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No limits to imagination, experimentation in animated shorts

2015 Oscar Best Animated Short nominees currently playing at Cable Car Cinema

There’s nothing new about saying that short films have a particular freedom. Without the need to sustain a narrative for several hours, filmmakers have the opportunity to work outside traditional arcs and structures and are more willing to be playful and experimental, assured of the fact that the shorter runtimes will make the audience — and producers — more acquiescent to wilder conceits. The feature film is a lot like an essay; the short, in contrast, is a proof. Stripped of superfluous rhetorical trappings, its bareness becomes its virtue.

Animated shorts, then, should be the height of cinematic liberty and innovation. Without physics or finance to rein filmmakers in, their imaginations are the only limit to what can be depicted. The 2015 Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short are currently showing at Cable Car Cinema, along with several shorts that the Academy of Arts and Sciences deemed “highly commended.”

Representing a broad array of styles, nationalities and themes, the nominees offer a brief glimpse inside an under-recognized category. All of the nominated films have tremendous merit and are presented without any order or ranking.

“A Single Life,” a two-minute film from the Netherlands, follows a woman as she plays a record that allows her to time travel. Created by Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins and Job Roggeveen, the film seems at points like a high-concept music video, mirroring the movement of the song with the stages of her life. It’s a witty concept, and it’s perfectly executed in computer-generated graphics with a macabre twist to wrap up both the song and the film.

“The Bigger Picture” by Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees also focuses on the process of aging. By far the most technically ambitious film of the nominees, it blends the two-dimensional with  the three-dimensional. Characters painted on the wall of a house extend their arms and objects into the open room. The film follows the tension between two adult sons as they deal with the approaching death of their mother. Interspersed with brief moments of humor, the narrative portrays characters grappling with their mother’s critical eye, their mortality and their personal inadequacies. The physical texture of the figures lends a sense of artifice that pervades the film, as though the characters struggle to escape their two-dimensional roles.

“Feast,” from Disney Studios and made by Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed, in contrast, fits more easily into the traditional pantheon of animated films. With vibrant colors, complex visuals and a clever — if sentimental — plot, “Feast” is told entirely through images of Boston Terrier Winston as he eats, with entertaining relish, anything he can find. Conflict arises when his owner begins to eat healthier at the behest of his new girlfriend, and Winston misses their old days of bonding over junk food. It’s a simple, well-told film that’s animated with an infectious sense of delight.

Of the five films, my opinion oscillates the most on “The Dam Keeper” by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi. Beautifully hand-drawn, the film is a master exercise in world-building. It depicts an elaborate and enchanting small town protected from poisonous clouds by a massive windmill dam run by a young pig. Bullied about his appearance by the other animals at school, the pig has his world changed at the arrival of a new student, a fox. Framed by reflective narration, the film serves as a parable of friendship. And though it seems alternately simplistic or unsure of its meaning, the film’s powerful visuals and complex, mysterious world more than redeem its confused sense of purpose.

“Me and My Moulton,” a Canadian film by Torrill Kove about her childhood in Norway, is hand-drawn with simple figures and colors. The film explores her complicated relationship with her parents — two modernist architects — who seem eccentric and out of place in their Nordic town. As Kove and her two sisters long for a bicycle, the short focuses on the perils of childhood, the desire to fit in and the divergence between parents and children. Similar to Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” it reveals the rich inner life of a young child with humor and pathos.

This year’s group of nominees have a broad scope, ambitiously examining the past, the future and varied trajectories of life. Concerned with childhood and aging, community and loneliness, they ground their fantastic animated heights in a deeply human reality.


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