film reporter

Bigger Oscar game for short-film nominees

"This short film thing has really taken off," said Jon Bloom, chair of the short films and feature animation branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He spoke by way of understatement as he introduced an evening devoted to this year's short-film Oscar nominees Tuesday at the Academy's Goldwyn Theater.

The Academy's annual Oscar curtain-raiser devoted to the makers of short films — this year hosted by Taylor Hackford, who launched his own directing career with the Oscar-winning short "Teenage Father" in 1978 — attracted its usual sold-out crowd. But it wasn't the only opportunity to catch the nominees. Magnolia Pictures and Shorts International booked a program of the films into 38 theaters around the country last week, taking home a tidy $128,569 for the four-day Presidents Day weekend. Apple's iTunes Store is also offering downloads of the films for $1.99 each.

Theoretically, the opportunity to watch the films before the 79th Annual Academy Awards on Sunday night should make it easier to make a more informed bet in the office Oscar pool — except that handicapping the shorts can be as difficult as predicting the eventual best picture winner.

Consider the case of this year's short animated films. Three of them constitute a shootout of sorts among established animation superpowers.

Gary Rydstrom, a 13-time Oscar nominee in the sound categories, directed his first film, a five-minute CG short for Pixar titled "Lifted," about an alien struggling to master his flying saucer's controls. "It's just a movie about my wanting to beat up a mixing console," Rydstrom joked. Chris Renaud and Michael Thurmeir were nominated for Blue Sky Studios' "No Time for Nuts," in which Scrat, the acorn-obsessed creature from the "Ice Age" movies, embarks on a slapstick, time-traveling quest that would test the patience of Daffy Duck.

Director Roger Allers ("The Lion King") and producer Don Hahn ("Beauty and the Beast") oversaw a return to traditional animation in "The Little Matchgirl," based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale. The filmmakers said they wrestled for three years with the ending — the studio wanted a more conventionally happy fade-out — until new management approved the bittersweet finale the filmmakers wanted all along.

The nominees also include Torill Kove's "The Danish Poet." A whimsically drawn tale of how the narrator's parents came to meet, the film, narrated by Liv Ullman, happens to be the only one of the five nominees that relies on dialogue. The Montreal-based Kove was nominated in 2000 for "My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts."

The final entry is Geza M. Toth's "Maestro," a computer-animated work from Hungary that watches as a bird, seated at a makeup table, warms up in his dressing room before his big performance. In terms of a final, unexpected punchline, it drew the evening's biggest laugh.

But is that enough to guarantee it a win? That's impossible to say. Unlike most of the Oscar categories, where the final members are determined by the vote of the entire membership, the shorts categories require voters to attend the Academy's screenings. So the final voting represents a mix of devoted Academy members as well as animators with a rooting interest in the medium.

Animators certainly admire Pixar, a frequent player in the category. But for those who pine for Disney's glory days, a vote for "Matchgirl" also underscores the ongoing vitality of traditional animation.

For these animated shorts are far more than just entertaining trifles.