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The short story on Oscars: Toons are livelier than live

If I were a voting member of the Academy, I would be hard-pressed to cast an Oscar ballot this year in the animated short film category: All five nominees are dazzling.

At the same time, I'd have an equally difficult time casting a ballot for the live-action shorts, but for an entirely different reason. The nominees are all competent but, despite their individual merits, rather stodgy.

The Academy showed off the nominees in both categories in a marathon viewing session Tuesday night at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Jon Bloom, the Academy governor who heads the short films and feature animation branch, correctly hailed the nominees as "indicative of a tremendously growing audience" for short films. Magnolia Pictures and Shorts International released the collected shorts theatrically Feb. 15 in 65 theaters, and they attracted a tidy $234,000. They also went up this week on Apple's iTunes Store.

Director Curtis Hanson, who emceed the event, observed, "One feels you are not only seeing the present but also seeing the future."

That certainly was true in the case of the animated shorts, but the program also underscored a fact that has been very much in evidence in recent years when Oscar goes looking for the best shorts it can find. The animated films tend to be ahead of the curve, but the live-action shorts, as a group, are behind the times.

On the animation side, for example, the nominees explored a variety of techniques. In "I Met the Walrus," Josh Raskin illustrated a 1969 interview with John Lennon, conducted by a 14-year-old boy, with a Monty Python-esque outpouring of cut-out animation. Alexander Petrov, who won in the category in 2000 with "The Old Man and the Sea," offered a series of impressionistic paintings in "My Love," focusing on a teenage boy's stirring of first love in 19th century Moscow. The CG "Even Pigeons Go to Heaven" spun cosmic jokes out of an encounter between a priest and a skeptic. Stop-motion animation figured in Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski's surrealist train trip "Madame Tutli-Putli" and Suzie Templeton's reimagining of Sergei Prokofiev's "Peter & the Wolf," a labor of love that took her five years to complete. All were full of surprises.

On the live-action side, there was little experimentation on display. Instead, the Academy either opted for short films that resembled well-made one-act plays, including the cancer-ward drama "At Night" and the Western morality tale "The Tonto Woman," or O. Henry-esque comic riffs, as in "The Substitute," "The Mozart of Pickpockets" and "Tanghi Argentini." The choices seemed more safe than daring.

Where were the live-action shorts that defied convention? It's possible that with all the excitement currently surrounding documentaries, a lot of filmmaking talent has been siphoned off in that direction. (The Academy has a separate category for short documentaries.)

Still, this year the Academy's short-film category leaves the viewer wondering: Is that all there is?