The surprise nominations of indie-made “Chico & Rita” and “A Cat in Paris” over flashier CG fare in Oscar’s animated feature race suggests the Academy is growing weary of the style that has come to dominate big-studio animation, despite auds’ evident enthusiasm for such hyper-polished, high-energy offerings. This year’s animated shorts ballot reinforces voters’ preference for quirky, hand-tooled work. While devoid of instant classics, the finalists were clearly selected for concept and originality, making for a delightful survey when viewed together. Coupled with the live-action lineup, ShortsHD’s package opened on 120 screens and is on track to outperform previous years.
Oscar statues aside, the big winner on this year’s ballot is the National Film Board of Canada, which saw two of its projects make the cut. The first, Patrick Doyon’s “Dimanche/Sunday,” is a charmingly lo-fi affair, modest in both concept and execution. Infused with the nostalgia of what it feels like to be a bored child oblivious to the worries of the adult world, this hand-drawn short spends the afternoon with a boy who flattens coins on railroad tracks and daydreams about a stuffed bear head coming to life. Grown-up talk is indistinguishable from the squawks of crows to the young lad.
The NFB’s second entry, which surfaces a bit later in the program, is an exquisite hand-painted gem entitled “Wild Life,” more remarkable for its format than its picture-book visuals. Co-directed by Wendy Forbis and Amanda Tilby (“When the Day Breaks”) and inspired by turn-of-the-century tales of “remittance men” — British dandies who traveled to Canada to find fortune but weren’t cut out for the effort that roughing it required — “Wild Life” stands as the most stylistically bold entry of the lot. The satirical short cheekily embraces highbrow doc techniques, blending reenactment (staged via animation), eyewitness interviews (as painted bystanders offer scripted thoughts) and snippets of imaginary correspondence a la “Wisconsin Death Trip.”
Separating the two Canadian shorts is a delightfully bizarre piece from commercials house Studio AKA called “A Morning Stroll,” which presents three different accounts of a strange-but-true metropolitan scene, staged at intervals 50 years apart. The first chapter, set in 1959, uses cartoony line drawings to show a New York pedestrian surprised to see someone’s pet chicken cross his path. A half century later, the incident repeats shot-for-shot, only now, the style is bolder, fleshed out with more detail and full color. The final chapter, circa 2059, finds the chicken taking its morning constitutional in a vivid post-apocalyptic CG future, where zombies complicate its routine.
Next up, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” springs from the imagination of William Joyce, who supplies a charming metaphor for the joys of literature as a typhoon carries the title character, interrupted mid-sentence in his enjoyment of a good book, to a colorless world in which all pages have lost their words. Stumbling about, the CG man is surprised to encounter a young lady carried aloft by a flock of flying hardbacks. When she loans him a spare volume, Morris finds his way to a nearby library, where he sets about writing his memoirs and loaning books to sad-looking black-and-white visitors.
Rounding out the noms is the Pixar-produced “La Luna,” directed by Enrico Casarosa, which applies the studio’s now-customary polish to a gorgeous nocturnal vignette. Like a poem or bedtime story told in strictly visual terms, the short opens on a bobble-headed boy (proportioned like a Precious Moments figurine) rowing out to sea with two older chaps. They extend a ladder to the moon and begin work clearing off the shooting stars that clutter its surface. However simple the story, its amiable telling supplies moon-gazers an inspired new explanation for the familiar crescent shape.
Given the short running time of the five noms, ShortsHD has included four additional award-winning toons. ARC animation guru David Baas pokes fun at educational filmstrips with “Skylight” as a hole in the ozone layer makes popcorn of penguins — and pretty much everything alive. “The Hybrid Union” is visually slick, but narratively slack as strange wheeled contraptions learn to work together in a desert relay race. Visually unappealing Oz short “Nullarbor” also takes place in the desert, as a cocky hot-rodder riles a mild-mannered motorist along Australia’s longest unbroken stretch of highway. Finally, CG “Amazonia” is bright but extremely young-skewing as two jungle-dwelling tree frogs fight for their low rank on the food chain.