Commentary: Guess which short-film Oscar category features the more-animated nominees
EmptyAs the envelopes are opened at the 81st Annual Academy Awards, one thing will be certain: The winners of the two short-film categories will be ushered to and from the stage quickly, a mere interruption in the flashy parade of high-profile stars stepping to the mike Feb. 22 at the Kodak Theatre.
On Friday, however, the nominated live-action and animated shorts will have their moment in the limelight. For the fourth year in a row, U.K.-based Shorts International has joined Magnolia Pictures to guarantee limited theatrical runs for two programs of Oscar-nominated shorts.
The shorts collection has developed a small but devout following. Last year, it took in more than $500,000, building on the $335,000 grossed the previous year.
Some of those ticket buyers probably are serious Oscar handicappers determined to maximize their chances of winning office pools. But for others, the program serves as a state-of-the-art survey, and judging by this year's nominees, the animation field again displays more creativity than the live-action movies.
If there is a star among this year's animated nominees, it is "Presto," directed by Doug Sweetland, a longtime Pixar animator whose credits range from "Toy Story" to "Cars." The short has appeared in theaters as a curtain-raiser to "WALL-E," earning an encore on that film's DVD.
Like all of this year's animated short nominees, "Presto" doesn't bother with dialogue. Instead, it's an exercise in escalating slapstick as a magician and his rabbit do battle. The setup is that the rascally rabbit is hungry for a carrot; when the magician denies him one, the rabbit uses the magician's top hat to sabotage the act.
With a powerhouse like Pixar behind it, "Presto" would seem to have an advantage in the category. Pixar creative head John Lasseter, who sits on the Academy board, took home the animated short Oscar for 1998's "Tin Toy."
But in reality, the animated category is no pushover. Pixar most recently won the prize for 2001's "For the Birds," but the studio's more recent nominees -- including 2005's "One Man Band" and 2006's "Lifted" -- settled for being contenders.
"Presto" arguably earns the most laughs, but it competes in a field that offers a range of styles and moods.
Konstantin Bronzit's "Lavatory-Lovestory," from Moscow, is a simply drawn tale of a lavatory attendant who suspects she might have a secret admirer; its characters are reminiscent of James Thurber's.
"Oktapodi," from Emud Mokhberi and Theirry Marchand, is a frenzied chase film that, however improbably, involves two love-struck octopi. Japanese animator Kunio Kato provides a more reflective, delicate piece, "La maison en petits cubes," in which an old man's attempt to save his home from rising flood waters leads him to recall significant moments in his life.
In a mordant change of pace, British animators Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes, a proven team in the commercials arena, offer "This Way Up," in which two Dickensian undertakers escort a corpse through a series of unexpected obstacles to the gates of hell.
By contrast, the live-action shorts don't engage in such wild flights of fancy. The Academy casts a wide net -- most of the submitted films qualify by winning best-of-category awards at approved film festivals worldwide -- but many of the nominees share characteristics. They tend to be naturalistic one-act plays, often revealing O. Henry-like twists just before the final curtain.
This year, they include Reto Caffi's Germany-Switzerland production "On the Line," in which a department store surveillance expert misreads a situation with fatal results; Tivi Magnusson and Dorte Hogh's "The Pig," from Denmark, which looks at cultural miscommunication in a hospital setting; Steph Green and Tamara Anghie's "New Boy," based on a Roddy Doyle story about an African boy's first day in an Irish school; and, from Germany, Jochen Alexander Freydank's "Toyland," in which a German woman tries to shield her son from the fact that the neighboring Jewish family is being taken away.
The one entry that experiments a bit with form is Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont's "Manon on the Asphalt": A young woman, on the way to meet her boyfriend, hops on her bicycle but is struck by a car. As she lies dying on the street, she narrates the film -- somewhat in the manner of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" -- looking backward and forward at her life, at what happened and what might have been.
Whether that includes Academy Award recognition remains to be seen.