Brevity is especially prized this year among the contenders for the animated short Oscar, and the total running time of the five nominees would stop somewhere short of 40 minutes. Magnolia Pictures and Shorts International, the distributors of the 2006 Academy Award Nominated Animated Shorts, have added five more titles to bring the program closer to feature length.
It's a testament to the depth of talent in the animation world that the five films chosen to supplement the nominated shorts stack up so favorably. As is often the case with short films, comedy is the dominant tone, but drama and especially, science fiction, are also well represented. It's worth noting that seven of the 10 films forgo the use of spoken language to communicate their stories, providing especially cinematic experiences.
The nominated quintet includes three films with studio pedigrees, led by Pixar's "Lifted." The writing and directing debut of venerated soundman Gary Rydstrom — his 13 previous Oscar nominations for sound on such films as "Terminator 2," "Titanic" and "Saving Private Ryan" include seven wins — is a wry account of alien abduction gone wrong. Recognizable to anyone who has difficulty parallel parking, this close encounter of the Keystone kind is wickedly amusing but also offers handsome visuals, especially its depiction of nighttime skies and otherworldly lighting.
From Blue Sky Studios and Fox comes the computer-generated "No Time for Nuts," a time travel romp starring "Ice Age's" hyperactive, prehistoric rodent, Scrat. (It's an extra on the "Ice Age: The Meltdown" DVD.) In pursuit of the almighty nut, Scrat digs up a time machine that promptly zaps him into the future where he skips across the millennia, narrowly avoiding becoming road kill in each epoch. As wired as its frisky protagonist, the movie is a kick from the start to its irony-laden finish. Chris Renaud and Michael Thurmeier co-directed.
"The Little Matchgirl," based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, is as un-Disney-like in tone as anything you're likely to see produced by the House of Mouse. Directed by Roger Allers and produced by Don Hahn, the film concisely portrays the heartbreaking circumstances of a young girl on the streets attempting to scrape by selling matches, her imagination being her only sustenance. The filmmakers blend digitized traditional 2-D animation and computer animation to render the cold gray of her reality and the warm hues of her fantasies with the painterly look of watercolors.
Hungarian animator Geza M. Toth thrusts us into the mechanized world of an avian virtuoso as he prepares for the big performance in the CG-executed "Maestro." Propped before his dressing room mirror, the maestro preens like a peacock, not a feather out of place, as he warms up his voice. We repeatedly go round the meticulously detailed room, mesmerized by the ritualized precision and thoroughly seduced by Toth's craft.
The most ambitious narrative of the nominees belongs to "The Danish Poet," which also happens to be the simplest visually, featuring bold line drawings and crisp, earthy colors. A charming tale of a creatively blocked writer who travels to Norway to meet his favorite author, Sigrid Undset, the film tweaks the confluence of Scandinavian identity while pondering fate and the power of muse. Director Torill Kove, previously nominated for "My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts" and working with the National Film Board of Canada, beguiles us with an unexpectedly poignant yarn. It doesn't hurt to have Liv Ullmann narrate.
The other five films are equally unique and feature an impressive array of styles. Directed by Alex Weil, "One Rat Short" is a sophisticated CG story of a New York subway rat lured by a discarded Cheetos bag (the most graceful plastic wrapper in a movie since "American Beauty") into a high-tech lab. The ensuing bittersweet romance packs in an astonishing degree of harrowing social allegory — suggesting themes as varied as the dangerous pull of materialism and the degrading effects of animal testing. The heightened realism of the gleaming surfaces and harsh fluorescent lighting of the lab only amplify the dehumanizing elements of the film.
"The Passenger" follows a timid young man engrossed in a scary book as he navigates the treacherous path to his bus stop. The real terror sets in once he's on the bus and experiences the ill effects of loud music on a goldfish. Australian animator Chris Jones' protagonist's prophetically bug-eyed expression suggests a character on "The Simpsons" with the lower half of his head squeezed into the top. The creepy 3-D world created by Jones will send a shiver down your spine.
Stop-motion makes its presence felt in USC grad Adam Parrish King's gritty black-and-white film, "The Wraith of Cobble Hill." Gangly, droopy-eyed Felix morosely moves through his Brooklyn apartment rooting around for something to eat, his typically adolescent whine masking more sinister issues in the home. The teen is tested when the owner of the corner market asks him to mind the store and feed his dog while he's away. Enigmatic and moody, the movie is a sad and haunting view of contemporary urban life.
Animation star Bill Plympton contributes "Guide Dog," a feverish sequel to "Guard Dog." In this installment, the rambunctious, attention-deficient canine attempts to be a seeing eye dog, a position for which he is incredibly ill-suited. Featuring Plympton's trademark dark humor and frenzied pastels, the film is a welcome addition to the program.
"A Gentlemen's Duel," a CG comedy of bad manners directed by Francisco Ruiz Velasco and Scott McNally, combines a randy playfulness with an increasingly broad brand of physical comedy. Two aristocrats — one English, one French — face off with the affections of a voluptuous lady at stake. The choice of weaponry — a surprising design mix of Jules Verne and Japanese monster movie — is this short's highlight.
Which of the nominated films will win on Feb. 25? "The Little Matchgirl" would seem to combine the required level of visual artistry with a powerful emotional element, both characteristics the academy favors.
That the filmmakers reportedly fought hard for their vision of the story within a studio as imposing as Disney also won't hurt their cause.
2006 Academy Award Nominated Animated Shorts, unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes. Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.