The Academy Award-nominated short films are playing in theaters, thanks to an enterprising company called Shorts International. As can be predicted, the animated short film category has always been something of a mixed bag, highlighting stories in some films, and mere style in others. This year is sadly a somewhat weak year for the animated short category, featuring a few kind of impressive stylistic exercises, and only one film with an interesting cognitive aesthetic. Nonetheless, I still encourage you to seek out these movies, as the short film form is a fascinating and important cinematic structure, and one that you can learn from, as an audience member, as an Academy voter, and perhaps as an aspiring filmmaker. I am one of those obnoxious critics who constantly clamors for a return to the old days of movies, when shorts, cartoons, and serial were a regular feature of the film experience (how cool if all the Marvel movies, for instance, had 10-minute serials, featuring more obscure heroes, beforehand?).
Here are the animated shorts nominated this year:
Get a Horse! (dir. Lauren McMullen, USA)
This was the one that you have perhaps already seen, as it preceded the overrated Disney mega-hit Frozen earlier in the year. This is a Mickey Mouse cartoon that blends rubbery Ub Iwerks-inspired cel animation with the latest in CGI 3-D tricks, alternating between the two when the characters literally break through the screen. The voices are taken from stock audio of older cartoons, so Walt Disney himself is a featured actor. The film is brisk and slick (as one would expect from a Disney cartoon), and even a bit clever. It’s a fun trifle, and perfect to precede a Disney flick, but not excellent.
Mr. Hublot (dir. Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares, France)
A dialogue-free steampunk sitcom, Mr. Hublot is about a mouthless robot-like man (with an odometer in his forehead) who takes in a robot dog, which eventually grows too large for his tiny, tiny apartment. While the style is creative, and the aesthetic original, there is not enough going on in the cartoon to really make it worthwhile. The mechanics of this universe are also a bit hazy. It’s like a quieter, slightly more soulful version of the noisy feature film Robots from 2005.
Feral (dir. Daniel Sousa, USA)
My favorite of the short films, and the only one not made in CGI, Feral is a dreamy, abstract film about a wood-bound wild child taken to civilization by an adult, and the disastrous consequences therein. The film is told entirely through mood and notion, and eschews traditional story, ending with an eventual dissipation into pure abstraction. It feels like a proper experimental film, using oft-untapped techniques to tell an unconventional story. It most certainly won’t win the Oscar for these very reasons.
Possessions (dir. Shuhei Morita, Japan)
Made in 2 ½-D (i.e. 3-D animation textured to look like hand drawings), this bizarre anime is perhaps the best bet for the Oscar win. It features a tailor and handyman wandering through a medieval Japanese forest, eventually running into an empty mansion full of broken widgets and pieces of clothing that have, over the course of the previous century, acquired embittered souls over having been abandoned for so long. It’s moody and weird the way a lot of anime is, and wholly compelling.
Room on the Broom (dir. Jan Lachauer and Max Lang, England)
From the makers of The Gruffalo from a few years ago, Room on the Broom is another sing-songy fable for kids featuring a bevy of appealing animal characters who speak in rhyme. Gillian Anderson plays a friendly witch who can’t help but add animals to her flying broomstick at every opportunity. It’s sweet and funny, and kids will definitely dig it, but, like Get a Horse!, it feels a bit trifling. It’s not funny or moving enough to be notable, and it doesn’t do new things with the animated form.