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The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Animation: Film Review

Room on the Broom - H 2014

The Bottom Line

Quickie 'toon narratives are consistently gorgeous.

Opens

Friday, January 31 (ShortsHD/Magnolia Pictures)

Producers

Carter Pilcher, Leif Nelson

The Academy's animation nominees make for the most pleasing viewing experience of this year's short-film offerings.

While the Academy's choices in the Short Animated Film arena may not be the most daring -- could we not have just one non-narrative, purely abstract work among the fables and comic escapades? -- they do represent a satisfying diversity of visual style and storytelling tone. Unlike the two other shorts categories, moviegoers may have a hard time picking a clear favorite among them when sitting down to fill out Oscar-prediction ballots.

The program's lead-in is the perennial Disney offering, Get a Horse!, which was packaged in theaters with Frozen. An enjoyable bit of fourth-wall transgression, its conceit is hardly new -- cartoons have been acknowledging the world outside their frame since Max Fleischer's day -- but it does today's kid-film audience a favor by giving them a taste of what Mickey Mouse was like back in his youth: The film begins in herky-jerk black-and-white, with a simulacrum of Steamboat Willie-era action growing more intense until one of the characters accidentally pokes a hole in the movie screen, allowing Mickey to slip out into a "real" world in which he's a 3D CGI character. Scholars of animation have complained that the film's black-and-white section is an imperfect evocation of early Disney technique, but director Lauren MacMullan packs an impressive amount of fun into six minutes while showing her young audience how engaging an old-school cartoon can be.

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Boasting enough star power to rival Mickey's marquee value, Max Lang & Jan Lachauer's Room on the Broom recruits Brit voice talents including Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon, Sally Hawkins and Timothy Spall for a story about a witch who keeps adding hitchhikers to the party atop her flying broom. Oddly, most are used so sparingly as to be barely recognizable, voicing cute-animal characters with only a line or two of dialogue. Only Simon Pegg, who narrates the cute but repetitive and overlong tale, is really featured. (Adults familiar with Pegg's sarcasm may interpret his singsong fairy-tale delivery in a very different way than their kids.)

Magic plays a less cutesy, more bewitching role in Shuhei Morita's Possessions, set in 18th-century Japan. A weary traveler stumbles across what appears to be an abandoned fix-it shop, where he's beset by visions of inanimate objects come to life. A striking color palette enlivens the various torn paper umbrellas, tattered kimonos, and broken bowls that haunt our hero's sleep, and the storytelling has the satisfying feel of ancient folklore without being predictable.

Daniel Sousa's Feral is similarly unpredictable, though its more stylized presentation deliberately distances its characters from us. The filmmaker uses a brush-and-ink monochrome style to introduce a child raised by wolves and the city man who attempts to civilize him, kindly clothing him and putting him in a school where he's destined to attract mockery. Dialogue-free and incorporating some ambiguous visual metaphors, Feral is the only title here that doesn't nail its narrative down for viewers.

Laurent Witz's Mr. Hublot, which also eschews dialogue, places a more familiar story (lonely man finds a needy friend) in an alien setting: With detail-rich CG serving a production design worthy of Terry Gilliam, we're taken to a vaguely steampunky mess of a future in which the dumpy, OCD-suffering title character is cooped up in an apartment with only tics and numbers to keep him company. The story of his adoption of, and difficulty caring for, a puppy-like automaton is as simple as a silent-era two-reeler, but it's just enough to lend some emotional warmth to Witz's richly drawn world.

Producers have rounded out this quintet of nominees with three other "highly commended" shorts, one of which is so winning and perfectly executed it really could have made the Academy's cut: Saschka Unseld's The Blue Umbrella, which accompanied Pixar's Monsters University. The wistful little romance between two inanimate objects melds old-fashioned sensibilities and modern techniques with an effortless charm that even Get a Horse! doesn't achieve.

Production Company: Shorts HD

Directors: Various

No rating, 103 minutes