February 26, 2011

MOVIES: 2010 Oscar-nominated animated shorts

This is a slightly stronger field than the live-action group, but even here, there's nothing really dazzling.

The one you've probably seen is "Day & Night," the Pixar short that played with Toy Story 3. It doesn't seem quite as substantial on second viewing, but it's still a charmer, and I admire the clever mix of UPA-style character animation and very modern digital work.

"Madagascar, carnet de voyage" (Madagascar: Travel Journal) is an impressionistic voyage through Madagascar, with each scene presented as a page from a scrapbook coming to life. There are multiple animation styles and media, and it's quite lovely to look at.

"The Gruffalo" is the longest of the bunch -- almost half an hour -- and it wears out its welcome long before it's done. The hero is a mouse, outsmarting the animals who want to eat him. The impressive voice cast (Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, John Hurt) can't hide the fact that the story's very repetitious, or that the hero mouse is such a smug little bastard that I was rooting for him to just get eaten already.

"Let's Pollute" is done in the style of 60s educational filmstrips -- perky music, overly enthusiastic narrator, etc. -- and tells the story of how Americans have become the excellent polluters we are today, while reminding us that we can do even better. It's only got the one joke, but it doesn't milk it for too long (it's only six minutes), and some of the punchlines are terrific.

"The Lost Thing" comes from Australia, and tells of a young boy who finds a mysterious thing (creature? machine?) on the beach, then helps it find its home. It's got a sweet melancholy, and it nails its ending better than any of the other entries, with final lines of narration that capture just the right mood.

Because the animated films are relatively brief, the program was padded out with a pair of non-nominated shorts. The German film "Urs" has a distinctive visual style, something like 3D woodcuts come to life, and some striking mountain landscapes. But the story is a muddled mess, and the visuals weren't enough to hold my interest for ten minutes.

"The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger" is instantly recognizable as a Bill Plympton film, and it's a hilarious look at a calf who's desperate to be accepted by the Happy Burger plant. There's a great parody of the action-movie training montage, and the moment when the cow realizes that he has perhaps not thought through all the implications of his career choice is magnificently done. I'd have rather had this in the final five than "The Gruffalo," and might have even dumped "Day & Night" or "Madagascar" for it.

But since "The Cow" isn't among the actual nominees,  I'd cast my ballot for "The Lost Thing." I'd bet on either "The Gruffalo" or "Madagascar" to win it, though.

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