As the Academy Awards draw closer and you get wrapped up in heated Boyhood versus Birdman debates, don’t miss out on some of the less-talked about cinematic gems also vying for a prize: the animated shorts. I believe that with its unique set of freedoms and restrictions, the animated short allows for bold and imaginative filmmaking rarely seen in live-action features–and this year’s nominated shorts are no exception. Each of the five nominees is a quality short and together they showcase a range of innovative styles and themes. Picking favorites from this lot is a challenge, but I’ve done my best. Below is a ranked list of the five shorts:
#1. Me and My Moulton
“Me and My Moulton,” a Canadian/Norwegian short by Torill Kove, combines a minimalist 2D aesthetic with droll whimsicality à la Wes Anderson. Based on the director’s childhood in Norway, it is about a seven-year-old girl and her sisters, who envy other Norwegian children with “normal” parents, woefully unlike their well-meaning but quirky, “modernist architect” parents. The eccentricities of the parents make for some charming, laugh-out-loud moments. My personal favorite is when the parents dress their girls in bright, homemade dresses and exclaim with delight: “You look like an installation at the contemporary art museum!”
While the simple visuals may appear underwhelming given the stylistic showmanship of some of the other nominees, “Me and My Moulton” features the sharpest writing in the collection. The deadpan voice-over narration is especially enjoyable; it is funny and touching in equal parts and parallels the visual minimalism. With its universally resonant themes of childhood naiveté and the urge to fit in, “Me and My Moulton” stands out as a witty, warm and unconventional short.
“Feast,” by Disney’s Patrick Osborne, is a feast (pardon the pun) for the eyes and the heart and easily the crowd favorite. In classic Disney style, the visually stunning “Feast” packs a powerful emotional punch (guaranteed to elicit laughs, tears, awws–the whole gamut) in 4 and a half heart-melting minutes. The plot traces the trajectory of a man’s romantic life from the unusual vantage point of his pet dog. Winston, an adorable Boston terrier, loves eating and thankfully, so does his owner–until the arrival of his health-conscious girlfriend who introduces major dietary changes in the household, much to Winston’s dismay. The narrative framework is simple, yet unique: the audience’s point-of-view is limited to Winston’s, so that most of the romantic plot takes place off-screen and must be pieced together from the clues that slip into frame: a teardrop, a dollop of ice-cream, a stray meatball.
The film combines 3D digital rendering with 2D drawing to create beautiful, textured visuals. With solid colors, carefully orchestrated lighting, and a dynamic visual style that mimics live-action, each shot in this film is breathtaking. “Feast” is both a narrative and a technical achievement, and it is the cutest thing you will watch this year.
#3. A Single Life
At two minutes, “A Single Life,” by Dutch animation team Job, Joris and Marieke, is the shortest nominee. However, it delivers an excellent and imaginative plot in simple, computer-generated 3D. Young Pia starts playing a vinyl record titled “A Single Life” that she receives in the mail, and discovers that every time it skips, she travels through time. In the short course of the movie, we skip back and forth through five stages of her life, until the movie ends with a wonderfully abrupt twist ending. Featuring no dialogue, “A Single Life” is the cinematic equivalent of a tweet-sized story: a single, clever concept rendered as economically and tightly as possible. This also means that the film is a one-trick pony; but in this case, it is a pretty awesome trick.
#4. A Bigger Picture
UK animator Daisy Jacobs’s graduate film, “The Bigger Picture,” features the boldest and most innovative technical artistry in the nominee pool. A darkly comic, poignant story about two brothers struggling to take care of their dying mother, “The Bigger Picture” is shot in stop-motion and features life-sized, 2D characters painted on walls and 3D sets made of hand-painted paper-maché. The different textures and dimensions interact on screen to create a very interesting, offbeat aesthetic. The dialogue is sharp and sardonic (“I thought about sex every second before I was 40. Now all I think about is death”), and punctuates the bleak theme of the film with humor. The plot feels a little bare and could have used some more development; however, the experimental visual style is the main attraction of the film and it successfully captures your attention.
#5. The Dam Keeper
“The Dam Keeper,” an independent project by Pixar art directors Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi, is a fluid, deeply affecting tale with an anti-bullying message. It tells the story of Pig, a little piglet, who diligently performs the all-important duty of raising the dam every evening to prevent a huge dust cloud from engulfing his little town of anthropomorphic animals. Yet derided and bullied by the other kids in the town, he is unable to drive away the metaphorical darkness of loneliness and rejection. When the cool, new student in school, Fox, befriends Pig, it seems like things might change, until a misunderstanding threatens to ruin everything.
“The Dam Keeper” employs a mix of traditional 2D hand-drawn animation and digital painting to create a soft, beautiful, paint-like look. These visuals, along with the film’s dark, moving themes and childlike perspective, make “The Dam Keeper” another audience favorite. However, it was the short that I liked the least (which isn’t saying much, given the quality of the pool of nominees). While all the other nominees push the envelope, either by playing with the narrative possibilities of the short or the technical possibilities of animation, “The Dam Keeper” struck me as slightly conventional, both thematically and visually.
First published in Post- Magazine, February 12, 2015. Illustrated by Emily Reif.