by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Right now the Harvard Exit Theatre is screening the 2014 Academy Award nominations for Best Short Film and Best Animated Short Film, each category in its own series. The animated category has always been lopsided, usually consisting of a few technically sound trifles and one clear standout (last year’s “Paperman” victory comes to mind). For 2014, the toons run an especially strange gamut. They’re a globetrotting mix including Disney’s “Get a Horse!,” American indie piece “Feral,” by Daniel Sousa, French/Luxembourgian CG short “Mr. Hublot,” British production “Room on the Broom,” and Japanese anime anthology “Possessions.”
The Best Animated Short Film prize at the Oscars reads like a history of popular cartoons. Disney took the award every year since the beginning of the Academy Awards until it was temporarily unseated by an MGM cartoon from 1940 called “The Milky Way.” From there it was a toss-up of Disney, MGM and Warner Bros., with the occasional appearance from classic animation house UPA, creators of icons like Mr. Magoo. By the 1960s, independent groups and auteurs from other fields got the Academy’s attention with more grown-up fare, soon followed by an interest in non-American productions.
Pixar was on the scene by 1988, and in the decade that followed, computer and, to a lesser extent, clay animation took top billing at the Oscars. More recently, it’s been a stylized grab-bag in the Animated Short category, finding renewed novelty in hand-drawn shorts, a love of foreign films that never really went away, and an unresolved tension between serious and comedic stories. That last part is what makes animated films so confounding in the realm of awards programs. Can or should we really compare an inventive, all-ages lark of a short to a seriously considered contemplation? It’s this same problem that found the Academy measuring the merits of consummate kid flick “Ratatouille” against complex, adult-leaning adaptation “Persepolis” in 2007 over in the feature-length animated film category.
There doesn’t seem to be a consistent set of criteria for the Academy’s winner in the Animated Shorts category, so it could very well depend on the judges’ moods on ballot day. If it were 2002, Laurent Witz and his team from “Mr. Hublot” would certainly win because it’s the kind of computer-animated parade of quirks and jerky motion that were popular enough to become mainstream in everything Pixar has ever done. This year, though, it’s a long shot. It’s a fun, affecting piece, but it’s also nothing new. The character design is also too basic compared to the expressive nature of current-generation CG.
The only true contender in the “serious” subcategory is “Feral.” In a constantly shifting pencil-sketch-meets-Flash aesthetic, Sousa tells the story of boy who gets lost in the woods in what appears to be the late 1800s, literally falls in with a pack of wolves, and then struggles to reintegrate into civilization when a hunter finds him. Always beautiful but overwrought at times, “Feral” is the most artsy entry in this year’s Oscars slate for animated shorts.
The appearance of “Room on the Broom” on the ballot is confusing. It’s a rather bald attempt to squeeze whimsy from a picture book art style and rhyming narrative, which is fine for children’s entertainment but doesn’t seem like much of a technical or tonal accomplishment. It’s a wispy story of a kindly witch and her animal companions. The short’s Oscar nod is currently being used as nothing more than another marketing tool to sell the film on DVD, along with its companion books and toys. Great for kids? Absolutely. Oscar-worthy? Hard to say, but probably not.
“Possessions” proves once again that the Academy just doesn’t understand anime. It’s an anthology of four unrelated stories from a mishmash of genres, including a historical thriller with a wood cut aesthetic and a silly sci-fi action piece reminiscent of anime from the early 1990s. Aside from the occasional interest in the whimsical, accessible works of Hayao Miyazaki, the Academy has skipped over much of Japan’s big pop culture export. The four pieces in “Possessions” aren’t bad by any stretch, but they’re hardly the best the world of modern anime has to offer.
The most interesting animated short this year (at least on an academic level) is Disney’s “Get a Horse!” A somewhat failed viral rumor campaign the House of Mouse started attempted to bill the short as an unmade personal project of Walt Disney himself. In truth, it was a wholly original creation by modern writers and animators. The short features a “Steamboat Willy” era Mickey and friends on a chase full of cartoon violence that eventually breaks out of the flat world of classic animation to pop into 3D. It’s strange to see Disney willingly hanging a lantern on the uncomfortable mix of sexism and violence that describes so many of its own early cartoons, especially considering that “Get a Horse!” has been screening alongside “Frozen,” one of Disney’s most socially progressive cartoons. Unless Disney was trying to draw a contrast between the tones of those two pieces, “Get a Horse!” is just plain uncomfortable.
The Harvard Exit will continue to screen the Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films for the rest of the week. The 86th Annual Academy Awards will air on March 2.