Big talent in Oscar-nominated shorts at the Charles

The animated slate is stronger than the live-action entries

February 10, 2011

The cartoons have "it" — and the live-action shorts only some of "it" — in the slate of Oscar-nominated short subjects opening Friday at the Charles.

The best live-action entries are Ivan Goldschmidt's "Na Wewe," a frightening, illuminating depiction of 1994 Burundi, and Luke Matheny's "God of Love," a sweet hipster comedy about a latter-day Cupid. But the live-action slate also includes the awful childhood melodrama "The Confession," as well as "The Crush," an opportunistic comedy that exploits audience qualms about a boy professing love for his teacher and then handling a gun.

Happily, the animated shorts, no matter how erratic, boast a charismatic kind of inspiration. Here's the rundown:

"The Gruffalo" Two young squirrels witness an owl nearly swoop away with their mother. When she's safe inside their tree, her kids beg her to tell a story — and she comes up with a whopper. A jaunty mouse outwits a hungry fox, owl and snake by telling them that he's friends with a monstrous creature called "The Gruffalo." Max Lang and Jakob Schuh based this half-hour tour de force on a book by Julia Donaldson. The visual style evokes both woodcuts and puppets. The double-decker storytelling provides a beguiling illustration of what Bruno Bettelheim called "the uses of enchantment." It's by far my favorite of this year's shorts.

"Day & Night" Pixar director Teddy Newton's entry marvelously builds to a clumsy didactic punch-line. "Day" and "Night" — affable, blobby creatures — encompass within their transparent bodies the delights of their respective domains, from sun-kissed beaches to starry skies. Their fierce and funny rivalry turns into a dance. Too bad Newton caps it off with a radio announcer preaching against "fear of the unknown."

"Madagascar, carnet de voyage" French digital designer Bastien Dubois's animated scrapbook of his trip to Madagascar is more like an artist's portfolio. Hard-edged drawings and dreamy watercolors alike lift off from paper or poster board and invade our dreams. Dubois's goal was to record the "Famadihana, the turning of the bones." In this music-powered ritual, families exhume their ancestors' bodies, put them in new shrouds, then gyrate around the family crypts and tombs. The imagery would be potent even without animation.

"Let's Pollute" Geefwee Boedoe's deft, daft parody turns Eisenhower-era educational films upside-down, as a brook-no-opposition narrator advocates for pollution. It may be a one-joke premise, but the cartooning is exuberant and inventive.

"The Lost Thing" A haunting parable. The lost thing — which resembles a huge mechanized teapot with tentacles and lobster claws — stands for all the wondrous artifacts lost in cultures built equally on utility and planned obsolescence. Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan co-directed, from Tan's book. It's a heartfelt, handmade film.

—Michael Sragow

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