We judge this year's crop of the animated shorts that are up for Oscar.
Adam and Dog
Directed by: Minkyu Lee
Let's start off accentuating the positive with this Eden-set tale about (the first) man and his dog, which happens to be the longest of this year's crop of animated shorts at 16 minutes. To begin with, it's beautifully animated, a cross between Hayao Miyazaki and Golden Age Walt Disney. And, like the majority of this year's shorts, it's entirely silent, allowing the images to drive the story rather than unnecessary dialogue or literal voice of God voiceover. Also, the dog is pretty darn cute. Too bad the ultimate message of the film (much like the ultimate message of the Eden creation myth) seems to boil down to: "Boy... women, amirite?" When Adam and the nameless mutt first encounter each other, it's love at first sight and they spend many a happy, sun-dappled day running and playing amidst the garden's flora and fauna. Then, of course, Eve goes and ruins it all by monopolizing all of the dude's free time, leaving the dog alone to play with himself. (No, not in that way; this is a G-rated Bible story -- read R. Crumb's excellent illustrated version of Genesis if you want the saucy stuff.) As if that's not bad enough, the ditzy dame proceeds to get both her and her man exiled from paradise, leaving the dog with a choice: stay in Eden's warm embrace or selflessly follow both of them into a life of hardship? I won't spoil the ending of this bland Biblical re-telling, but let's just say that this dog deserves the title of "man's best friend."
Final Grade: C
Directed by: PES
Clocking in at a swift 2 minutes, this stop-motion goof is the shortest nominee of the bunch (and probably one of the shortest things ever nominated for an Oscar; even Judi Dench had more screentime in Shakespeare in Love) and really qualifies as more of a sketch than a short film. But it's pretty ingeniously executed anyway, depicting how ordinary (and not so ordinary) items -- ranging from dice to a hand grenade -- are transformed into a bowl of delicious-looking guacamole. Yes, that really is the extent of the short's content. Pointless? Maybe. But it's a pleasant amuse bouche, particularly coming after Adam and Dog's sanctimonious main course.
Final Grade: B+
Head Over Heels
Directed by: Timothy Reckart and Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly
Here's another case where I found the style of a short more interesting than its content, although at least this one's narrative is more layered than Adam and Dog. Another stop-motion entry hailing from the U.K., Head Over Heels unfolds in the unique home of a longtime married couple. What makes the abode so unique? Well, the husband goes about his business on the floor, while his wife lives exclusively on the ceiling. So even though they still live together, there's an obvious distance between them. As a metaphor for the difficulties of married life, it's a tad on the nose, but kudos to directors Reckart and O'Reilly for pulling off visual style of "ceiling/floor" conceit so well, with the two characters mirroring each other throughout the short. Much like those wonderful Wallace & Gromit shorts, they take on a scenario that presents a high degree of difficulty and make it looks practically effortless.
Final Grade: B
Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare"
Directed by: David Silverman
It's been so long since I've genuinely liked anything Simpsons-related (probably since the big-screen movie version a few years back) that I can't quite tell if this short really is as funny as I found it or I was just relieved to be laughing -- for the right reasons -- at The Simpsons again. Either way, The Longest Daycare, which builds on a gag the series introduced way back in Season 4 involving the Ayn Rand School for Tots, is a blast. Veteran Simpsons director David Silverman (who also helmed the movie) makes terrific use of the littlest Simpson and fills the screen with vintage Simpsons sight gags. (My personal favorite: the cover of a Goodnight Moon knock-off Goodnight Cocoon features the spot-on tagline "Not Really a Poem, Not Really a Book.") The spirited proceedings built to a genuinely sweet ending as well. The Longest Daycare is good enough to almost make me want to start watching the show again. Almost...
Final Grade: A-
Directed by: John Kahrs
If you saw Wreck-It Ralph in theaters last fall, you'll remember this one. It's a charming, if slight black-and-white short set in what looks to be the Mad Men era and follows a Jon Hamm-ish office drone trying to nab the attention of a knockout Christina Hendricks-type (albeit much less zaftig, since this is Disney we're talking about) though the use of paper airplanes. It's a lovely bit of animation, but not quite as imaginative of some of Disney/Pixar's previous nominees, including last year's La Luna.
Final Grade: B+
Deserves to Win: I generally like to root for the independent underdogs over the well-financed studio shorts, but in this case, I'd have to cast my lot with The Simpsons team. While not the most stylistically innovative, The Longest Daycare is the funniest, most satisfying and most complete short film. I don't expect it to happen, but I wouldn't be adverse to Fresh Guacamole winning as well.
Will Win: Both The Longest Daycare and Paperman were attached to feature film releases (Ice Age 4 for Daycare and Wreck-It Ralph for Paperman) so they're by far the most high-profile and widely seen of the nominees. In a race between the two of them, I'd give the edge to Paperman, which fits more into the Academy's ethos for animated shorts. But an indie could still surprise and if that happens, expect the beneficiary to be Head Over Heels.
The 2013 Oscar Nominated Short Films will open in limited theatrical release on February 1, followed by a VOD release on February 19. Visit the official site for more information.
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