Thursday, January 30, 2014

2014 Oscar Nominated Animation Shorts

Was man free in his original state of nature? Are we enslaved by our stuff? Several of this year’s Oscar nominated animation shorts lend themselves to such Rousseauean questions. There is also a Disney Film (not included in the media screenings) to contend with.  Regardless, all five nominees and a few additional short films of note will screen as part of the annual showcase of Academy Award nominated shorts, which opens tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York.

Amid the international field, the clear standout is Shuhei Morita’s Possessions, a lush supernatural fable in the tradition of Kwaidan. It is a dark and stormy night in Eighteenth Century Japan. A weary traveler seeks shelter in shrine, only to find himself in a supernatural repository for broken objects that hold a “grudge.” Fortunately, the man is both handy and spiritually sensitive.

Morita’s richly detailed animation is strikingly elegant, yet it has an appropriate macabre undertone. Possessions evokes scores of classic Japanese movies, but there is also something strangely moving about it. Completely satisfying, it deserves the little gold statuette, but other nominees might be more to the Academy’s tastes.

Clearly, the BBC produced adaptations of Julia Donaldson’s children’s books appeal to many Oscar voters’ sensibilities, since The Gruffalo was nominated in 2011. In the case of Max Lang & Jan Lachauer’s Room on the Broom (trailer here), a witch’s broomstick and the freedom of movement it represents to a swelling menagerie of forest creatures is the object driving the action. Given its wholesome quality animation and brains-over-brawn themes, Broom is likely to be most parents’ favorite of the showcase. It also boasts the strongest celebrity interest, featuring the voice talent of Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon, and best supporting actress nominee, Sally Hawkins (festival review here).

Parenting is a more problematic proposition in Daniel Sousa’s Feral (trailer here), a dark Kaspar Hauser fable about a boy reintroduced into human society after spending his formative years living with the wolves. Visually, Sousa’s black-and-white animation is starkly powerful, but its extreme stylization keeps viewers at arm’s length emotionally. Nevertheless, it is an accomplished work that should make an impression on animation connoisseurs.

The agoraphobic titular protagonist of Laurent Witz’s Mr. Hublot (co-directed by Alexandre Espigares, trailer here) might also learn something about nurture. Inspired by Belgian sculptor Stephane Halleux’s figures, Hublot lives in a fantastical industrial world, where the living and the mechanical are partially integrated. One fateful day, he takes in an abandoned robotic puppy, but he never expects it to be such a handful. While Witz’s narrative is pretty straight forward and conventional, he (and Espigares) create a wonderfully distinctive environment, with a real lived-in feel.

Frankly, there are no clunkers among the media-friendly nominees. All four are well crafted films, but Room on the Broom is probably the sweetest and most family-appropriate, whereas Possessions is the most rewarding overall. Recommended for Oscar watchers and animation fans, the nominated short film showcase opens tomorrow (1/31) at the IFC Center.