|by Jay Seaver
Is there a more intriguing category during the Academy Awards telecast than the animated short subjects? Depending on how over-produced the ceremony is, each nominee might get a few seconds of screen time at a weird angle as if projected onto a billowing curtain - and yet those few seconds almost always leave the audience wanting to see more, and the batch of shorts from 2013 are no exception.
As usual, the short films are being presented as a package for those who might want to either give themselves a leg up on their office pool or just to see several highly entertaining short films. And as a bonus, there are three other shorts included in the program.
Even before it appeared in front of Frozen, I could have sworn I'd read something about "Get a Horse" in one of the collections of the Floyd Gottfredson Mickey Mouse comic strips, but a quick flip through them doesn't turn anything up. Still, those collections are a big part of why I had a good time - although I suspect the likes of Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, and the like have shown up in Epic Mickey or other games, but the throwback characters making an appearance - and then jumping into the three-dimensional world as rips appear in the movie screen - was part of the fun.
Of course, the big fun is the way director Lauren MacMullen and company use the the third dimension to set up a non-stop stream of slapstick. But the three-dimensional stuff is also where the short hits a snag: The black-and-white, two-dimensional, traditionally animated footage looks so much better than the CGI animation; it feels unlimited and unbounded, while the three-dimensional versions of the characters seem to be using Nintendo-quality models. It's not quite as stiff as the digital Mickey that appeared as part of the Oscar broadcast a few years back, but still, when the screen gets completely torn away to reveal the fully three-dimensional, CGI world behind it... Well, if you read the whole thing as a sort of metaphor for the transition from traditional cel-based animation to digital, it doesn't exactly feel like progress, and as presented in 2D, it loses a bit of something from the 3D version.
Laurent Witz's "Mr. Hublot" has a credit for being based upon the "universe of Stéphane Halleux", a steampunk sculptor, and Witz brings the cyborgs and machinery of that world to colorful life. It's quite frankly a bit overwhelming at times; so much is going on and each item has so much detail that the establishing shots come close to sensory overload. Even when he finally scales things down to just the title character, the counter on his forehead can feel like too much random motion.
Fortunately, it's far from a problem, as Hublot soon endears himself to the audience, taking in a stray mechanical puppy despite the sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder that keeps him a telecommuting shut-in. The movie becomes a very funny take on the growing pet who eats his keeper out of house and home - Witz and company do a great job of building the story with visuals and sound -but it's just as memorable for the way they make Hublot a character not entirely defined by his handicap despite opting to go dialog-free.
Of all the nominees, "Feral" is the one that looks the most like traditional cel-based animation, and it's also one of the most atmospheric, with director Daniel Sousa telling its tale of a boy who spent his early years away from civilization with shapes and shadows as much as clear figures, and ominous music by Dan Golden that suggests something disastrous could happen at any time - but to whom? It's a tense little short, an intriguing change of pace amid mostly cheery cartoons.
It's also an amazing bit of craftsmanship; Sousa opts to mainly communicate via contrasting colors and body language, as the characters have minimal facial features; eyes are only visible once or twice, and while mouths appear a little more often, they don't usually quite fit in with the rest of the design, increasing the force of the feelings they communicate. It's a striking look that uses its abstraction to get story and emotion across just as well as highly-rendered detail can, if not better.
I saw "Tsukumo" ("Possessions" in English) during the summer, as part of the "Far East Fragments" short program at the Fantasia International Film Festival, and I suspect it had a different set of subtitles there - at the very least, I don't recall the opening text explaining that there is a historical belief in Japan that objects can gain souls and trick people after a hundred years. I'm not sure whether it winds up giving us foreigners added context or risks over-explaining a nifty haunted-house story.
Even if you lean toward the latter, "Tsukumo" still winds up being good stuff; director Shuhei Morita and his crew give their wandering handyman protagonist (who takes shelter in an isolated storage shed during a rainy night) a hint of papercraft in his design, along with a wonderfully distinct personality: The solemnity of a samurai and the eagerness of a maker upon discovering fine materials. It takes a bit of edge off what could be a simple scary story, but still impresses when the supernatural elements come into play.
Adaptations of Julia Donaldson storybooks have become staples of this program, if not always the actual nominations, over the past few years - "The Gruffalo" was nominated, while its sequel was "highly commended" - and "Room on the Broom" is a bit more of the same: Characters that look like adorable squeezy toys; a cast full of highly likable (mostly) British voices, though many just get part of a line or two in between the rhyming narration read by Simon Pegg (Rob Brydon, amusingly, just meows as a cat); and a gentle story that still allows for plenty of visual jokes.
That can come off as a complaint, but it's not; directors Jan Lachauer and Max Lang (working from Lang's screenplay) have a solid idea of what their young audience likes and give the various animals that a friendly witch and her cat meet while flying through the forest the sort of personalities that will amuse parents as well. The gags work, the animation is smooth, and there are certainly worse experiences than having Pegg read a children's book with moving pages to you (with the likes of Brydon, Gillian Anderson, Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, Martin Clunes, and David Walliams pitching in), no matter your age.
The shorts that didn't make the cut for the actual nominations can sometimes tend to be a bit more odd, and "À la Française" certainly falls under that category; it presents Versailles in 1700 - if all the inhabitants were chickens.
That's the gag, and the five co-directors have plenty of fun with it, packing their short with bits that are funny because the characters are chickens, bits that are funny because the characters are sort of upper-class twits who happen to move like chickens. There's no real story as such, and the characters' clucking is not subtitled, but there's plenty of dry slapstick, with just enough time for the audience to register something as the funny sort of weird and laugh before the next one pops up. The models and rendering are nicely done; it's a fun short.
Depending on your tastes, "The Missing Scarf" may seem even more peculiar - and even funnier. It follows a squirrel looking for his favorite scarf, who encounters various woodland animals in various states of existential dread. George Takei narrates, and writer/director Eion Duffy supplies simple graphics that nevertheless grow bigger and more absurd as the movie goes along.
The jokes are a mixed bag. I, personally, laughed tremendously hard as a bear's worries escalated beyond anything reasonable, and Takei continued to find the right balance between ironic and crazed, just as the squirrel's wisdom becomes more grandiose. Duffy doesn't always find the right tone - sometimes the dark humor popping up in the background seems a bit out of place - but if you're inclined to find jokes about the heat death of the universe kind of funny, this one will provide some huge belly-laughs.
The last Highly Commended short is Pixar's "The Blue Umbrella", and I must admit, when I saw it in front of Monsters University, I found the various smiling inanimate objects kind of horrible in how - unlike the blue umbrella which is given a more classically cartoonish face, cheerfully smiling from how much it loves protecting its person from the rain - these rictuses are stiff and creak as they shift expression, like they've been cursed to not be able to express themselves. The umbrella seems like a friend, but the mailbox seems like something hiding and lurking and maybe meaning to do people harm as they help the umbrellas - not the people under them - unite.
On a second viewing, it's not the sort of abomination it seemed on first glance. Now it's cute roughly twice as often as it's off-putting, and the music which was a highlight initially proves to be very catchy indeed. Maybe it's knowing what's coming; maybe seeing it in 3D that first time made the picture just dark enough to give it an entirely different atmosphere. It still often plays more as a tech demo than a short film, though, an idea that Pixar didn't quite find the story in before getting things rendered.
This group of shorts certainly makes for a fine afternoon or evening at the movies. It's a strong enough group that a group of five could easily develop five different rooting interests; mine would be for "Feral", with "Tsukumo" and "Mr Hublot" close behind. Of course, those are arguably the more unusual nominees, and if you're looking to handicap, the other two (featuring classic Mickey and a bunch of well-liked actors) might be better bets.
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originally posted: 02/03/14 22:22:15
last updated: 02/03/14 22:23:11