This year's nominations for best-animated short films selected by the Academy Award committee comprise a jewel box of cut and polished works, visual delights that range from comic to existential. The collection is emceed by an ostrich and a giraffe who trade industry banter in front of a red velvet curtain. It's a classic.
Get a Horse (U.S.A.) is an homage to Mickey and Mini Mouse, featuring the beloved cast of characters, Horace the Horse, Clarabelle the Cow and, of course, the requisite villain, Peg-Leg Pete. The characters journey along a road, a cavorting band of wandering gypsies who look for all the world like the 1940s original. Then Clarabelle flashes her udders and the film breaks into the present, the characters tearing out of the black and white screen onto a color stage. Their antics of switching back and forth between alternate universes speak to the changing world, the concocting of image and events, the nature of fantasy versus reality. Who said they were just the funny papers?
Possessions (Japan) opens with a description of an old Japanese saying that after 100 years, tools and instruments will attack their inventors. This provocative premise is addressed in only a roundabout way in the story of a hunter who gets lost in the mountains one snowy night, and discovers a hut holding the remains of a throwaway culture -- fabrics and umbrellas, torn, tattered and faded into grays. The hunter mends them, resurrecting the spent goods into a panoply of beautifully crafted color and pattern. Its beautifully unfolding images carry the mandate to reduce, reuse, recycle.
Feral (U.S.A.) is a take on Rousseau's notions of man and beast, an animated The Wild Child. A boy, raised by wolves, is adopted by a man who cuts his hair, dresses him in shoes and a blazer and sends him off to school where he finds that rivalries on the playground are not so very different than they were in the forest. In black and white, this animation is beautifully rendered with fades and pans portraying the shifting landscapes.
Two entries from France address society from different vantage points, the past and the future. A La Francaise is a charming farce of pomaded and powdered aristocrats, portrayed by chickens. They strut and coo around the ballrooms and gardens of the palace of Versailles in eighteenth century dress, the cock drawing his sword at the slightest provocation, the hoop-skirted hens busying themselves with croquette, party invitations and pulling worms out of the ground.
Mr. Hublot is a futuristic look at a man who lives in a mechanized world made mostly of discarded parts, clicking machinery, and a robot dog. In his isolated world, his aim is to expand his territory to the factory across the street. The portrait shares sensibilities with Wall-E and Her and The Triplets of Belleville. What both these films lack in story development they make up for in visual virtuosity -- they are both beautifully rendered, the first in the glorious, saccharine pastels of Rococo paintings and the second in the post-industrial browns and grays of Terry Gilliam's Brazil.
The Blue Umbrella (U.S.A.) combines the skills of Pixar with the rose-colored glasses of Disney in a boy-meets-girl romance of two umbrellas, buffeted by stormy weather, who find their answer in love. Room on the Broom (U.K.) is a children's story of loyalty and inclusion, a lovely translation from the book of the same title, whose characters find meaning in friendship and generosity.
Missing Scarf, from the Irish Film Board, uses perhaps the sparest animation style to pose the most probing questions. Albert the squirrel searches the forest for his missing scarf and in looking for it finds other animals who are missing things, like the polar bear his habitat. Its conclusion is an ironic bit of optimism, that life's process of death and rebirth promises us at least the possibility that our dust may find new life in another universe, if not in this one.
This year's animated shorts are an impressive testament to the talents working in today's animation, harnessing the potential of the medium's inherent freedom -- a blank slate for creativity and imagination. While a few may be a bit short on resolution, collectively they are a visual delight, a treat for the senses, a great way to spend a few afternoon hours.