Mickey Mouse and Disney square off with independents in animated shorts Oscar race

Posted by · 12:36 pm · January 24th, 2014

Last year the Academy finally made a move to open the short film races up to the entire voting membership. By providing screeners of all the nominees (for shorts as well as documentary features), the ballot is now free of all crevices of exclusivity, where formerly only members who showed up at sanctioned screenings of the nominees were allowed to vote in those specific categories.

The question has been clear: how will this affect voting practices? With little more than an honor system in place, will members actually watch the films before marking their ballot? Will they vote blind, leaving the more widely-seen entries in a fortunate spot? Or will it be as it always has been, only those with an actual interest in the categories bothering to concern themselves with them? It’s probably the latter.

You can overstate the possibility of bloc voting when trying to surmise how this kind of thing will play out. That’s more of a remnant of another era, the studio era. Yes, Disney has a film in play for Best Animated Short Film this year. But that and suspicion of a spooky corporate edict aren’t really enough to assume a film like “Get a Horse!” is in the driver’s seat. But let’s start with that one.

Early in 2013, Disney teased its entry as a long-lost Mickey Mouse yarn with Walt Disney voicing the icon. But that ended up just being a bit of smoke and mirrors fun in the lead-up to the short’s Annecy animation festival premiere; it was actually a new effort, blending the hand-drawn black-and-white animation styles of Mickey’s origins with some souped-up 3D CG pizzazz, with a few left-over Walt Disney soundbites plugged in throughout.

The film, directed by Lauren MacMullan, really took off when it premiered in North America at the Telluride Film Festival. It then screened in front of “Frozen” in theatrical release, so it’s certainly the most widely seen of the nominees. But keep in mind the fact that the 3D element of the film will be lost on home viewers, as the DVD screeners will be in 2D. Without that added edge, which really pops from the antiquated stuff at the beginning of the film, it might not have the same effect.

Also benefitting from wide exposure is Jan Lachauer and Max Lang’s “Room on the Broom.” Though the film was independently produced by London’s Magic Light Pictures, it was acquired by the BBC and aired on television in the UK over the Christmas 2012 holiday. It has also had theatrical exposure overseas, which was always part of its planned distribution. Like “The Gruffalo” before it, it is a high gloss kind of thing with an all-star voice cast (Simon Pegg, Gillian Anderson, Sally Hawkins, etc.). But – and not to be generally disparaging of the small screen – it FEELS like an animated TV production, limited in artistic scope, albeit with the longest runtime of the nominees at 25 minutes.

Shuhei Morita’s “Possessions” comes to the world as part of the “Short Peace” omnibus project spearheaded by legendary Japanese manga artist Katsuhiro Otomo (“Akira,” “Steamboy”). It’s a “production committee” sort of thing, a concept that is very popular in Japan, funded in part by Dentsu, Inc., NAMCO Bandai and Sunrise Productions. Otomo, along with three of the top creators at the leading edge of Japanese animation, contributed one short film each for the project, all of them with the shared theme of “Japan.” Like last year’s winner in the category, “Paperman,” “Possessions” is a gorgeously rendered film that blends hand-drawn animation with CGI (with an assist from the LightWave 3D computer graphics software). I could see it having its fans.

The best of the lot, in my humble opinion, is Daniel Sousa’s “Feral.” It’s a simple story, without the broad imagination of “Possessions” or the aesthetic refinement of “Mr. Hublot,” maybe, but I loved it for its abstractions. Not to be too reductive, but it sort of recalls last year’s nominee “Adam and Dog,” an artful hand-drawn consideration of duality.

But in the end, I see this race falling to the beguiling and charming “Mr. Hublot.” Laurent Witz’s film is the only nominee that really hits on an emotional level, even if it’s not as heavy as some of the category’s past winners on that score. It boasts an imaginative steampunk world rendered quite stunningly (production lasted three years). The story is simple, about a tinker-toy-like figure (the eponymous Hublot) who takes in a robot dog as a pet, which, over the years, outgrows the dusty confines of Hublot’s quarters. It just feels like the one that stands out.

When you watch the nominated shorts every year you really just have to tune into whatever your gut tells you. It’s not like the other categories, which are chewed on over and over again in conversations at cocktail gatherings and dinner parties and whatnot. So it can be difficult to gauge what exactly people are voting for (and indeed, who, exactly, is actually voting). I’m wrong as often as I’m right, I suppose, but my hunch is “Mr. Hublot” rises above the fray as voters privy to its technical wizardry and those affected by its charms will push it over the edge.

The nominees for Best Animated Short Film will be released in theaters as part of Shorts HD and Magnolia Pictures’ annual Oscar Nominated Shorts showcase on Jan. 31. They arrive on VOD Feb. 25.

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