We were delighted to find out that our local art theatre here in Asbury Park, the Showroom, was screening the Oscar shorts — something you never get to see. So Sunday night we saw the five nominees for best animated short — Madagascar, Carnet de Voyage, Let’s Pollute, The Gruffalo, The Lost Thing, and Day & Night — along with two highly commended shorts, The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger and Urs.
Seeing films at the Showroom is a lovely experience anyway: the place seats about sixty, in big wicker chairs, no rake, but a slightly raised stage at the front and a large raised screen. It’s kind of like seeing movies in a big living room. Cozy, friendly. And the owners introduce the show, and it’s all so intimate and personal. For today’s program, they distributed ballots so we could vote for our favorite. And I have to say that that was interesting and insightful — suddenly having to think like an Academy voter. How can you compare?
Ultimately, Steve and I both picked The Lost Thing, because it moved us and because, I think, it was the most adult in its theme. We also liked Urs and probably would have chosen that had it been one of the nominees. But a bit about each:
- Madagascar is a French language short that makes use of the most dazzling array of animation styles and techniques of the group. Which suits its theme very well — it’s a presentation of the protagonist’s travel journal. It is supremely, sublimely impressionistic, fluid, shifting, musical, wistful. It doesn’t hang together as tightly as it should (and the translator was very lazy — very little of the journal’s pages were actually subtitled), but it is very evocative and earnest. It’s reminiscent of a roller coaster ride — flying through the air, through trees, above the plains and forests, around the curves in a road, dizzying, disconcerting — all in an attempt to absorb and share something very foreign, very different.
- Let’s Pollute is a wicked little satire, riffing off ’50s educational films. A cute graphics style buoyed the gleefully sardonic message: let’s strive to waste twice as much; it’s our American heritage! Kinda made you wish all the Republican congressmen now racing to deny funding to the EPA could be made to watch this. But maybe they wouldn’t understand that it was a parody.
- The Gruffalo is simple, timeless storytelling elegantly presented. It’s based on a picture book of the same name, which maybe I read to the kids, or they read? It seemed vaguely familiar. But it is classic fairytale and nursery rhyme stuff: three animal encounters along the journey, then three animal encounters leading back home, combined with the plucky (albeit very mild) trickster hero who gets the best of all he encounters. Nice and predictable and friendly and fun — and sincere in spirit. Excellent voice talent, including Helena Bonham Carter and John Hurt. Even though it was quite enchanting and beautifully animated (although I never was quite sure what kind of little critters Helena Bonham Carter and her little ones were supposed to be, chipmunks? squirrels? They — and the fox too — had that look of the underdeveloped Bugs Bunny prototype rabbit — lean and long and pointy), it didn’t totally enthrall. It was almost too pretty and symmetrical and perfect. And there really is no character growth or moral. So maybe a nine out of ten.
- The Lost Thing won us over completely, despite a few odd notes. It’s about being different, and being loved in spite of being different, and then growing up and not being quite so different anymore — and maybe losing touch, just a bit, with that innocence that originally allowed one to empathize. I’m a sucker for that story: it’s Phillip without-his-clubfoot in Of Human Bondage and Christopher Robin at the end of Pooh. The odd notes were that the Lost Thing befriended by the hero isn’t quite organic; it’s a sort of mechanical/manufactured-looking thing rather than a clearly flesh-and-blood thing (see picture). That put it, for me, in Brave Little Toaster territory, and I always had a problem with that story, in that it required children to not only have empathy for kittens and dollies and velveteen rabbits but now also household appliances that have outlived their utility — which I thought was just a bit too far to ask compassion to go, or a mother’s patience with childish whims. At any rate, the understated story and compelling, imaginative animation more than outweighed these quibbles.
- Day & Night is a trifle from Pixar, delightful, charming, and moral — all about seeing things from someone else’s point of view and finding you like that view. What a refreshingly humane theme, and I hope it reaches and delights little kids as it should. The only off-putting thing about this one was the level of unexpected violence: Day and Night were suddenly punching each other’s lights out. I realized with a start that none of the other shorts — although certainly packed with conflict — showed a similar confrontation. Maybe it’s the age group at which it’s aimed that accounts for the difference.
- The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger was our least favorite, probably because no one really wants to look too closely at the line between living (albeit in cartoon form) calf and burger. Particularly when one is eating steak that night for dinner.
- Urs is a harrowing, sad, sweet, ambiguous tale of Urs, who surrounded by gray death and dying in his old village, resolves to move to a better land (he hopes) beyond the mountain. He straps his aged mother and her rocking chair on his back and makes the arduous journey up and out and beyond. With barely any dialogue, this lovely short is filled with nuance and small triumphs.
And that’s all, folks. But we plan to see the live action shorts on Thursday, if all goes well.