Darkest Hour stands apart from more routine historical dramas.
Shorts International presents five animated shorts: “Adam and Dog,” “Fresh Guacamole,” “Head Over Heels,” “The Longest Daycare” and “Paperman.” Running time: 88 minutes total. No MPAA rating (suitable for all-ages).
Until recently, Oscar-nominated shorts were a wild card: If you couldn't see them, all you could do was predict the winners by educated guesswork. All that changed in 2006 when London-based Shorts International began touring the nominated shorts (live action, animation and documentary) in limited theatrical release.
As much as any feature-length nominees, these films deserve to be seen on the big screen, especially the animated shorts, which are almost always museum-worthy works of art, full of dazzling colors and inspiring heights of visual ingenuity. Communal viewing offers another big advantage: Laugh-out-loud comedy and moving pathos provide a shared experience you won't get at home, not even with a jumbo-sized HDTV.
This year is no exception: All five of the animated nominees are a joy to experience, even those that seem to have an unfair advantage. I'm specifically referring to "Maggie Simpson in 'The Longest Daycare,' " a perfectly enjoyable, non-verbal "Simpsons" spinoff that played before theatrical showings of last year's best picture Oscar winner, "The Artist."
Clocking in at 4:52, it offers at least a half-dozen sight gags per minute as perpetual toddler Maggie endures a challenging day at the Ayn Rand School for Tots. She's mistakenly placed with the diapered miscreants in the "Nothing Special" category, where she defends a grateful butterfly from the deviant wrath of Baby Gerald, a bad seed who makes Maggie's brother Bart seem like a model student by comparison.
It's great stuff, directed by "Simpsons" veteran David Silverman with above-average visual flair, with five writers (all "Simpsons" veterans) credited, presumably to share the Oscar love. But here's my beef: With a huge staff and two decades of "Simpsons" infrastructure behind it, isn't this really just a "Simpsons" episode cut down to bite-sized hilarity? Wouldn't the Oscars be better off nominating animators who don't have major studio backing?
That's a slippery suggestion, however, because it would eliminate past, present, and future nominees from gifted animators at perennial qualifiers such as Pixar and Disney. Which brings us to…
"Paperman" (6:20), from first-timer John Kahrs, who co-supervised the animation of Disney's "Tangled" (2010). Set in mid-'50s Manhattan and brilliant from start to finish, it presents a delightfully old-fashioned, black-and-white "meet cute" scenario in the spirit of David Lean's "Brief Encounter," in which a young bureaucrat finds a clever way to re-encounter the girl of his dreams. Proving yet again that traditional 2-D animation is every bit as expressive as computer-generated 3-D, "Paperman" yields another fringe benefit: Without a single line of dialogue, it's beautifully stylized with particular attention given to big-city light and shadow, suggesting great potential for a monochrome, animated film noir.
If you favor an astonishing one-man show, look no further than the colorfully dazzling "Fresh Guacamole" (1:41) from American animator Adam Pesapane (aka "PES"), whose previous shorts "Roof Sex" and "Western Spaghetti" went massively viral on YouTube. It looks simple as two hands turn familiar objects into the ingredients for guacamole, but the stop-motion technique is so painstakingly exact that all you can do is marvel at the effort that went into its creation. It's also one of the shortest nominees in Oscar history, which might be a disadvantage.
"Head Over Heels" is a 10-minute wonder from British animator Timothy Reckart, working in a style reminiscent of Czech stop-motion puppet-master Jan Svankmajer. You could call it "A Tale of Two Gravities," in which a long-married couple find clever ways to cope with a peculiar situation: He lives on the floor and she lives on the ceiling in a floating, tumbling house that's been cleverly outfitted (like the Rube Goldberg gadgets in "Wallace & Gromit" shorts) to accommodate their constantly shifting spatial orientation. An abundance of "magic hour" lighting effects add breathtaking beauty to Reckart's meticulous craftsmanship.
"Adam and Dog" (15:01) from American animator Minkyu Lee is entirely worthy of its nomination, but it's also the kind of gentle, zen-like short — in the thoughtful tradition of the National Film Board of Canada — that typically gets overshadowed by flashier nominees. It focuses on the original "dog of Eden" as he first encounters, and is quickly befriended by garden-dwellers Adam and Eve (whose "naughty bits" remain discreetly undetailed). The film tugs at the heartstrings when the dog is separated from his newfound master, setting the stage for a quiet, warmly sentimental reunion.
And the winner is? We'll find out Feb. 24 on the Oscarcast, but as the saying goes, there are no losers here. Each in its own way, these shorts are masterworks that will stand the test of time.
Jeff Shannon is a Seattle-based freelancer.
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