Friday, February 7, 2014

The Oscar Nominated Shorts of 2014 (Who Will Probably Win & Who Should Win)

The Oscars are fast approaching with a live screening set for March 2nd. While the Oscars are and have always been biased towards certain films (specifically English speaking ones usually produced by major Hollywood studios or well known directors), they have become increasingly popular and prestigious. The movies nominated for best picture always get lots of fanfare, but films in other categories are sometimes overlooked.

The short film categories often suffer from this. This is shame because they are a great way to showcase talents from across the globe. Because they cost significantly less to produce they can vary greatly in their subject matter and style. While some of them are made by larger studios, many of them are not and are very personal films made by small independent creators/companies passionate about the medium.

The Oscar nominated animated shorts from last year.

For those of you who have yet to see them, the Oscar nominated animated shorts this year, are overall, a pretty solid bunch. The nominees include a Disney short, three entries from Europe, an anime, and an independently produced short. If you happen to attend the screening of the nominees at your local theater, you will probably notice that the program also includes three honorable mentions which were not nominated for the Oscars. Fortunately, they are also fairly enjoyable as well. (Unfortunately, the animated shorts are 'hosted' between each segment by two obnoxiously unfunny CGI animals. But, hey, at least the awards aren't being hosted by Seth MacFarlane again this year.) So without a further ado, here are some brief reviews (and winner predictions) for the nominees and honorable mentions for the Best Animated Short of 2014.

The Nominees

Get a Horse!

Director: Lauren Macmullan
Company: Walt Disney Animation Studios
Country: USA

Get a Horse is a throwback to Disney's original rubber-hose Mickey Mouse shorts from the early 1930s with a twist. When Peg Leg Pete attempts to run a hay wagon off the road, Mickey and Horace are forced out of the movie screen and into the theater, becoming CGI colored versions of themselves. Horace and Mickey then battle Pete, who has kidnapped Minnie, by finding ways to interfere with movie playing on screen. While the premise is a bit gimmicky and not entirely original, (Tex Avery loved inserting self aware sight gags into his cartoons, and Get a Horse bears some resemblance to Osamu Tezuka's 1985 short, Broken Down Film) the film has been made with so much love and passion it is hard not to smile at the character's antics.

Get a Horse is not necessarily the best nominee, but it has already become an audience favorite, having won the Annie Award for Best Animated Short Subject and being nominated for Best Animated Film at the San Diego Film Critics Society. More than likely it will probably win the Academy Award. Get a Horse also features original voice recordings from the 1930s, marks the first appearance of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in a Disney cartoon in over 84 years, and is the first Disney production to be directed solely by a female animator.

Rating: 3.5

Mr. Hublot

Directors: Laurent Witz & Alexandre Espigares
Company: ZEILT Productions, WATT Frame
Country: France

Mr. Hublot moves at a far more leisurely pace than Get a Horse and has no dialogue. However, this largely aids the film rather than hindering it. The short follows a little mechanical man who lives in a Victorian era steampunk-like society. But Mr. Hublot largely chooses to ignore the beautifully rendered CGI/ stop-motion animated landscapes around him. Instead, he focuses intently on his work, preferring the company of his typewriter indoors rather than socializing with others. One day, his work is disrupted after he discovers a small robotic puppy abandoned outside his apartment. Mr. Hublot takes pity on the creature and adopts it. Eventually the puppy grows into a huge dog, and Mr. Hublot is faced with a difficult decision: Should he keep his pet / only friend and allow it to disrupt his work? Or should he get rid off it?

Mr. Hublot is a charming short. Although the story is a bit familiar, the short's animation is very distinctive and Mr. Hublot's apparent OCD is very relatable in our day and age. While not as likely to win the AA as Get a Horse, this film has a bit more substance to it. I would love to see what the short's creators do next.

Rating: 4/5


Director: Daniel Sousa
Company: SousaAnimation
Country: USA

Feral greatly contrasts from the other contestants mentioned so far. It is not cute, funny, or heartfelt, but it is a rather mature, gloomy piece. The short tackles a difficult, yet intriguing subject with no clear answers: How would a feral child react if suddenly he or she were suddenly placed back into society? The huntsman who discovers the lost boy in the film certainly thinks that he is helping the child by reintroducing him to his 'proper place' in society. But the audience is left unsure, especially after they see the boy alienated by his strange new environment. The boy tries to adjust by using the same methods that kept him safe in the woods, but is teased by his peers and misunderstood by others. Feral ends openly with the boy running back towards the forest.

The short is quite ambitious and manages to tell its story with little to no dialogue, but, unfortunately, it can be difficult to understand at times due to its level of abstraction. Feral is indeed beautiful to look at, but feels a bit unevenly paced and may leave its audience cold. Still, one has to admire the efforts of Daniel Sousa's creation as he created almost entirely by himself.

Rating: 3/5


Director: Shuhei Morita
Company: Sunrise
Country: Japan

Possessions is perhaps the most unique of all of the nominees and bears a couple of distinctions. It is the first anime film to be nominated that has not been directed by Hayao Miyazaki and its animation is blend of both cel shaded characters and traditional background art. The film's director, Shuhei Morita, is perhaps best known for his half-an-hour ghost story film, Kakurenbo ['Hide and Seek']. (It should also be noted that Possessions was originally part of an anime anthology film, Short Peace, which contained three other shorts including the award winning Combustible.)

In Possessions, a traveler comes across a shrine when he tries to find shelter from pouring rain. He decides to spend the night there, but notices that the shrine is full of neglected items. According to Japanese legend, abandoned items will come to life after one hundred years have passed. The umbrellas, kimonos, and other objects attempt to scare off their unwanted guest. However, the man decides to mend all of the tarnished objects instead and is rewarded for his efforts. Possessions may be more unusual then some of the other candidates, but there is still a small chance it could win. After all, Miyazaki's Spirited Away won Best Animated feature back in 2002 (making it the only anime film to do so so far).

Rating: 4/5

Room on the Broom

Directors: Jan Lachauer & Max Lang
Company: Magic Light Pictures
Country: UK

Easily the cutest entry on the list, Room on the Broom is based on a picture book by Julia Donaldson. The short also sports a well known cast, featuring the voices of Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon, and Martin Clunes among others. Like Mr. Hublot, Room on the Broom blends several animation mediums (specifically models for the sets, CGI for the characters, and traditional animation for fire and water effects). This gives the film its own unique look, which is refreshing in this age where everybody seems to try and copy Pixar's style.

The short itself, is of course, aimed primarily at children, but is actually the longest nominee running at about half an hour. It manages to keep audiences of all ages alike amused with its gentle humor and rhyme filled narration. Room on the Broom is about a kindly witch who flies around with her grumpy cat in tow. The witch keeps dropping things, but the objects are always found by a forest animal. The witch always invites them to ride on the broom with her, despite her cat's protests. However, the broom eventually becomes to heavy to float and the witch runs into trouble with a hungry dragon. While nothing complex is offered in this short, it is quite enjoyable and certainly will please young ones and their families.

Rating: 4/5

The Honorable Mentions

A La Francaise 

Directors: Morrigane Boyer, Julien Hazebroucq, Ren-Hsien Hsu, Emmanuelle Leleu, William Lorton
Company: Supinfocom Arles Animation Film School
Country: France

A la Francaise is sort of a one trick pony. The short is about a bunch of pompous 18th century aristocrats attending a party at Louis XIV's palace…except that they all happen to be chickens. That's about it. Most of the gags actually tend to be pretty funny though and occasionally even a little risqué. The plot becomes increasingly chaotic and disorganized after a hen writing down all of the details about the party loses her papers, which fly throughout the ballroom and start offending all of the guests.

The biggest letdown of this short, however, is its very unsatisfying ending. The audience doesn't even get to see Louis XIV's full reaction to the disasters occurring around him. Still, there is much to be admired about this short on a technical level, given that it is CGI student film that was worked on by only handful of people over the course of three years. It's apparent why A la Francaise wasn't nominated, but it was rightfully given an honorable mention.

Rating: 3/5

The Missing Scarf

Director: Eoin Duffy
Company: Belly Creative Inc.
Country: Ireland

The Missing Scarf is one of those films that takes all of your expectations then completely subverts them in the best possible way. The short begins like a typical children's story. Narrated calmly by George Takei, it tells the tale of Albert, an optimistic squirrel, who has lost his scarf. Albert goes to the woods to search for it, but meets several other animals who have problems of their own (such as an owl who is afraid of the dark and a fox who fears being disliked by others). Albert gives each of them advice about how to deal with their problems, however the short becomes subtly darker as time goes on. So much so that even the bear's troubling existentialist question may not seem as impractical as it sounds.

The Missing Scarf's animation, done in a combination of Adobe Flash and Blender, suits the style of the film well. It is simple and to the point. The cute character designs also greatly contrast with the black humor at The Missing Scarf's ending. Personally, I think this short should have also been nominated, but The Missing Scarf was probably too unorthodox for the Academy's tastes. Their loss.

Rating: 4/5

The Blue Umbrella 

Director: Saschka Unsled
Company: Pixar
Country: USA

Many people where surprised when they discovered that Pixar received no nominations this year, not just for their main feature, Monsters University, but also for for their short, The Blue Umbrella. In the case of The Blue Umbrella, however, it is pretty apparent to see why it wasn't nominated. There is nothing wrong with the film, in fact it contains some beautiful CGI effects and utilizes some really creative animation on various inanimate street objects. However, The Blue Umbrella fails to offer its audience anything that they haven't already seen before.

The story is cute (involving a male blue umbrella who gets separated from his love interest, a red female umbrella), but it bares an uncanny resemblance to the 1954 Disney short, Jonny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet, and is rather predictable. The animation on the umbrellas is also somewhat disappointing. The drawn on cartoon faces simply don't blend very well with the short's otherwise photorealistic style.

Rating: 3/5