Inside D.C. entertainment

Oscars 2011: Animated shorts are a mixed bag, Pixar stumbles

February 22, 2011 - 10:16 AM
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The Lost Thing has bells, but no whistles.

The Oscar-nominated short films in the live action and documentary categories were mostly disappointing, so I didn't have much hope for the animated films, which are screening at the E Street Cinema. Not that there aren't any interesting filmmakers working in the medium today. To name the most prominent — aside from the reliable folks at Pixar — there's Frenchman Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville), whose The Illusionist is up against Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon for Animated Feature Film, and Japan's Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Ponyo) who only seems to get better with age. Recent years have also seen experiments in live-action rotoscoping (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly) and Flash/hand hybrids like Waltz with Bashir. More than docs or dramas, animation allows — even dares — the artist to experiment, and the filmmakers behind a few of these nominated shorts did just that, with varying success. I'm not sure any are quite as good as the recent parodies on The Simpsons.

Day & Night

This very short Pixar film is, surprisingly, one of the weakest of the nominees. The concept isn't awful: to combine traditional animation with Pixar's patented three-dimensional computer graphics. Day and Night are classically featureless, two-dimensional characters in whose hollowed-out bodies exist the three-dimensional worlds of daytime and nighttime. There's no story, though, except that they don't get along and then they do — a tired message to kids about understanding human differences. Watch it for yourself:

And here's a featurette about it:

The Gruffalo

This half-hour film, featuring the voices of Helena Bonham Carter, John Hurt, and Tom Wilkinson, is adapted from the massively popular children's book by Julia Donaldson. A naïve but cunning, cocksure mouse goes for a walk in the forest and escapes death at the mouths of a fox, owl, and snake by telling them he's off to meet the Gruffalo, a hulking beast reminiscent of the Wild Things. But the mouse made it all up. Or did he? If you've ever read a children's book, you know how this one ends.

Let's Pollute

This grating parody of mid-century commercial films adopts heavy-handed sarcasm to get across its environmental message. This one's short, but not short enough.

The Lost Thing

Like The Gruffalo, this film is a children's book adaptation, but instead of softening the realities of the natural world, it highlights the grimness of the human world. In a dystopian Melbourne whose homogenous industrialization recalls, at times, The City of Lost Children, a young boy who collects bottle caps on the beach meets an alien-like creature, encased in a sort of gigantic metal urn, who is lost. He tries to leave it with the drab, massive bureaucracy known as the Department of Odds and Ends, but is warned against it by one of those odds and ends. I'm sure Andrew Klavan would find an anti-liberal message in here.

Madagascar, A Journey Diary

This light, vibrant film by French animator Bastien Dubois is a scrapbook narrative about a young European's trip across Madagascar, allowing Dubois to show off his grasp of myriad styles of traditional animation. Here it is, in full:

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