Pixar is riding a losing streak, Canada has two films in the running, and the contenders include everything from a bloodthirsty, chicken-chasing zombie to a kindly Humpty Dumpty.
That’s the landscape in the Oscar Best Animated Short Film category, one of the three shorts categories that TheWrap will survey this week.
The categories may still be the tie-breakers in everybody's Oscar pool, but they're easier to call than they used to be, when "look for the one about the Holocaust" was about as far as shorts-category conventional wisdom extended.
Now, for the seventh year in a row, the nominated shorts will be available on a series of three theatrical programs – one for the animated shorts, one for live-action shorts and one for documentary shorts.
The animated and live-action programs open on Friday in various cities, including Los Angeles and New York, and expand to more than 200 theaters across North America. The doc shorts will follow a week later in most cities, but will also open on Friday in New York.
ShortsHD and Magnolia Pictures will also make the shorts available on iTunes and on Movies On Demand.
TheWrap will spotlight all three of the shorts categories this week, running down the contenders and offering thoughts as to what way the voters might go. (I usually go two-for-three in predicting these categories, but rarely get them all right.)
We'll start with the animated shorts, where it's the National Film Board of Canada vs. Pixar, and where hand-drawn 2D sketches compete with 3D CG animation.
"Sunday/Dimanche" (photo above)
One of two films produced by the National Film Board of Canada, the 10-minute, hand-drawn "Sunday" is a stylish and slightly surreal look at Sunday rituals in a small town bisected by train tracks and regularly subjected to the intrusions of a roaring, house-rattling locomotive.
The main character is a young boy, and the short follows him throughout the day, which includes a trip to church, dinner at grandma's house …
The look is distinctive in what is by far the lowest-tech of the entries, a factor that can work in a short's favor in this category. But "Sunday" is also a bit hard to latch onto emotionally; the film is slight and weird, and memorable more for its trio of cawing birds than for any of its human characters or action.
"The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore"
William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg
The celebrated children's book author William Joyce has produced and written animated shorts and features in the past, but this short is his first as a director. With major nods to "The Wizard of Oz," along with tips of the hat to Chaplin and Keaton, it plays with film references, but is mostly a lovely and evocative testament to the power of books to inform and sustain a life.
The story follows a young man who is blown into a land where his companions become the flying books of the title; using a variety of animation techniques, Joyce and co-director Brandon Oldenburg have whipped up a magical tribute to the power of art, a subject that could well strike a chord with Academy members who've also embraced "The Artist," "Hugo" and "Midnight in Paris" this year.
"Morris Lessmore" is the longest, in some ways the most ambitious, and also the most emotional of the nominees. In a category where emotion often triumphs over virtuosity, I suspect that gives it a slight edge.
One of the great things about "La Luna" is that it's from Pixar. That means the story is clever and the execution flawless. The film tells the story of a family of (seeming) fishermen who turn out to be something else entirely; it's suffused with a gentle glow (literally) rather than the more assertive pleasures of many Pixar shorts. It is also lyrical and emotional in a way only rivaled by "Morris Lessmore" among the other nominees.
But one of the biggest problems for "La Luna" is that it's from Pixar. The company had a great initial run in the Oscar shorts category: It was nominated for 1986's "Luxo Jr.," then had a string of three consecutive wins for 1988's "Tin Toy," 1997's "Geri's Game" and 2000's "For the Birds."
And then something catastrophic happened to Pixar's shorts: the Academy instituted the Best Animated Feature category, and Pixar started winning that award, with six Oscars in the category's first 10 years.
In that time, six Pixar shorts were nominated, but none of them won. Oscar voters have seemingly decided that Pixar is playing in the big leagues, and that the shorts category should be the province of smaller films.
Still, the best thing that could have happened to "La Luna" might be the failure of "Cars 2" to even land a nomination; with Pixar out of the running in the big category, it might once again have a chance in the little one. But I have a suspicion that the mindset will remain the same, and that voters will look elsewhere.
"A Morning Stroll"
Grant Orchard and Sue Goffee
Loosely based on a six-sentence story collected in the Paul Auster book "True Tales of American Life," "A Morning Stroll" tells the simplest of tales: A man walks down the street and passes a chicken. The chicken knocks on a nearby door, then goes in when the door is opened.
But the telling – and the retelling – is what counts. The short sets its action in three different time periods, using three dramatically different styles of animation, from line drawings to 3D.
1959 is in black and white, with stick figures. 2009 is vibrant, bright and chaotic. 2059 is a dystopian future vision, with deserted cities apparently populated by zombies, one of whom has an appetite for chicken.
There's not a lot of thematic weight and no emotion to the film, but it is the most varied and energetic nominee, with a nice punchline at the end of the 2059 sequence. If voters go for energy and anarchy, as they did two years ago with "Logorama," this could be the one.
Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby
If, on the other hand, voters are looking for a rich hand-painted look and a detailed, odd story told with loving care, "Wild Life" has a real shot.
A Western done with each frame painted with gouache, the film tells of a hapless English settler who sets out to become a rancher in the wilds of Alberta in the early years of the 20th Century. Periodic title cards tie the fate of the rancher to the appearance of Halley's Comet, injecting a touch of deadpan absurdity into the story.
The category's other entry from the National Film Board of Canada, "Wild Life" is sad and affecting, moody and inventive, with a distinctive look that sets it apart from anything else in the field.
Overview: I think "Sunday" is probably too slight to win, but I could see all four of the others having a legitimate shot to take home the Oscar. At the moment I'm guessing that "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" comes out on top.