This year’s Oscar nominees for the Best Animated Short Film come to about 50 minutes in total, so the touring program of nominees (opening today at the Landmark Century Centre) features an additional four shorts that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deems “highly commended.” I wasn’t overly impressed with any of the official nominees, nor was I especially disappointed by the others. The program is consistently, modestly enjoyable—which makes for a better overall time at the movies than a program with one or two standouts amid a field of junk. Some of the selections here cross the line from sweetness into preciousness, though I didn’t mind much, since none of those last longer than five minutes.
The longest piece, the Oscar-nominated The Dam Keeper, approaches the saccharine but manages to hold its ground. Largely hand-painted, Dam Keeper has a soft, colorful look that might remind you of storybooks for young children—that the characters are cuddly, anthropomorphized animals only strengthens the association (also there’s no dialogue, only a warm-voiced narrator). It takes place in a dystopian future where black, toxic clouds threaten civilization. An orphaned little pig manages the windmill at the top of his valley town, so as to keep the clouds away. As a result he’s always covered in soot, and this gets him picked on at school. You’d think his classmates would be nicer to the pig who keeps their town from devastation, but then again, little kids can be total shits. The story ends positively when the hero makes friends with a new classmate.
“Dad told me about keeping the darkness away, but he never told me what to do when it surrounds you,” the narrator intones, conveying how overwhelming depression and loneliness can be for school-aged kids, who have yet to develop a vocabulary to address these feelings. Come to think of it, most adults I know are still figuring that out—which is to say that The Dam Keeper is more universal in its concerns than it might first appear. I appreciate that the filmmakers aspire to reach kids and adults on the same terms. Many of the animated features I see for work follow the cynical formula of Shrek, appealing to adults with dumb innuendoes that add nothing to the story and hold no interest for kids.
A couple shorts in this program employ wry, grown-up humor in stories that are suitable for children, but the humor is mercifully uncynical and not beyond the average middle schooler’s comprehension. Both of these, the Oscar-nominated Me and My Moulton and the “highly commended” Bus Story, were produced by the National Film Board of Canada. Are Canadian adults better than their American counterparts when it comes to communicating with kids? My inner adolescent says yes—because when I visited Montreal at 15, I found an old movie house that let me into Flesh for Frankenstein (which got an X rating in the U.S.) without parental accompaniment—and since I’m too lazy to investigate the matter any further, I’m going to listen to him.
In any case, I had a good time watching Moulton and Bus. The first, a Scandinavian coproduction, is a sketchlike nostalgia piece about a preadolescent girl growing up in mid-60s Norway. Her socialist parents design modern architecture and maintain all sorts of unusual hobbies. They’re not bad parents, per se, but their eccentric behavior makes their daughter feel like an outcast. Moulton adopts a jovial approach to the subject of social anxiety (which makes for some pleasant ironies), culminating with the lesson that it’s OK to be different. Bus Story is also about overcoming disappointment. The heroine is a batty woman in rural Quebec whose lifelong dream is to drive a school bus. When she gets her wish, she finds that her boss is a short-tempered grouch and that her bus route is full of pitfalls. As in Moulton, the animation is on the simple side—the characters look like they were outlined in pencil, and the backgrounds are sparse. Yet both pieces feel personable as a result, as there are fewer obvious creative presences between storyteller and audience.
By contrast the most polished works here are the most superficial. The Oscar-nominated Feast, a partially hand-drawn production that played before Big Hero 6, puts a Disney spin on a familiar rom-com formula, presenting a bachelor’s successful romance and resulting maturation from the point of view of his adorable pet dog. Goodbye to Language it ain’t, but some of the sight gags are irresistible, and even the sentimental moments have a ring of truth. It’s a little too reminiscent of the beloved opening sequence of Pixar’s Up, compressing years of experience into a series of telling gestures. Then again, there are far worse sequences to imitate, and I can’t deny the metaphorical resonance of seeing someone’s youth pass by in a few minutes. (Another one of this year’s Oscar nominees, A Single Life, exploits this setup for dark comedy.) The “highly commended” computer animation Sweet Cocoon resembles another Pixar feature, A Bug’s Life. It’s charming, intricately realized, and easy to forget.