“Madagascar, Carnet de Voyage”
“Madagascar” is an exotic short film by animator Bastien Dubois, full of thrill and vigor. The animation is minimal and daring — a child’s painting, come to life. The problem is it’s an 11-minute short with no story. The music is cathartic and the coloring-book visuals are unprecedented, but arbitrary cultural paintings, settings and native faces frequently interrupt the narrative and are more irritating than educational. The traveling protagonist’s pilgrimage to a sacred burial ceremony feels flat when you realize you’ve watched clips of him sitting on the bus for longer than you saw him immersed in the culture of Madagascar. Still, the burial rite and the subsequent hyperactive aerial tour of the Madagascan landscape round out the ending nicely.
Let’s see … It’s a ’50s educational film satire that’s about 25-percent funny and 75- percent preachy environmentalist rhetoric. The process is simple: First, think of everything good that you can do to protect the environment. Next, turn all those principles upside down. Then, exaggerate everything to extreme proportions to the accompaniment of unctuous voiceover narration. Yeah, not too creative. It’s like watching a slightly funnier, deeper-voiced Al Gore host an animated six-minute recap of “An Inconvenient Truth.” Way to reiterate what everyone already knows.
This bedtime story of a tall tale-telling mouse on a quest for the perfect acorn is adorable, and the animation is probably the most refined and resolute of any of the shorts, but there’s a hitch — it doesn’t have a very high appeal for adults. Hardly any, actually. It’d be safe to say that the Oscar Short Film demographic is decades beyond the target viewing age of “The Gruffalo.” The Goldilocks-style repetition in the narrative could be less redundant; everyone in the theater knows how it will end within the first three minutes. Aside from the animation and cuteness factor, it’s an overall disappointment.
“The Lost Thing”
A nihilistic slice of life based on a picture book by author Shaun Tan, “The Lost Thing” is set in futuristic, dystopian Melbourne. The animation is cartoonish, but with none of the accompanying optimism to lighten up the narrative. Welcome to an era of polluted air, mass-produced architecture and high-tech trinkets with no apparent origin or purpose. A young boy with an affinity for collecting bottle tops stumbles upon a particularly extraordinary piece of junk, which he refers to as “The Lost Thing,” and proceeds to search for its owner. It’s thought-provoking and metaphorical — perhaps an allusion to the drab homogeny of globalization, or the quest for individual identity? Just take care to keep the picture book out of your kids’ hands, or they might end up on suicide watch.
“Day & Night”
It seems that the only real trademark of Pixar films is their ability to surprise with material that’s consistently fresh and imaginative, and this cute little short is further proof. Day — the story’s lively protagonist — runs into a slumbering Night during his casual jaunt across the black expanse of nothingness he calls home. Day and Night are literal personifications: Day’s body is a window that looks through the black void and gives us a faint glimpse of bright, cheery landscape. Night’s body is a window into the same landscape, but at nighttime. As the two diametric opposites become better acquainted, Night learns that — contrary to his initial belief — there’s as much fun to be had at nighttime as there is during the day.
“Urs” is the four-year passion project of German film student Moritz Mayerhofer, and it’s absolutely brilliant. The rough, tired animations perfectly characterize the mentality of a man who longs to leave his colorless surroundings with his elderly mother and venture to a distant town smiled upon by a radiant sun. It’s simultaneously inspirational, poignant and tragic, all without the assistance of dialogue. Mayerhofer is so adept at conveying emotion through the facial expressions and gesticulations of his characters that you won’t miss the idle chitchat.
“The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger”
This is the subtler, funnier consumerism satire that “Let’s Pollute!” only wishes it could’ve been. It’s the story of a baby cow who is mesmerized by a food corporation’s billboard advertisement. Convinced he’s destined to become a hamburger, he muscles his way through a Rocky-esque training montage to pack on the pounds and earn a ticket to the slaughterhouse. Unfortunately, he has a change of heart at the last second, and struggles to escape the factory before he’s turned into ground beef. Rarely has brass accompaniment functioned so humorously as a substitute for dialogue. You’ll be rooting for the little cow every step of the way.
Live Action Shorts
“The Confession” is the story of a young Catholic boy who awaits his first confession with nervous anticipation. A recurring crucifix motif invites a subjective interpretation of God’s hand in everyday events as the fine line between malicious sin and unintended tragedy is skirted haphazardly by the boy and his mischievous friend. Their indiscretions remind us that one errant step could have forever altered our futures. The deaths of the innocent go unnoticed by God, the priest and the boy’s teachers. Our time with the boy ends as ambiguously as it started, and the point of the story is obscured. If nothing else, it’s a subtle warning to tread carefully along the road of life.
“Wish 143” is everything a short film should be. It makes use of each and every minute of its short runtime, pulling audiences headlong into the life of David, a terminal cancer patient with little time left to live. When he’s visited by the U.K. version of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, his eccentric last request — to lose his virginity before he dies — is delivered so seriously as to make you laugh at his adolescent audacity and tear up with sympathy, leaving you with the impression that you’ve known David your whole life.
Steel your nerves against this harrowing snippet of a long-running civil conflict that harkens back to “Hotel Rwanda,” but fortunately offers a good bit more comic relief. As tensions run high between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples of Central Africa, a bus of unsuspecting travelers is stopped by a group of Hutu gunmen thirsty for Tutsi blood. The quick rise and fall tension in well made short films always succeeds in invoking multiple viewer reactions. The soldiers’ demoralizing sorting routine is painful to watch, but — just as we’re sure someone is fated to execution — the tension is all dispelled in a humorous fashion we didn’t think possible.
Remember that intense crush you had on your hot grade school teacher? It won’t seem all that intense after you watch a cute eight-year old Irish schoolboy plot the murder of his elementary teacher’s fiancé. This kid is just downright sinister, like Macaulay Culkin in “The Good Son.” Maybe his dad shouldn’t have left loaded guns in an unlocked cabinet. It’s an exploitation flick and an expose on bad parenting all wrapped into one brief package, with an ending that will upset the expectations of even the most prophetic film enthusiasts.
“God of Love”
Director Luke Matheny’s Student Academy Award-winner is a welcome departure from the depressive themes of the other four nominees. “God of Love” fuses noir music and cinematography with quirky characters and comedic dialogue for a stylistic mishmash that turns out surprisingly entertaining. There’s a rich cast of characters who delight us with endearing debut performances. Matheny stars as Ray, a lovelorn muse well versed in the art of darts. One night after one of his lounge band’s characteristically laid-back performances, he discovers a mysterious box, and inside, a handful of “Love Darts,” a modern take on Cupid’s quiver of arrows. In his attempts to use the magical gift to win over the girl of his dreams, he discovers that love is not subject to human manipulation, no matter how potent the dart.