Dimanche, directed by Patrick Doyon
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg
La Luna, Enrico Casarosa
A Morning Stroll, Grant Orchard
Wild Life, Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis
This category is a remnant of the 1930s and ’40s, when “an evening at the movies” meant just that: a three-hour-plus banquet of two features, a newsreel and a few cartoons that were often the best things on the program. Except for Pixar, which grooms its prospective feature-film directors by letting them start small, Hollywood studios don’t support cartoon-shorts departments any more. For decades, the Animated Short Oscar has been the province of international indie craftsfolk — squatters in a cathedral art long abandoned by Disney and Warner Bros. Since the year 2000, this Oscar has gone to animators from the Netherlands, Japan, Australia, England, France and, twice, the National Film Board of Canada.
The NFB has two nominees this year, both mostly in black-and-white: the ostentatiously raw Dimanche, about a town that literally gets rattled whenever a train rolls through, and Wild Life, depicting the trials of an English gentleman who craves adventure in bleakest Western Canada in 1909. That’s all you need to know about these entries; they will not figure in the outcome.
Much more inventive is A Morning Stroll, a three-part fantasy that relates a two-minute vignette — of a man observing a chicken as it strolls down a sidewalk, then taps its beak on a house’s front door — first in 1959 (exactly 50 years after the events in Wild Life), then 50 and 100 years later, ending in 2059. Each segment begins with the same simple shapes: a circle of the sky, a triangle of skyscrapers, a pentagon of traffic and a square of pedestrians. Over the century, the reaction of the watching man escalates from bemusement to distraction to wild predatory hunger. Showcasing three forms of animation, A Morning Stroll is more an ambitious animator’s sample kit than a satisfying narrative experience (though it has a great punch line). But it would be a strong third choice out of this year’s five nominees.
La Luna, about three generations of Italian seafarers, and the boy who must negotiate between his father and stepfather in their very special line of work, might be the favorite — in part because of Casarosa’s gorgeous palette, his gentle, dreamy artistry and his deft sketching of the three characters, but also because he works for Pixar, which has no horse in the Animated Feature sweepstakes and has not won the Short competition in a decade (when Ralph Eggleston’s For the Birds took the prize). The studio needs an Oscar to extend its streak to five years. Alas for the Lasserterians, La Luna is likely to lose to The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, whose writer and codirector, William Joyce, sports quite the résumé. Based in Shreveport, La., he has worked for Pixar and Blue Sky, as well as illustrating many New Yorker covers and winning three Emmys for his Disney Channel series Rolie Polie Olie, which was inspired by one of his acclaimed children’s books.
With The FFB of Mr. ML, Joyce is aiming for a masterpiece, and nearly gets there. His hero, whose name is based on the famous Robert Browning line adapted by Mies van der Rohe (More Is Less More), is reading a book on his Shreveport porch when a terrible wind storm, a more benevolent Katrina, blows all the letters off the pages of all the books in town and carries him away. Like Dorothy transported to Oz, but this time from color to black-and-white, Morris lands in a book world presided over by a ethereal lady. His most animated companion is not a tin man or cowardly lion but a Humpty Dumpty from the pages of a flip-book.
Conjuring the moods of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (that last refuge of voracious readers) and Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret (instead of a book about movie love, this is a movie about book love), Joyce wants viewers to age along with his protagonist — to feel both his solitude and the solace that books can bring to a lonely life. At times the film has the soft whimsy and solo-piano accompaniment of a Jacquie Lawson greeting card. It’s equally virtuosic in its technique and overflowing in its emotions, right up to the final dedication: “To the memory of Mary Katherine Joyce, whom the jealous fates took too soon.” She is the author’s daughter, and she died at 18 while he was making this lovely, elegiac film.