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Oscar’s Animated Shorts: Kids’ Books vs. 3D

A guide to this year’s crop of animated nominees: what’s good, what’s not, and what will win

As usual, the Best Animated Short Film category features one major-studio production (Pixar's "Day & Night") going up against big and small films from overseas. It's certainly not the strongest group of animated entries we've seen in recent years; it's entertaining and occasionally exciting, but only one of the films tells the kind of personal story to which the voters often respond.

I would have liked to have seen Bill Plympton's twisted "The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger," which made the shortlist, in this company – and with two Student Academy Award winners receiving nominations in the Live-Action Short category, I don't know why they didn't make room for the Student Oscar gold-medal winner in animation, Jennifer Bors' delightful "Departure of Love," as well.

Those gripes aside, here's what did get nominated.

Day & Night"Day & Night"
Teddy Newton
Preview here.

This is the big dog in this particular fight: it's from Pixar and it played before the biggest animated film of all time, "Toy Story 3," which means it's been seen by far more people than any other nominee in this Oscar category – or most others, for that matter.

Par for the course for a Pixar short, "Day & Night" is a simple idea, brilliantly realized. It's a straightforward tale about tolerance and understanding as experienced by two creatures who live on a featureless black plain – through one you can glimpse the world in daylight, through the other the world at night. Newton's short is playful, amusing and, let's face it, a bit corny: "can't we all just get along" is the message, delivered with style and uninterested in nuance or sophistication except in the execution of the animation.

But that execution is the key – and it's why I think "Day & Night" has a shot at breaking Pixar's streak of five consecutive losses in this category after three straight victories. (As soon as the company started winning the Best Animated Feature award, it stopped winning for its shorts.) The film makes absolutely remarkable use of 3D: the characters exist on a flat, two-dimensional plane, but when we look into them we see a rich 3D environment. Viewed in 2D, the short is diverting but unspectacular; add the third dimension, and it's dazzling.

Crucially, Pixar (whose head John Lasseter sits on the AMPAS board of governors) persuaded the Academy to screen "Day & Night" in 3D at the members' voting screenings. To me, that's enough to make it a serious contender for the win.

Read also: Short Spotlight: Pixar's 'Day and Night'

The Gruffalo"The Gruffalo"
Jakob Schuh and Max Lang
Trailer here.

Another relatively big-budget production that has shown on the BBC in the UK, "The Gruffalo" is the latest adaptation of a popular children's book first published in Great Britain in 1999. (Prior to the film, it was adapted for the stage in London and on Broadway.)

The short has an all-star voice cast (Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt … ) and a sleek CG look, and it's completely charming as it tells the story of a mouse who treks through the forest encountering various predators and outsmarting them with his tales of a fearsome and, he thinks, imaginary beast. Of course we all know what's coming, but that hardly matters when the journey is this entertaining.

Still, this is a children's book about cute animals, and it has been many years since that kind of film did well in this category. (I don't count the 2007 "Peter & the Wolf," which had a tonier pedigree and a darker look.) Charming, fun and slight are generally not the attributes that play with Oscar voters in the category.

Let's Pollute"Let's Pollute"
Geefwee Boedoe
Clip here.

This mock educational film is one of the shortest entries, but also the clearest bit of social commentary: pretending to be a '50s- or '60s-style instructional video, complete with handy charts and an enthusiastic narrator, it lays out the ways in which modern man should take advantage of all his many opportunities to despoil the planet. Forget about "waste not, want not" – this film's motto purports to be "waste it, want it."

The 2D animation is eye-catching, and the film wears its social consciousness lightly and gets its message across with style and humor. But it' is also a single joke repeated over and over with slight variations. Its points are obviously worth making, but even an animated short can blur the line between making a point and belaboring it.

"Let's Pollute" is the one nominee that doesn't go anywhere, that says the same things in the sixth minute that it said in the first and doesn't arrive at a dramatic (or comedic) conclusion. Even in the purported hotbed of liberalism called Hollywood, being well-meaning is unlikely to be enough for a win.

The Lost Thing"The Lost Thing"
Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann
Trailer here.

Traipsing through an environment that is part Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," part Shane Acker's "9" (a nominee a few years back) and part Alice's Wonderland, a young man encounters a bizarre creature (or is it a contraption?) on the beach. An unlikely friendship ensues between the man and the "lost thing," all tentacles and whirring fans and lobster claws enclosed in a giant boiler of sorts.

Based on the children's book by Australian author Shaun Tan, "The Lost Thing" is richly imaginative and set in a wonderfully off-kilter cityscape. Despite its bizarre trappings, though, the short is ultimately a sweet story – and that heart is what I think might give it a leg up on "The Gruffalo," the category's other adaptation of a children's book. The ending is genuinely touching – and that, coupled with the genuinely fresh design, could make it a dark-horse candidate with a shot.  

Madagascar, carnet de voyage"Madagascar, carnet de voyage" ("Madagascar, a Journey Diary")
Bastien Dubois
Clip here.

Voters in this category have made one thing clear during the past decade by awarding Oscars to "La Maison en Petis Cubes," "The Danish Poet," "The Moon and the Son" and "Ryan": they like personal, emotional stories. If one of those is in the mix it usually wins, even over flashier animation or more sophisticated storytelling.

A travelogue of the filmmaker's trip to Africa, "Madagascar" isn't quite as personal or emotional as some of those other winners – but of all the nominees it scores highest in those categories, and it then picks up more of the slack by being in many ways the most imaginatively-animated of the nominees. Watching the film, we leaf through the pages of a scrapbook, where a new technique leaps off every page: hand-drawn animation dissolving into collage, photographs pasted over text, watercolors making way for blocky black-and-white drawings.

The lack of consistency can be disorienting, and the story is sometimes hard to follow. If Dubois had spelled out (or milked) how the trip was a life-changing experience, "Madagascar" could well be a slam-dunk for the win – but even as it is, it feels like the frontrunner to me.

Up next: Live-Action Shorts