Each year, the Oscar-nominated shorts are released to theaters in three programs: Documentaries, animated, and live-action.
Of the three, the animated films are the most popular — at least here in Boulder.
This year’s crop is, as usual, a mixed bag. None of the films are duds, but I think most of the entries could have been stronger in one area or another. Or, to put a more positive spin on it, whenever one of these movies is weak in story it’s at least strong in visual style.
Such is the case with Bear Story, from Chile, about a bear who became good at making clockwork dioramas, presumably while trapped in a circus. Much of the film takes place inside his most elaborate diorama, which seems to tell his life story. The clockworks are clever and the animation sharply computer rendered. But the deus-ex-machina ending in the diorama feels like a cheat, and the actual ending is anticlimactic. I think Bear Story obsessed so much over the detail that the characterization took a back seat.
You might say something similar about the French film Prologue, even though it looks like it never went near a computer. An indulgent live-action opening implies that everything we’re about to see was drawn by colored pencils on reams and reams of paper. If so, then bravo. The wisp of a story features a violent swordfight between two pairs of men, with a prologue and an epilogue. Every scene flows seamlessly together as though in one “take” from a camera that can shrink down to the size of a bee or zoom out to capture four men in the same space — all rendered in a colored-pencil style. Live-action models are credited at the end, so I don’t know what technology shortcuts might have been used, but it’s the most organic of the five films. Also, Prologue is programmed last so that you can escape with your wee ones before the nudity and bloodshed start. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Four of the five animated shorts are told without words. Don Hertzfeld’s cartoon makes up for the gap with a non-stop stream of dialogue from a woman trying to pour her entire life into a four-year-old child. A fellow critic, Walter Chaw, said that World of Tomorrow was his favorite movie of 2015. I’m not sure I got from it all that he did, but his praise made me sit up and take notice. Hertzfeld is known for his simple drawings and edgy stories, and World of Tomorrow fits the pattern. A girl is invited into another dimension by her time-traveling clone granddaughter, who wishes to trade some of their shared memories before her world comes to an end. You’ll be amazed how many science-fiction tropes are packed into this fast-paced, mind-bending, yet sweet and sentimental stick-figure cartoon.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, in terms of visuals and density, is a new film from Disney/Pixar. Sanjay’s Super Team is incredibly well polished, using all the latest computer generation that money can buy. An Indian boy would rather play with his action figures than pray at the shrine. His father is disappointed, but the ending allows them to meet in the middle. I thought this one was the weakest of the bunch, in spite of the obvious powerhouse budget. It lacks the playful creativity of earlier Pixar shorts and settles for sentimentality instead.
The one that offered least in terms of style was probably one of the most diverting to watch. We Can’t Live Without Cosmos wasn’t necessarily funny or clever, but there were a lot of plot developments and it kept moving. This Russian film is set at an astronaut training center (or should I say, cosmonaut training center), where two roommates dominate the competition. But on launch day, only one of them gets to go into the rocket, and they suffer some separation anxiety. There are many more twists and turns, which you can discover for the price of a ticket.