While most movie fans are biting their nails Sunday in anticipation of the showdown between Argo, Django Unchained, Lincoln and the rest, I’ll be crossing my fingers for Timothy Reckart and Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, a director/producer pair nominated for best animated short. When I attended a screening of the Oscar-nominated shorts this winter, their Head Over Heels was the standout among the five nominees. It’s less than 10 minutes long, but it packs in a lot of clever storytelling.
This year’s nominated short films include an entry from the Simpsons team featuring Maggie, an evil daycare center and a butterfly. In Disney’s contribution, Paperman, an urban office drone chases down the girl of his dreams (the pair looks like a 21st-century Aladdin and Jasmine). Certainly both of these entries will receive a lot of votes from the Academy — a character like Maggie Simpson is hard to resist, and Disney could probably make an interesting story out of a bunch of floor tiles (although it would need a happy ending).
Adam and Dog was my second-favorite film, an exploration of the relationship between Biblical Adam and his first best friend. Director Minkyu Lee’s resume includes work on Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, and there is a certain Disney-like quality to the animals in Lee’s Eden. Fresh Guacamole, from PES of Western Spaghetti, cleverly uses stop-motion animation to replace food with familiar objects (billiard balls, hand grenades and poker chips, to name a few).
Although the other nominees featured sweeping landscapes, frantic chase scenes and board-game pieces cut up like fruit, nothing grabbed me quite like Head Over Heels. In the opening sequence, we meet an elderly couple who are so estranged that one lives on the floor and one lives on the ceiling. When the husband decides to repair his wife’s ballet slippers as a gift to her, we think that’s the end of the story. It’s not. The gift is rejected, the house falls out of the sky (oh, yeah, their house is floating in mid-air). And each half of the couple has to decide whether to reach out to the other, despite the distance between them. The previously self-absorbed wife nails her shoes to the ceiling so she can climb closer to the man she loves, and we see them starting to explore their new home together, husband tethered to wife like a floating balloon.
Looking at the state of animation, particularly in science fiction, it seems that “more” is the new “better.” With a few clicks, a superhero doesn’t just have to flip through the air just once; he can flip five times. 2010’s The Last Airbender is a case in point. M. Night Shyamalan’s film is full of incredible animation and effects, but almost no emotional depth. There is something to be said for simplicity, for only having 10 minutes to tell your story, and making every minute of that 10-count for something. In Head Over Heels, simplicity heightens the drama, adds humor, and makes the characters seem three dimensional (even though they’re stop-motion puppets). The creators of these stories deserve to win big at the Oscars on Sunday night, and their big-budget colleagues in Hollywood could learn a lot by watching them.