar’s short bets

The allure of Oscar shorts: They represent the workshops from which filmmakers master their art and craft. And who doesn’t like rooting for the little guy now and again? Most Oscar watchers don’t bother to see them, so it’s like a horse race, picking the name with the catchiest ring. I’ve seen them all, so I’m here to help shorten your bets.

Guessing which shorts will grab hold of an Oscar, though, is an inexact science. Last year, I correctly predicted only the animated short category. So I’m operating under the assumption that the ones I favor won’t win. You probably should, too.

DOCUMENTARY SHORTS

My Prediction: “Open Heart”

open-heart_592x299Open Heart tells the touching tale of eight chronically cheerful Rwandan children dying of rheumatic heart disease, which roughly 13 million of their peers have developed because of untreated strep throat (the disease has been eradicated in the U.S. because of easy access to penicillin). They are treated at a free clinic in Sudan, led by a brilliant, chain-smoking, greasy-haired, elderly surgeon. He spends time pleading with the Sudanese government for a reneged $5 million in funding, so Oscar voters should rise (fund-raise) to the occasion.

ITS EDGE: Academy members seem pressured to pick the documentary that makes the most difference or advances the greatest cause. Typically doesn’t matter whether it’s the best produced film or evokes the greatest emotional response from an audience. Seeing that Saving Face won last year — that film shed light on the brutal acid attacks on Pakistani women and a doctor who returns to his homeland to perform pro-bono cosmetic surgery — I’m betting Open Heart will play on those same voters’ heartstrings.

My Pick: “Mondays at Racine”

mondaysatracine-300x225So many beautiful things about this film, but the beauty of its title is you have no idea what it’s about if you go into the shorts experience cold, as I prefer to do: A salon run by two sisters on Long Island — sisters who were forced to witness their mother hiding from the world while undergoing her own cancer treatments — extends free beauty and pampering once a month to female chemo patients. One could argue this is this year’s feminist piece and will follow in the footsteps of Saving Face. Though the topic is cancer, it is more than a warm pink fuzzy as these courageous women bare far more than their bald heads and flat chests. Every member of our audience, male and female, needed time to compose themselves after its disquieting conclusion.

Also-rans:

  • “Redemption” — You’d expect a religious treatise, but “Redemption” follows down-on-their-luck New Yorkers who “can” — redeeming bottles and cans after scrapheap-snorkeling 24/7. People of all ethnicities and walks of life do it, sometimes dragging along kids for lack of day care. The territorial disputes are amusing, interviews at times are LOL funny, but ultimately the “there but for the grace of God go I” revelation is chilling. Academy voters might have a soft spot for these colorful souls, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it pulled out a win. This is everything a documentary short should be.
  • “Inocente” — Probably the best-produced of the documentary shorts about a 15-year-old homeless Latina artist who finds a path out of her dead-end life. Handicap: I see marketing written all over it and the focus is a bit too narrow to earn my vote.
  • Kings Point” — Far more depressing than Amour, this bittersweet look at end-of-life issues is set in one of those sunny, Southern retirement communities filled with eternal darkness. Kill me now.

POST-OSCAR UPDATE: “Inocente” wins; shoulda known.

ANIMATED SHORTS

papermanMy Prediction: Paperman

On the strength of Disney’s promotion — nearly everyone I know has either viewed or shared this cartoon online — this story of love-at-first-sight and paper-airplane darts seems destined to win. I do like the black-and-white undertones of paper saving the day in a digital world.

head-overheelsMy Pick: Head Over Heels

While Paperman witnesses to romance, Head Over Heels — the only non-American contender in this category — is the real deal. In this stop-action gem, an elderly couple share a topsy-turvy house, where one’s ceiling is the other’s floor. Eventually, they find some kindling and reclaim some common ground. This is to Amour as Silver Linings Playbook is to Paperman.

POST-OSCAR UPDATE: “Paperman” clinched it.

Also-rans:

  • Adam and Dog — The clear winner for all dog owners, about the first domesticated canine. Be prepared to whimper and wag. Loved the watercolors and the artists’ loyalty to the dog’s point of view.
  • Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare” — The only short to receive applause in our theater. Familiar but refreshingly unpredictable. Still, it felt like a warm-up short for the rest of the shorts.
  • Fresh Guacamole — Fresh and zesty. This one could win — goes by in a blink and a wink and has absolutely no fat. A friend says it was the best two minutes she spent at the movies.

Bonus: Because the animated shorts are so short, producers threw a few highly commended entries onto the reel. I’ve already written about my favorite, Dripped, from France, here. Abiogenesis from New Zealand was a doodler’s dream, and The Gruffalo’s Child from U.K. and Germany seemed a desperate follow to The Gruffalo (2009), both of which seem too long to be shorts. I’d rather read the books and imagine my own visuals than hear it read by squirrels.

LIVE-ACTION SHORTS

ht_buzkashi_boys_mi_130212_wgPrediction: Buzkashi Boys

Guilt over the war alone could edge out a win for this boilerplate buddy flick (wanna-be Western) from Afghanistan. According to The Huffington Post, the young Afghan stars will attend the Oscars ceremony. Hard to send them home without a gift bag.

shorts-curfew31rv1My Pick: Curfew

Pure made-in-the-USA genius. A suicidal uncle’s day out with his nonpareil niece proves doubly life-affirming.

POST-OSCAR UPDATE: “Curfew” took home the Oscar!

Also-rans:

  • Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw) — From Belgium, a film school-ish portrait of hell.
  • Henry — Oh, Canada, Alzheimer’s is so last decade.
  • Asad — South African/U.S. filmmakers track a young boy at the crossroads of becoming either a Somali pirate or legendary fisherman. An animal from the sea helps seal his fate. Also could win, as it shows the flip side of piracy.