Michael C here from Serious Film popping in to give everybody an edge in their Oscar pools. For most of us the shorts categories represent a vague, uncharted area on our Oscar ballots where the blind guesses required balance out the relatively easy calls in the bigger categories. Just pick whichever doc short seems to have the most Nazis and leave the rest up to chance.
But now that Magnolia Pictures and Shorts International have begun releasing all the nominated shorts in theaters and for purchase online there is no longer any excuse to stay in the dark. Not only do you get to enjoy some of the year's most inventive work, but you get the added suspense of following categories that have not been analyzed to death and had the novelty drained out of them by every precursor from the Golden Globes down to the Sheboygan Film Critics Society.
Let's pour over this year's short film contenders and their chances of victory. Up first: Animation. The nominees are...
DAY & NIGHT – USA, 6 Minutes, Dir: Teddy Newton
This entry from Pixar was released in front of Toy Story 3 meaning it was probably seen by more people than the other fourteen nominated short films put together times ten. In case you missed it, Day & Night is the simple tale of an encounter between night and day portrayed here as two feuding anthropomorphic characters.
Style: Traditional and Computer Combination
For It: Day & Night has all the polish you would expect from a Pixar production, and its use of computer animation inside traditional 2D animation is an original concept nicely realized. More than anything the film is just plain fun; its six minutes zip by. The simplicity of its concept combined with the wit of its execution recall such classic Chuck Jones shorts as Duck Amuck and The Dot and The Line.
Against It: Pixar isn’t the powerhouse in the short category that is at feature length – it hasn’t won since 2001’s For the Birds despite five nominations. Going against Pixar can't help but make all the other nominees look like scrappy underdogs by comparison. Day & Night might also look a little frivolous compared to the more overtly artsy competition.
THE GRUFFALO – UK, Germany, 27 minutes, Dir. Jakob Schuh, Max Lang
This adaptation of a hugely popular children’s book was a hit when it aired on BBC Christmas 2009. The Gruffalo is the story of a little brown mouse that fearlessly (or foolishly) sets out into a dangerous forest in pursuit of a hazelnut tree. As the mouse encounters predators he invents a fearsome creature to scare them off with surprising results (if you're, say, ten or younger).
Style: Computer Animated simulation of Stop Motion
For It: The Gruffalo is at its most charming when it’s quietest, depicting the constant threats for those occupying the low end of the food chain. The moment when the mouse casually leads a line of bugs out of harm's way is a high point. If voters are easily wowed by big names The Gruffalo boasts an impressive cast of vocal talent including Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, and Helena Bonham Carter. At nearly half an hour this is the most substantial entry.
Against It: This simple fable is stretched awfully thin over 27 minutes. The Gruffalo doesn’t transcend its children’s story origins. Adults used to modern animated films throwing in jokes for them will likely get bored with Gruffalo's predictable, repetitive story.
MADAGASCAR, A JOURNEY DIARY - 15 minutes, Dir: Bastien Dubois
Exactly what its title suggests. Madagascar has no story to speak of, instead opting for a collage of visual styles from simulated watercolor to a sketchy pencil to give the feeling of a journey through the African country. The centerpiece of the film is a burial ritual that involves retrieving the dead for a parade through the world of the living.
Style: Computer Animation
For It: When it comes to visuals none of the competition can touch Madagascar. Its 3D scrapbook style is a constant delight. Despite being a moods piece the film has a rollicking energy that keeps the film rolling along with lively music and a flurry of striking images. You can feel the passion of the filmmaking in every frame.
Against It: If voters want something more accessible they’ll go for Pixar or The Gruffalo otherwise I’m not seeing a drawback to this one. A beautiful piece of work.
LET'S POLLUTE – USA, 6 Minutes, Dir Geefwee Boedoe
Let’s Pollute is a spoof of 1950’s educational films that instructs the viewer how they can be a better polluter in the grand American tradition.
Style: Traditional 2D animation
For It: Voters can pick Let’s Pollute if they want to pat themselves on the back for choosing something with an environmental message. The mimicking of simplistic Hanna-Barbera style animation is spot on.
Against It: The weakest of the entries Let’s Pollute is glib and preachy, lacking the the satiric bite of the average Onion article. Not that it's awful, but after you get past the premise Let’s Pollute doesn’t add anything insightful or constructive so much as hammer the one gag over and over. Its pro-environmental stance is the only explanation I can think of for this being nominated over other such vastly superior shortlisted films as the moving mother and son story Urs, or the raucously funny The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger.
THE LOST THING - Australia, UK, 15 minutes, Dir: Shaun Tan, Andrew Ruhemann
A young man in a dystopian Gilliam-esque society adopts a strange creature and attempts to find a home for it after discovering it abandoned on the beach.
Style: Computer Animation
For It: This is going to garner some votes from those who value originality and from those voters impressed with the level of care that went into the memorable look of The Lost Thing. The moody, nicely detailed art direction recalls Shane Acker’s nominated short 9 from 2005.
Against It: A solid effort, but it’s hard to picture this winning. It lacks the “Wow” factor of Madagascar or the wit of Day & Night. If the story had been brought up to the level of the visuals this would be a winner, but as it stands The Lost Thing is an interesting but unmoving experience. I didn't exactly fall in love with the creature which is sort of a giant squid that lives inside a huge mechanical honey pot.
Marking Your Oscar Pool: If kids were voting I’d say bet the house on The Gruffalo, but since we are dealing with adults I’d recommend placing your chips on the stunning visuals and vibrant culture of Madagascar. My personal vote would go to Day & Night by a hair. I’m a sucker for anything that keeps alive the zany Warner Bros. spirit and Day & Night feels like a new classic in the making. It would go toe-to-toe with Geri’s Game as my choice for Pixar’s finest short yet.