Friday, January 31, 2014

The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Animated (opens January 31st exclusively at the Capitol Theatre)

[THE OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS: LIVE ACTION opens Friday January 31st exclusively at the Capitol Theatre.]

Review by Bob Ignizio

This year's nominees for best animated short include a classic style Mickey Mouse cartoon that breaks into the modern world, a dark but ultimately uplifting tale of the supernatural from Japan, a highly symbolic representation of the “wolf boy” archetype from the U.S., a weird CGI steam punk thing from France, and a perhaps too loving adaptation of a popular children's story from Great Britain. In the past this program has been filled out with additional animated shorts that didn't quite make the final five, but that appears not to be the case this year. And so without further ado, on to the nominees.


Feral – aprox. 13 minutes, United States. A windmill flies through empty blackness. Inside is a small, long haired boy. He opens his mouth and bares his teeth as the title “Feral” comes on screen. Next we see a pack of wolves take down a deer. The boy waits in the shadows of the forest, eventually coming forward as hunger gets the best of him. He howls and gets down on all fours. The leader of the wolf pack approaches, and we are unsure if the beast views the boy as friend or foe. It doesn't matter, as a gunshot frightens the wolves away. A rider comes into the picture and whisks the boy back to civilization, where he must try to keep his animal nature in check. The animation by director/animator Daniel Sousa if compellingly stylized, and in the absence of dialogue composer/sound designer Dan Golden does a fine job conveying emotion and mood. The short takes a familiar and well worn idea and puts it on screen in a way that conveys the symbolism and subtext at the heart of its concept, but the surface story is perhaps a bit too bare bones. 3 out of 4 stars.

Get a Horse – aprox. 6 minutes, United States. This one starts out as a classic style Mickey Mouse cartoon circa 1930 or so, even going so far as to use Walt Disney's voice for Mickey. Which means the short either recycled old voice tracks, or those rumors about Walt being on ice were true, and he's now apparently been thawed out. Anyway, Mickey, Minnie and a bunch of barnyard animals that were in the early Disney toons a lot are riding along in a hay wagon when Peg Leg Pete tries to abscond with Minnie. Mickey of course gives chase, and eventually the screen is ruptured, spilling Mickey into a modern theater where he is rendered in full color CGI. Lots of fun visual gags as the chase goes back and forth between worlds, with the horse of the title proving especially helpful to Mickey in dealing out slapstick violence to Pete. It pushes all the right nostalgia buttons while eliciting plenty of laughs, at least as long as you like slapstick. Sure, we've seen similar toons where the medium itself is utilized for gags, notably “Duck Amuck” starring Daffy Duck, but this is still a fun short in its own right. Directed by Lauren MacMullan. 3 ½ out of 4 stars.

Mr. Hublot – aprox. 12 minutes, Luxembourg/France. This is a CGI steam punk thing from writer/director Laurent Witz in which an agoraphobic with an odometer in his forehead takes home a mecha-dog that lives in the streets outside his home. As time goes by, the dog grows to monstrous proportions (how a robot grows I'm not sure, but I guess we just have to go with it). This one is all about the visual design and the idea of someone creating a rich and complex fantasy world. In this case, however, it's not a particularly compelling world. One certainly wouldn't want to visit it, and as far as techno dystopias go, we've seen them done in far more interesting and coherent ways. Everything in Witz' world just feels thrown together. It's not a poorly done bit of animation by any means, but there's just nothing here to really set it apart from any number of other CGI shorts out there, let alone warrant a gold statue. 2 out of 4 stars.

Possessions – aprox. 15 minutes, Japan. The Japanese animated short “Possessions” begins by informing the viewer that, “After 100 years tools and instruments attain spirits and trick people. They are called Tsukumogami.” Although this concept apparently goes back centuries in Japanese folklore, it's a fresh and original one to me, and I can't recall ever seeing it used as the basis for any other film of the supernatural. The short follows a man walking through the woods in a rainstorm, lost. Just as his hat is blown away, a flash of lightning reveals shelter ahead. The man goes inside to wait out the storm, closing his eyes seemingly for just a moment. When he opens them, the shelter has changed. It is now well lit, and there appears to be no exit. Then the room fills with damaged umbrellas, and a frog sings and dances about how they have been used and tossed aside. There is also a box in the room which, along with the traveller's wits and compassion, holds the key to his escape. A very different kind of ghost story that manages to be both eerie and uplifting. Written and directed by Shuhei Morita, the short appears at least to have been done in the classic hand-drawn cel animation style, although some computer assist is likely. Regardless, it looks fantastic. The artwork is more complex and the animation more fluid than the vast majority of anime, and it's not unfair to say that based on this example, Morita is on a par with such masters of the form as Hayao Miyazaki (SPIRITED AWAY) and Katsuhiro Ohtomo (AKIRA). 4 out of 4 stars.


Room on the Broom – aprox. 25 minutes, Great Britain. This CGI adaptation of a popular children's book is the longest entry in the category, and boy does it feel like it. I'm not saying there's anything inherently wrong with the source material, which is narrated word for word by Simon Pegg with occasional assist from Gillian Anderson, Timothy Spall, and others providing dialogue for their characters when apt. The issue here is one of pacing, as the short tends to spend too much time dallying about with fairly dull business when it should be getting on with it. Sure, kids could stand to watch something that requires a little bit more of an attention span out of them now and then, but you could probably read your toddler the entire book two or three times through before this adaptation reaches its end. Furthermore, most of the voice talent is wasted, getting only a few words in here or there. Pegg, whose voice I generally like, doesn't have much presence in his narration here. The animation is well done and it's a nice message and all, but a bit of editing would have done wonders here. 2 out of 4 stars.

So yeah, a bit of a mixed bag perhaps, but even the so-so nominees should be of interest to animation fans. My guess is that Mickey will win this one, but for my money it's “Possessions” that's the best short here. And parents, while there's nothing overtly violent or sexual in any of the shorts, “Possessions” and “Feral” have some fairly scary moments, so you might want to leave young children at home. Overall rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

Showtimes for the shorts programs:

Friday January 31st                                                

1:30 PM                Live Action

4:30 PM                Animated

7:20 PM                Live Action

9:30 PM                Animated

              

Saturday February 1st                                            

1:30 PM                Live Action

4:30 PM                Animated

7:20 PM                Live Action

9:50 PM                Animated

              

Sunday  February 2nd                                             

1:00 PM                Documentary

4:30 PM                Animated

7:20 PM                Live Action

9:30 PM                Animated

              

Monday  February 3rd                                          

1:30 PM                Live Action

4:30 PM                Animated

7:20 PM                Live Action

9:30 PM                Animated

              

Tuesday February 4th                                            

1:30 PM                Live Action

4:30 PM                Animated

7:00 PM                Documentary

              

Wednesday February 5th                                   

1:30 PM                Live Action

4:30 PM                Animated

7:20 PM                Live Action

              

Thursday February 6th                                          

1:30 PM                Live Action

4:30 PM                Animated

7:20 PM                Live Action

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