Themes of isolation and friendship play out in another fine crop of Academy-nominated toon shorts.
With the delightful exception of Disney’s jaunty, form-busting “Get a Horse!,” a mood of sweet melancholia prevails among this year’s typically fine Oscar nominees for animated short, the best of which offer a welcome draught of personal vision and emotional subtlety not always evident in their feature-length counterparts. Although these five distinctly accomplished offerings vary widely in tone, style, subject and inspiration, almost all of them have something touching to impart about the challenges of isolation and the consolations of friendship in unexpected places — whether it’s the unlikely bond between a man and his dog in the all-metal dystopian world of “Mr. Hublot,” or a kind-hearted witch who adopts one pet after another in “Room on the Broom.”
Certainly an infectious sense of team spirit informs director Lauren MacMullan’s “Get a Horse!,” the deliriously inventive Mickey Mouse cartoon that accompanied Disney’s Oscar-nominated smash “Frozen” in theaters. Opening with a spot-on re-creation of the classic hand-drawn, black-and-white creations of Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, this brilliant six-minute short finds Mickey and friends trying to rescue Minnie from that big bully Peg-Leg Pete, a feat that can only be accomplished once they burst the bounds of their two-dimensional world and find themselves on the other side of the movie screen. Although mildly less eye-popping sans 3D, “Get a Horse!” fully retains its wit, ingenuity and dazzling sense of mischief, paying tribute to vintage Disney animation while reveling in the unbridled creative possibilities afforded by CGI.
The program shifts into a gentler, more muted tonal register with “Mr. Hublot,” a meticulously realized piece of low-key futurism set in a smog-choked post-industrial universe, where a portly, egg-headed, mildly OCD shut-in takes pity on a scrappy canine robot he sees wandering the streets below his apartment. This computer-generated effort from writer-director Laurent Wiz and co-helmer Alexander Espigares makes no secret of its aesthetic influences, from its Jacques Tati-referencing title to its intricate, Steampunk-derived visuals; of all the shorts here, this is the one whose background stills would likely reward hours of study. But as a story about the eternal need for companionship in a world that at times seems practically beyond human feeling, it forges a wry and quietly funny identity all its own.
Similarly devoid of dialogue, Daniel Sousa’s “Feral” tells a sad, simple tale of a young boy who is found living among wolves in the wilderness; brought back to live in civilized society, he retains a wildness of spirit that proves impossible to tame. Dramatically the darkest of the five, and visually the most free-form and abstract, this monochrome study in alienation makes highly expressive use of shapes, silhouette and shadow to achieve a dreamlike look somewhat redolent of chalk drawings. The characters’ blank, featureless faces may be the film’s most expressive touch; the boy looks unreadable and unformed, while everyone else seems to tower over him with menacing anonymity.
There’s a sly double meaning to the title of Shuhei Morita’s “Possessions,” in which a resourceful Japanese traveler seeks refuge one stormy night in a small wooded hut, where some highly demanding but not exactly malevolent spirits implore him to repair a number of broken, abandoned everyday objects. A lovely, eccentric ode to the underappreciated value of handmade artifacts (of which the film is itself a beautifully detailed example) and the importance of not taking our worldly goods for granted, the film has the sometimes baffling narrative progression and surreal imagery we associate with so much Japanese anime; it’s a safe bet that the hut in “Possessions” is not located terribly far from the demon-clogged bathhouse in “Spirited Away.” The results are by turns suspenseful and beguiling, and always gorgeous to behold: In more than one sense, Morita finds the animate in the inanimate.
The longest and most conventionally kid-friendly piece of storytelling among the nominees, Max Lang and Jakob Schuh’s “Room on the Broom” is a straightforward adaptation of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s picture book about a sweet-tempered witch (voiced by Gillian Anderson, leading a stellar voice cast) who loves nothing more than to fly around on her broom with her orange tabby — and who’s too kind to turn down the many other animals interested in hitching a ride. Lang received an Oscar nomination in this category for his 2009 adaptation of a Donaldson-Scheffler book, “The Gruffalo,” and here he and his team bring Scheffler’s illustrations to life via an attractive synthesis of computer-animated characters, live-action miniatures and gorgeous matte backdrops. The short suffers from some lapses in pacing but has more than enough sweetness and offbeat humor to compensate; particularly amusing are the cat’s endlessly exasperated facial expressions and face-paw gestures.
Perhaps in recognition of the somewhat subdued tone of the program, each short is bookended by an ostensible comic-relief segment featuring an ostrich and giraffe’s standup routine; they score a few laughs (Marge Simpson, we learn, “is not a very nice person”), but more often than not their banter about the ugly realities of the animation biz feels strained and uneven. Three Academy-selected honorable mentions round out the package: “A la francaise,” which fittingly imagines a pre-French Revolution Versailles populated by oblivious chickens and roosters; “The Missing Scarf,” an initially cute-looking item that, as narrated by George Takei, takes a bizarrely fatalistic turn; and “The Blue Umbrella,” the clever, touching if somewhat over-scored Disney/Pixar short that played before “Monsters University” last year.