Piers Marchant reviews the animated Oscar-nominated shorts

February 1, 2013

Oscar-nominated Shorts: Animation
Grade: 88
Directors: Various directors
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 79 minutes

By Piers Marchant
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and blood, dirt & angels

This year’s crop of animated Oscar hopefuls is big on expression, color and richness of character. What they’re all missing is any of those characters having terribly much to say to one another. By some quirky coincidence, all five of the finalists are entirely sans dialogue, though, in a testament to how good these animators are, it hardly affects their powerful storytelling.

First up, Fox’s Simpsons’ short The Longest Daycare (screened before Ice Age: Continental Drift in theaters) pits baby Maggie against the evil unibrow baby, her arch-nemesis, in the mean, drab hallways of the Ayn Rand School for Tots (well, it’s drab for Maggie and Unibrow, who are regulated to the decrepit “Nothing Special” wing of the building; all the super-smart babies head to the beautiful “Gifted Children” section).

Maggie, desperate for some beauty and color beyond “gray” and “bleakest black” (the only paint colors left on the art table), takes an interest in some floating butterflies, right up until Unibrow swats them against the wall. Finding one lone butterfly remaining, she attempts to save it. Written by Simpsons stalwarts James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean and others, the short is chock-full of the kind of sly comedy for which the early seasons of the show became famous (a sign tacked on the otherwise barren wall behind Maggie reads: “Honest Bunny Says: ‘You Have No Future’”), along with its surprisingly sweet sentimentality.

Disney’s entry, Paperman, from director John Kahrs, is also a hallmark of the style its studio has been etching in children’s brains the last 80 years. A black and white urban fairytale, the story concerns a young man, just starting out in his career in some bleak high-rise office, and a chance encounter with a beautiful young woman he happens to meet on the train platform one morning.

Spying her in an adjacent building directly across the avenue, the young man attempts to contact her by sending her a folded-up airplane crafted from the enormous stack of form reports on his desk. Eventually, as Disney is often wont to do, these inanimate airplanes become vaguely sentient and actively help the couple make their love connection. Simple but effectively cloying, it’s yet another example of the dependably syrupy Disney Method that has proved so effective over the years.

Things get slightly edgier with Timothy Reckart’s clever enough claymation piece, Head Over Heels, which finds an older married couple grown so distant from each other, they literally inhabit different gravitational pulls: Walter lives on the floor of the house, while wife Madge occupies the ceiling space in a house that hurtles through the clouds, never settling on one environment.

Finding Madge’s aged and ill-preserved wedding day shoes, Walter decides to clean them up and repair them as a gift to his wife, a decision that eventually leads to a kind of reconciliation, albeit one that involves a significant perversion of modern physics.
As a metaphor for marriage, the short works nimbly, giving us just enough understanding of the couple to make the sweetness of the ending believable and significant. But at times the film’s technical skill and smart special effects overwhelm the slight story and stodgy characters. You get the impression Reckart and his prodigious production team wanted to show off their technical chops, which often comes at the expense of the characters’ cohesiveness.

Visual stylist PES checks in with Fresh Guacamole, an-under-two-minute stop-motion piece, essentially creating a bowl of the avocado-based delight utilizing a bizarre mixture of household items (the initial green avocado comes from a pair of hands slicing a couple of hand grenades in half; the onion is chopped into small, red dice; the tomato comes from a pincushion, and so on).

Visually, it’s thoroughly exhilarating, but that’s pretty much all that’s going on here. It plays like one of those old MTV promos from the ’80s, which, while not exactly a bad thing, doesn’t make for particularly riveting theater.

Not so with Minkyu Lee’s gorgeous, visually stunning cartoon piece Adam and Dog, which presents us with man’s first encounter with his future best friend, and the first ever game of fetch.

About 15 minutes, it’s by far the longest of the nominees, but the gorgeous visuals — green vistas of jungle, orange-yellow fields of wheat, dense aquamarine streams — and spot-on physical representations (it’s clear Lee has spent a great deal of time studying canine expression) absorb you nearly instantly. Naturally, Eve comes in to spoil the perfect synergy between man and dog, but after the Fall, it’s the same creature who ensures the couple are not cast out by everyone. Among other things, the film proves our creator wasn’t entirely without sympathy for his beloved human beings. We were given the loyal, loving dog to help cushion the blow of being dispatched from Eden.

Play-Doh guacamole aside, each of the remaining entries has its recommendations, but Lee’s sumptuous, resonant short is so obviously the most compelling of the four, it shouldn’t even be a contest come awards time. I can’t speak for the Academy, of course, but as long as there are significant dog lovers in their ranks, I expect it’ll be a shoo-in.

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