The shortest of this year’s Oscar-nominated animated shorts, “A Single Life,” offers a zippy, mordantly funny time-travel journey through a woman’s later years. In a similar sense, the other four entries in this solid, sometimes inspired roundup all address the unique challenges of life at a particular stage — dealing with the wants and insecurities of childhood in “Me and My Moulton” and “The Dam Keeper,” falling in love and starting a family in “Feast,” and caring for an elderly parent and coping with grief in “The Bigger Picture.” As always, the styles and techniques employed run the visual gamut, from traditional hand-drawn and computer-generated imagery to mixed-media stop-motion. If the overall artistry on display isn’t quite as dazzling as last year’s formidable crop, the whole circle-of-life package arguably makes up for it in cumulative emotional impact.
Things kick off on a wryly humorous note with “Me and My Moulton,” a slender anecdote drawn from the childhood of Norwegian-born Canadian director Torill Kove (who previously won the Oscar in this category for 2007’s “The Danish Poet”). Deploying clean, hard lines and bright colors that give it an inviting picture-book quality, the film tells the story of a 7-year-old girl growing up with her two sisters (one younger, one older) and their parents — eccentric, art-loving modernist architects who have never been particularly interested in fitting in. When the girls ask for a bicycle, Mom and Dad respond in an expectedly unconventional fashion that will come as little surprise to anyone who understands the title; still, there’s no spoiling Kove’s warm, insightful take on childhood anxieties, the ways our parents can at once delight and disappoint us, and the wisdom of resisting conformity even when it looks something like happiness.
Irresistible to dog lovers, foodies and romantics of every stripe, Disney’s “Feast” stars a Boston terrier fortunate enough to have an owner who clearly doesn’t subscribe to the no-feeding-pets rule: Together, man and dog gorge themselves on eggs, bacon, pizza, spaghetti and junk food galore, their high-calorie diet coming to an abrupt end when a health-conscious girlfriend appears on the scene. On a purely visual level, Patrick Osborne’s short more than lives up to its scrumptious title; what’s even more remarkable is the emotional resonance it accrues on (effortless) subsequent viewings, as our attention naturally shifts from all that cuteness in the foreground to the tender love story playing out quietly in the background. A marvel of narrative economy, “Feast” screened in theaters before “Big Hero 6,” and for all the pleasures of that Oscar-nominated feature (Osborne served as co-head of animation), this may well be a rare example of an appetizer upstaging the main course.
The big-hearted pleasures of “Feast” give way to spasms of dark humor and deep feeling in British helmer Daisy Jacobs’ “The Bigger Picture,” one of the more visually inventive entries in the collection: a stop-motion toon shot on life-size sets populated by seven-foot-tall characters, each one a two-dimensional wall painting equipped with three-dimensional pop-out limbs. In a film of mostly gray rooms and glum faces, a dour, practical man named Nick devotes himself to taking care of his sickly, often cantankerous mother; he resents his genial brother, Richard, whom Mum favors even though he never lifts a finger to help her. Jacobs’ story is at once bitter and consoling, but her painstaking technique is so intrinsically fascinating — the use of what looks like plastic wrap to animate flowing water is particularly mesmerizing — that it might well have supported a drama even less driven by churning, all-too-recognizable emotions.
It would be unforgivable to give away exactly what “The Bigger Picture” has in common with “A Single Life,” which takes just two minutes to set up a delightfully wackadoodle premise and see it through to its logical, mordantly funny conclusion. Suffice to say that this spry, ingenious computer-animated entry — the work of the Dutch filmmaking trio of Job Roggeveen, Joris Oprins and Marieke Blaauw — centers around an old record player that, as the film’s red-headed protagonist discovers, has the mysterious power to rewind and fast-forward her life — the vinyl frontier of time travel, if you will.
Themes of childhood bullying and environmental disaster converge in the animal-populated township of “The Dam Keeper,” the tale of a shy, introverted Pig who is regularly picked on at school. He’s soon befriended by a new kid, Fox, whose talent for drawing funny sketches of their classmates helps empower them both, at least until a near-fatal misunderstanding. Incidentally, Pig has the all-important task of operating the local windmill, which keeps toxic clouds at bay; you’d think the townsfolk would be kinder to the one individual standing between them and apocalyptic disaster.
A sort of porcine “Carrie,” “The Dam Keeper” not only clocks in as the longest of the nominated shorts (18 minutes), but also offers perhaps the most harrowing emotional workout, aided in no small part by its near-total absence of dialogue and a piano score that sets a hauntingly forlorn mood from the start. Directed by the former Pixar art directors Robert Kondo and Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi, the short looks bracingly different from their studio feature work: Rendered in a moody, muted style at once painterly and chalklike, the ever-shifting images perfectly capture a fragile community that could easily vanish into the ether.
Rounding out the package are a number of Academy-selected honorable mentions, the best of which is “Duet,” a gorgeous, hand-drawn love story that marks the directing debut of longtime Disney animator Glen Keane; the half-formed style of the piece, suggesting images pulled directly from his sketchbook, is an ideal one for a story about the evanescence of life’s passages. The other commended works include Bill Plympton’s typically wry “Footprints”; “Sweet Cocoon,” a less-than-charming insect tale from France; and “Bus Story,” an amusing if overlong entry from Canada.
Film Review: '2015 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Animation'
Reviewed at Nuart Theater, Santa Monica, Calif., Feb. 10, 2015. Running time: 77 MIN.
(Animated) A ShortsHD release presented with Magnolia Pictures.
Me and My Moulton
(Norway-Canada) A Mikrofilm and National Film Board of Canada co-production with the participation of Norwegian Film Institute, Fond for Lyd Og Bilde, Fritt Ord Foundation, Norwegian Broadcasting Corp. Produced by Lise Fearnley, Marcy Page. Executive producers, Fearnley, Michael Fukushima, Roddy McManus, David Verrall. Directed, written by Torill Kove. (Color); editor, Alison Burns; music, Kevin Dean; art director, Kove; sound, Hakon Lammetun; animation supervisor, Magnhild Winsnes.
Narrator: Andrea Braein Hovig.
Running time: 8 MIN.
A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Walt Disney Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures presentation. Produced by Kristina Reed. Executive producer, John Lasseter. Directed by Patrick Osborne. Story, Nicole Mitchell, Raymond S. Persi. (Color); editor, Jeff Draheim; re-recording mixer, Gabriel Guy; visual effects supervisor, Josh Staub.
Voices: Tommy Snider, Katie Lowes.
Running time: 6 MIN.
The Bigger Picture
(U.K.) A National Film & Television School presentation. Produced by Chris Hees. Directed by Daisy Jacobs. Screenplay, Jacobs, Jennifer Majka. Camera (color), Max Williams; editor, Vera Simmonds; music, Huw Bunford; production designer, Elo Soode; sound designer, Jonas Andreas Jensen; animator, Jacobs; stop-motion animator, Chris Wilder; visual effects supervisor, Ross Allen.
Voices: Alistair Simpson, Christopher Nightingale, Anne Cunningham.
Running time: 8 MIN.
A Single Life
(Netherlands) Produced, directed, written, edited by Job, Joris & Marieke. Camera (color), Job, Joris & Marieke; production designer, Job, Joris & Marieke; sound, Job, Joris & Marieke; animation, Job, Joris & Marieke.
Running time: 2 MIN.
The Dam Keeper
A Tonko House production. Produced by Duncan Ramsay, Megan Bartel. Directed by Robert Kondo, Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi. (Color); editor, Bradley Furnish; music, Zach Johnston, Matteo Roberts; supervising animator, Erick Oh. Running time: 18 MIN.