The annual Oscar shorts program is an opportunity to experience a wider variety of filmmaking techniques, and this is especially true in the animation category. Most of cinema’s animated offerings fall into three camps – computer generated, stop-motion, and hand-drawn varieties. Sometimes those styles are mixed in surprising ways, such as in 2014’s terrific The LEGO Movie which dropped stop-motion aesthetics into a CGI world, but most often animated films pick their form and stick to it.
Beyond the filmmaking itself, the shorts categories are opportunities to absorb punches of narrative power packed into tight packages. The animated nominees feature a heart-warming love story, two films on the complicated relationship between children and parents, a very brief, very funny look at mortality, and a deeply affecting story about bullying and depression. The animated shorts as well as the live-action and documentary shorts are playing in theaters around the country in the weeks leading up to the Oscars. They are also usually available VOD from iTunes and Amazon Instant Video after the Oscar ceremony.
Of all the nominated shorts, Feast has been seen by the biggest audience as it played in theaters prior to Disney’s Big Hero 6. The film focuses on a dog and his diet as his owner falls in and out of love in the background. Feast is charming, and it completes a trilogy of sorts for Disney/Pixar. In the last few years, the world’s most famous animation studio has released a trio of films in which non-human agents are instrumental in the romances of a man and woman. Paperman was the first, The Blue Umbrella was the second, and now Feast completes the trifecta. Interestingly, The Blue Umbrella wasn’t nominated for the Animated Short Oscar, perhaps because it was too photorealistic. The Animated Short category typically favors obvious animation. Feast certainly falls into that category, favoring a matte style married to “hand-held” cinematography, perfectly capturing the energy and cartoonish appetite of the film’s puppy protagonist.
A Single Life
A Single Life is both the shorts and the funniest of the nominees this year. In the film, a young woman puts on a record featuring a song called “A Single Life” only to discover that scrubbing forward or backwards on the record shifts her forward or backward through time. The film is an abrupt joke about mortality, and if you’re going to make a joke about the fact that we’re all going to die sooner than we’d like, it’s probably best to make it snappy. A Single Life certainly pops.
The Bigger Picture
In terms of visual inventiveness, no Oscar nominated film in any category comes close to The Bigger Picture, a stop-motion, clay-mation, paint-on-the-wall, live-sized hybrid of a film about two brothers coping with their mother’s old age. The filmmakers painted their characters on the walls of a house and then painted over them again and again to create their movements. They also combined those paintings with three-dimensional objects and real lighting effects. One stand-out sequence involves one of the brothers vacuuming up the house, its objects, and its occupants in a fit of rage-fueled fantasy. The Bigger Picture is remarkable to watch.
The film’s themes are similar to that of A Single Life, though The Bigger Picture is quite a bit more melancholy. The film is about the death of a parent, so that makes sense. The film’s curious interaction between the real and unreal highlights the same interaction between life and death. It is telling that the paint over paint over paint method means that the characters’ movements linger on the walls. Life lingers even as it covers over itself. Similarly, the most real object in the film is a corpse. Death is permanent (at least for now).
Me and My Moulton
Continuing the theme of parent/child relationships is Me and My Moulton, from renowned Norwegian animator Torill Kove. Kove also won the Animated Short Oscar in 2006 for The Danish Poet. Her animation style is flat and colorful, like something you might see in the Sunday comics section of your local newspaper. Her comic style is brightly sardonic, witty and sarcastic without being mean. Her jokes are the kind of jokes your Ikea couch might tell if it could talk. You can watch Kove’s films on the Me and My Moulton website.
Me and My Moulton is a comedy about a middle daughter, the bicycle she and her sisters want, and the unorthodox ways her parents interact with the world. Like many teenagers, she wishes her parents were a little more normal, and she has to learn to be accept who they are. It’s a worthwhile lesson, and the fact that it’s presented so winsomely is all for the better.
The Dam Keeper
The final Oscar nominated Animated Short of 2015 is The Dam Keeper, the tale of a young pig tasked by his late father with maintaining the windmill that sits atop a dam above a small town and keeps a strange, deadly darkness at bay. The film is painterly like watercolors on parchment, and it features a particularly beautiful interplay of light and color. The little pig is ostracized mainly because he’s always a little dirty—a byproduct of his job, in this case, not of being a pig—and the black filth on his face do stand out amidst the soft hues of the rest of the animals’ world. His friend, a little fox, draws with charcoal, and there’s obvious experience with the medium behind the way the fox smudges the grit of his drawings.
The darkness the windmill is holding back is metaphorical as well as literal. The little pig is sad, perhaps depressed, he lives alone, and he is constantly bullied by the other kids in his class and avoided by the adults in the town. It’s all he can do to hang on and keep rewinding the windmill’s gears every day. Without ruining the film, the story’s final moments are among the most simple and affecting of anything I saw in 2014. The Dam Keeper is a touching reminder of how serious the emotional struggles of our neighbors are and how far a little kindness can go.