And the nominees are…
“Adam and Dog” (Minkyu Lee, USA) – You’d never guess that this, the most aesthetically beautiful of this year’s nominees, was animated entirely in Photoshop, as the images have the appearance of a stunning blend of oil paints and watercolors. The world created in “Adam and Dog”—a painterly, ‘Scope version of the Garden of Eden, supplemented by the ambient sounds of nature and a lovely little score—is wholly enveloping. In fact, the overall sensory experience is more important than the simple story, which involves man and canine’s first bond. There may not be much to “Adam and Dog” on a narrative level, but when the credits roll, you’ll feel as though you’ve witnessed something transcendent. A-
“Fresh Guacamole” (PES, USA) – This rather avant-garde, two-minute, stop-motion diddy is a surprising choice for the usually traditional Academy, but I couldn’t be happier that it’s among the nominees. There’s no story, just the preparation of an unusual bowl of guacamole: the green meat of a grenade, which has an 8-ball for a pit, is scooped and mixed with a baseball (the onion) and a pin cushion (the tomato), which transform into dice as they are chopped. A golf ball (the lime) is squeezed for juice and Christmas tree lights (jalapeños) are “seeded” and chopped into Monopoly houses. Chess-pieces shake out salt and pepper. The resulting dip is served with poker chips. Does it mean anything? No, and the game isn’t all that new for PES, whose 2008 “Western Spaghetti” involved a similar scenario. But if you believe that it’s necessary that filmmakers push not just to reinvent stories, but storytelling itself, you’ve got to admire the surrealist “Fresh Guacamole.” A-
“Head Over Heels” (Timothy Reckart, UK) – While it may not be as radical as “Fresh Guacamole,” here’s another film that uses stop-motion to service a highly inventive visual concept. An elderly married couple has grown so far apart over the years that they live on opposite sides of the house, literally – and by opposite sides, I mean vertically, not horizontally. One is upside down on the ceiling and the other is right side up on the floor, depending on how the house is oriented (it flies through the air, somersaulting, presumably because it lacks the balloon stabilization of the house in “Up”). I won’t go into more detail about the design; you’ll just have to see it for yourself. What’s great about “Head Over Heels” is that its symbolic visuals really work for its themes about marital struggle and everlasting love; they’re not just a gimmick. The climax of the film packs a real emotional wallop. I didn’t expect to find a worthy counterpart to “Hope Springs,” of all films, among the animated shorts, but “Head Over Heels” sure is. A
Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare” (David Silverman, USA) – It’s almost unfair to compare this cutesy five-minute “Simpsons” short to the rest of the films in the program, which are far more ambitious. Marge drops Maggie off for the day at the Ayn Rand School for Tots, where she’s neglected among other children deemed to be “Nothing Special.” The narrative involves Maggie protecting a caterpillar from nemesis Baby Gerald, but the real attraction is the collection of notorious “Simpsons” Easter eggs positioned throughout to reward attentive viewers. These can be amusing, but “The Longest Daycare” is only about as funny and clever as the average episode of the long-enduring cartoon. I’m sure it was enjoyable when it played before “Ice Age: Continental Drift” last summer, but it pales in comparison to the other Oscar nominees. C
Paperman (John Kahrs, USA) – The year’s most buzzed-about animated short is undeniably dominated by Disney-brand schmaltz, but this is presented in such an expert way that it feels genuine, poignant. In fact, our ability to predict how the story will turn out—guy gets girl—based on Mouse House conventions adds a certain joy to the proceedings, a willingness to savor the details rather than focus too heavily on the plot. And those details are glorious: the black-and-white animation, which gives the film the look of a classic romance; the endearing, relatable, determined protagonist; the mounting score by Christophe Beck. What director John Kahrs and company are able to do in just seven minutes is quite remarkable in its economy. Disney isn’t the leader in animation it once was, but “Paperman” is close to as good as the studio’s work has ever been. A-
And the Oscar goes to…
My Prediction: “Paperman”
My Personal Pick: “Head Over Heels” is the best of the lot, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for the out-of-left-field “Fresh Guacamole” to pull off an upset.
“The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2013: Animation” program is now playing in select theaters. “Adam and Dog,” “Fresh Guacamole,” and “Head Over Heels” can be purchased individually on iTunes.