A Pixar short is all too easily overshadowed when attached to the front of the studio’s latest feature, but as part of an Oscar animated shorts program, it quickly becomes the main attraction, as is the case with Teddy Newton’s endlessly inventive “Day & Night” amid a not-too-shabby lineup of other contenders in this Shorts Intl.-curated showcase of 2010 toon nominees (garnished with two additional titles from the Acad’s original shortlist, “The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger” and “Urs”). Whether viewed theatrically as a group or downloaded individually via iTunes, these shorts will gain a wide following.
“Day & Night” plays quite differently in 2D than it did in 3D (as it appeared before “Toy Story 3”), allowing auds to focus more clearly on both layers of action at once. A radical experiment in stereoscopic storytelling, Newton’s high-concept short features two hand-drawn characters, Day and Night, who serve as windows into a 3D world, each seen at a different time of day. Initially distrustful, the strangers slowly warm to the mysteries of one another’s existence, showing off and sharing what they each have to offer, their respective states of mind reflected entirely through sound effects. Though there’s a distinctly Pixar look to the 3D elements, the film marks a radical departure from the studio’s other work and demonstrates a certain stylistic playfulness that would be welcome from its feature team.
To be fair, Pixar has played with other styles over the years, as in the jazzy closet-door montage that opens “Monsters, Inc.,” a sequence designed by “Let’s Pollute” director Geefwee Boedoe. Presented in the mode of retro instructional films, right down to its ’50s-esque authority-figure narrator (Jim Thornton), “Let’s Pollute” is a wonderful-to-watch but almost tediously unfunny indictment of wasteful American consumerism. With tongue stuck a bit too firmly in cheek, the pic’s Jonathan Swift-worthy satire heavy-handedly proposes that auds waste more — “After all, pollution is our heritage and keeps our economy going strong!” — but entertains with creative visuals along the way.
Lineup also includes a pair of longer CG shorts. At nearly half an hour, “The Gruffalo” feels like one for the ages, having already aired to great acclaim on both BBC One and ABC Family. The robustly designed production hails from a popular British children’s book (narrated here by Helena Bonham Carter) about a field mouse who cleverly manages to escape a series of forest predators by referring to his friendship with a fearsome imaginary monster. Though the story skews young and unfolds rather slowly, the look of the world created by directors Jakob Schuh and Max Lang is so richly dimensional and so wonderfully embellished with delightful visual jokes throughout, you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a stop-motion film.
Running 15 minutes, helmers Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan’s “The Lost Thing” also feels like a storybook come to life, using a highly eccentric design style to sell its melancholy Kafka-like message to kids: A teenager realizes just how absorbed everyone around him is in their mindless, mundane existence after finding a strange Lovecraftian creature on the beach. Highly conspicuous, the thing looks like a cross between a rusty red teapot and a giant green octopus, and yet, no one seems to pay it any mind, leaving the boy to navigate a bureaucratic maze alone in order to find it a new home.
An enticingly impressionistic combination of personal observations and artistic renderings, Bastien Dubois’ “Madagascar, carnet de voyage” brings a stunning 3D trompe-l’oeil effect to a series of sketches from the French animator’s travels around the titular African island. As if flipping through the pages of a scrapbook, our perspective moves through the various visual styles in such a way that the scenes appear to take on real volume in space. The format is incredibly intuitive, reflecting the way our memories and imagination seem to unfold relative to the pictures that trigger them, and yet, the specifics are so unique to Dubois’ experience that we benefit from his exotic travels in the process.
The final two shorts, while not nominated, reflect interesting ways in which computers support hand-drawn style today. German student film “Urs,” from Moritz Mayerhofer, has the feverish feeling of a poem come to life, while Bill Plympton’s “Cow” serves as a hilarious subversion of the way meat-eaters prefer not to think about where their food comes from — a more successful (albeit less attractive) stab at the sort of stick-in-the-eye satire attempted by “Let’s Pollute.”