In preparation for the Oscars ceremony on Sunday, you can catch the Oscar-nominated Animation and Live Action shorts at Palo Alto’s Aquarius Theater, allowing you to weigh in on what are usually the most esoteric categories.
Of the five animated shorts, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” (USA) is the most compelling, a computer-animated touching ode to the magic of reading. We meet Mr. Morris Lessmore in New Orleans, just as a hurricane hits, reading on his veranda with stacks of books, which take flight, while individual letters are yanked off the pages by the wind. The film creates a fantasy world where books have legs and emotions and where a person goes through a “Pleasantville”-esque transformation when being handed a book: from black-and-white to Technicolor. The film is largely without dialogue but has that old-school cinema charm of the opening montage of the recent “Up.” It’s also no coincidence that Lessmore bears a striking resemblance to silent-film great Buster Keaton.
The charming Pixar film “La Luna” (USA) is a simple fable about how the full moon changes into a crescent moon: three generations of a family climb up to it on a ladder to sweep the golden stars into the right configuration. Again, this is a film that favors imagery over dialogue, and when we do hear the grandfather and father ‘talk,’ it is in the form of grumbles and guffaws. There’s not much depth to this film nor any particularly innovative animation techniques, but like “Wall-E,” it’s a beautiful spectacle.
“A Morning Stroll” is a whirlwind tour of creative animation techniques, that all centre on a simple story: a man on the streets of Manhattan observes a chicken taking a stroll, knocking on the door of a brownstone, and gaining admittance. The tale is told in 1959 with black-and-white matchstick animation, in 2009 in bright colors and in post-apocalyptic 2059 where the casual observer appears to be some kind of humanoid alien. The best sequence is in 2009: a boy notices the chicken, decides to start recording it on his iPhone, but quickly gets distracted by a new and hilarious video game, “Zombie Breakdance.” The film beautifully captures the changes in era—even the animation technique for the 1950s hearken back to simpler times—but the jarring transitions between them and goofy score dissipate some of its simple charms.
The final two nominees are the Canadian National Film Board films: “Dimanche/Sunday,” about a ten-year-old boy in rural Quebec’s Sunday adventures, and “Wild Life,” about a British twit who moves to the Canadian West to become a rancher. Both are wonderful examples of marvelous and peerless animation techniques that perfectly fit the stories. The people in “Dimanche/Sunday” are boxy stick figures that befit the simple “day in the life” story, from churchgoing to a family gathering and a disastrous railroad mishap.
“Wild Life” has a gorgeous, painterly aesthetic—this is, after all, about a man trying to live a lofty dream—and a great sense of humor. It also uses sophisticated story-telling techniques rarely used in animation: documentary-like interviews with local townspeople about the goofy Englishman, as well as allowing him to tell his own musings on his situation through self-important letters home to his parents. But while they’ve got flawless techniques, the stories don’t quite pan out, making these well worth watching once but not many times more.
The“Oscar-nominated shorts: Animation” program also features several “highly commended” films. The best of them is “Amazonia,” a computer-animated story told in vibrantly colors, about a day in the life of a frog and his son in the Amazon forest who try to find food while making narrow escapes from all kinds of predators. Set to a Beethoven symphony, the music gives the film momentum and helps create a compelling narrative arc: it’s cute, sweet, fun and probably a pretty accurate—if somewhat idealistic—depiction of life in the Amazon.