Despite the presence of Mickey Mouse, this year’s Oscar-nominated short films – both live action and animated – are the darkest and most offbeat batch of selections in recent memory.
Local film buffs wanting to catch the nominees in theaters (in two separate feature-length shows) before the March 2 Oscars broadcast may want to brace themselves for an intense time.
“Helium”: This is especially true in the Live Action category, which kicks off with Danish director Anders Walter’s drama “Helium,” about a dying child (Pelle Falk Krusbaek) whose last days are enhanced by the tales that a hospital janitor (Casper Crump) tells of a magical land, rendered in exquisite CGI, that the boy will go to after he passes. It’s a bit schmaltzy, but if your heart isn’t touched at least a little, you may not have been installed properly.
“The Voorman Problem”: Following that is the British production, “The Voorman Problem,” directed by Mark Gill. Martin Freeman (“The Hobbit,” “Sherlock”) stars as a prison psychiatrist sent to interview an inmate (Tom Hollander) who claims to be God. The 13-minute short has one funny idea (Hollander makes the country Belgium disappear) but its all too obvious execution makes it only mildly amusing.
“Just Before Losing Everything”: Upping the ante is France’s submission, Xavier Legrand’s “Just Before Losing Everything,” about a woman (Léa Drucker) on the run with her two children from her abusive husband (Denis Ménochet). We never get the full back story why she had to flee with such urgency, but the tension makes it the most compelling short here.
“That Wasn’t Me”: Less successful is the Spanish selection, Esteban Crespo’s “That Wasn’t Me.” It’s an overwrought and exploitative action melodrama about an African child soldier (Juan Tojaka) and a social worker (Alejandra Lorente) who get caught up in violent life-changing events together. With its cold killings and a traumatic rape scene, this one will be rough going for some audiences.
“Do I Have To Take Care of Everything?”: Selma Vilhunen’s likably fluffy but forgettable comedy from Finland – “Do I Have To Take Care of Everything?” – depicts a harried mother (Joanna Haartti) frantically trying to get her family out the door for a wedding.
“Get a Horse!”: On the animation front, the aforementioned Mickey Mouse stars in Disney’s “Get a Horse!”, directed by Lauren MacMullan. The film, which originally accompanied the holiday hit “Frozen,” starts off in scratchy hand-drawn black and white, like a classic cartoon from the Golden Age, but splashes into Technicolor computer animation when Mickey is thrown through the screen “Purple Rose of Cairo”-style. Despite the dedicated old- school trappings, such as archival recordings of Walt Disney being used to voice Mickey, it has little in terms of genuine comic invention, and its torturous treatment of Mickey’s vintage antagonist, Peg-Leg Pete, just feels cheap. If this six-minute self promo wins, consider the competition rigged.
“Mr. Hublot”: Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares’ French entry, the dialogue-free “Mr. Hublot,” concerning a semi-mechanical man who raises a growing mechanical dog, may be the most charming of these animated shorts. The CGI imagery, made up of the visual designs of sculptor Stephane Halleux, is stunning, and its weirdness works for rather than against it.
“Feral”: The least engaging animated short here has to be Portuguese filmmaker Daniel Sousa’s “Feral,” a drab water color and pastel-tinted tale of a wild boy brought back to civilization. It means well, but meanders off into the ether well before its 13 minutes are up.
“Possessions”: The Japanese production, “Possessions,” from filmmaker Shuhei Morita, sets up an interesting premise about tools and instruments attaining souls after their 100th year in service, but despite its colorful detail and the impassioned voice work by Kôichi Yamadera as a swordless samurai, the short never quite gels.
“Room on the Broom”: At 25 minutes, Max Lang and Jan Lachauer’s “Room on the Broom,” based on the children’s book by Julia Donaldson, is the longest animated short, and with a voice cast including Gillian Anderson, Simon Pegg and Sally Hawkins, it’s the most star-studded. Its story is slight – Anderson voices a kindly red-headed witch who keeps allowing more space on her broom for more animals (much to the chagrin of her cat) – yet it has an undeniable sweetness to it.
Highly commended: The animation package is rounded out by three non-nominated shorts called “highly commended”: Morrigane Boyer, Julien Hazebroucq and Ren-Hsien Hsu’s “À La Française”; Eoin Duffy’s “The Missing Scarf”; and Saschka Unseld’s “The Blue Umbrella,” a Pixar production.
Note: Though not reviewed here, the Carolina Theatre will also show Oscar-nominated documentary shorts.