Without uttering a single word, the five Oscar-nominated toon shorts display a stunning range of ingenuity and emotion, repping yet another first-class lineup in one of the least-seen and most exciting categories the Academy Awards have to offer. Thanks to Shorts Intl., the public can once again enjoy these brilliant expressions of animated ingenuity on the bigscreen — or the smallest of mobile devices — hosted by 2012 winners Bill Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg, who eloquently explain why shorts matter (as the creatively pure proving ground that gave rise to Joyce’s “Rise of the Guardians”). The theatrical program includes three bonus toons.
Initially released before “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” “The Longest Daycare” features Maggie Simpson’s return to the Ayn Rand School for Tots (introduced in the 1992 episode “A Streetcar Named Marge”). Still a 1-year-old two decades later, Maggie is horrified by the spirit-crushing daycare, where she is carried past the gifted students to a room full of paste-eating morons, going head-to-head with a mallet-wielding brat to defend a helpless butterfly. The clever short gave the “Simpsons” crew a chance to spread its wings and experiment with 3D (lost in this non-stereoscopic release), while cramming more visual jokes into five minutes than fans would have thought possible. …
… That is, until they see what stop-motion mastermind PES pulls off in 90 seconds with “Fresh Guacamole,” a brilliant follow-up to his 2009 Sundance-winning “Western Spaghetti.” Back in the kitchen, the inventive chef prepares the popular party dip, substituting unexpected objects for everyday cooking ingredients (he hacks into a hand-grenade instead of an avocado, pulling out a pool-ball pit, and so forth). It’s a frivolous pleasure, but even after watching the viral hit more than a dozen times online, catching it on the bigscreen left this animation buff grinning from ear to ear.
The stop-motion puppetry in Timothy Reckart’s student-made “Head Over Heels” appears crude by comparison, and yet the National Film & Television School grad’s Anima Mundi-winning thesis film hits a deep emotional chord all the same, thanks to its poetic central metaphor. A long-married husband and wife have literally gravitated apart, now living on opposite ends of the house — her ceiling serves as his floor, and vice versa. A simple, sensitive gesture doesn’t quite solve the problem but serves to bridge the distance between them, and though the animation itself verges on ugly, the heart sings all the same at the underlying poignancy.
Featured earlier in the program, “Adam and Dog” delivers the opposite experience, stumbling somewhat in the conceptual department (the short intends to illustrate how man’s special bond with canines traces back to the Garden of Eden) while dazzling with its lush, hand-rendered visuals. Created by Disney visual development guru Minkyu Lee and various talents from other toon studios, this lovely old-school offering reps a genuine labor of love, demonstrating how purely lines and brush strokes can communicate what pixels cannot.
For the cherry on top, there’s Disney’s sublime “Paperman,” which bowed at the Annecy animation fest and preceded the re-energized studio’s terrific “Wreck-It Ralph” in theaters. Perfect in every respect, John Kahrs’ six-minute love story features one girl, one guy and a thousand paper airplanes, relying on a dash of magic — and a truly inspired piece of music by Christophe Beck — to reunite a couple who first connect on a busy train platform. Black-and-white with just a kiss of red, the hand-drawn short harks back to the Mouse House’s best days while subtly introducing a cutting-edge CG modeling technique, which is to say, the project innovates even as it captures the very essence of classical animation.
Impressive as the lot is, the Oscar contest seems a foregone conclusion in this category. Given the short running times, Magnolia opted to include three additional gems in its theatrical package. Kiwi CG toon “Abiogenesis” comes across as a reverse-“Wall-E,” following a sleek, ever-transforming robot as it introduces life to a desolate planet; French-made “Dripped” pays tribute to the revolutionary influence Jackson Pollock had on the art world; and handsome made-for-TV sequel “The Gruffalo’s Child” will delight fans of 2011 nominee “The Gruffalo” while rehashing its plot in reverse: This time, it’s the monster who’s afraid of the mouse.