Review: Oscar-nominated short films, animated and live, worth seeing


I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review this year’s Oscar-nominated animated and live-action short films for the Buffalo News. I don’t often get to see them, and while my review was mixed — three stars for the animated, two-and-a-half for the live action — they are all worth seeing, and pondering.

Walt Disney may have missed out on an Oscar nomination for the surprisingly ignored “Saving Mr. Banks” – err, Tom Hanks, I mean – but Mickey Mouse did not. In fact, Mickey’s latest cartoon, “Get a Horse!,” which runs before the smash hit “Frozen,” is the likely winner in the animated short film category.

“Get a Horse!,” a clever, surprisingly bold film that is best described as old-school Disney (think “Steamboat Willie”-era) meets “The Purple Rose of Cairo” in the era of 3-D, is easily the most high-profile entry. However, all of the films in the animated short category, as well as the live action short and documentary short subject categories, are worth watching before Oscar night. (The documentary collection is not showing here.)

This week, Magnolia Pictures is releasing “The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014” at theaters across the country. Dipson’s Market Arcade and Eastern Hills Mall cinemas are each showing “Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animation” (110 total minutes) and “Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Live Action” (108 total minutes). It’s a wonderfully rare opportunity to experience these creations on the big screen.

Animation is generally the most anticipated of the shorts categories. While “Get a Horse!” is perhaps the most memorable, my favorite of the bunch is “Mr. Hublot,” from directors Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares.

“Hublot” is an offbeat treat – equal parts steam-punk and Wallace and Gromit – about a strange little man and the robot dog who turns his life upside down. The design aesthetic is marvelous and overcomes the rather predictable plot. There is clearly a dash of Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot with this one, hence the title.

“Possessions” is unmemorable anime, but nicely atmospheric. “Feral” is the strikingly animated tale that tackles the feral-boy-found-in-the-woods trope. (The last two, especially, are not suitable for young children; do not assume these shorts are kid-friendly simply because one of them stars Mickey Mouse.)

Next to Mickey, “Room on the Broom” offers the most notable starpower, with a voice cast that includes one of this year’s Oscar nominees, Sally Hawkins (“Blue Jasmine”), along with Simon Pegg, Gillian Anderson and comedian Rob Brydon. It’s not what I would call Oscar-worthy, but this “Shrek”-y short about a witch and her cat is certainly enjoyable.

The live action short film nominees are a bit less successful. “Helium” is the manipulative story of a dying child’s mental escape to a fantastic land, “Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)” is a grim effort about an aid worker and a young African soldier, and the exasperated mother of “Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)” is sweet, but nothing more.

“The Voorman Problem” is predictable but fun fare in which “Sherlock” star Martin Freeman, aka Bilbo Baggins, plays a psychiatrist tasked with attempting to help a man (Tom Hollander) who believes he’s God. Alexandre Gavras, the son of “Z” Oscar-winner Costa-Gavras, co-directed the tense domestic abuse story “Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just before Losing Everything),” and I’d call it the finest live action short.

(One shocker is that “Gravity” co-writer Jonás Cuarón’s “Aningaaq,” perhaps the year’s most notable live action short, was not among the nominees. This is the companion to “Gravity” directed by Alfonso Cuarón’s son centered around the voice on the other end of Sandra Bullock’s distress call – an Inuit fisherman.)

Like most years, these nominated shorts are a mixed bag. But they also serve as a reminder that even among Hollywood’s overblown blockbusters and Oscar bait, very interesting films occasionally come in very small packages. I guarantee you’ll get more from these than from “I, Frankenstein.”