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Feb. 26 may be the Night of Silence. Everyone knows about The Artist—-its many accolades, the likelihood it will take the top prize at the Academy Awards. But four out of the five films nominated for the Best Animated Short category are also silent or speak the cartoon equivalent, gibberish. Needless to say, if a movie has no dialogue, it better have a strong story. Well, there’s always next year.
The weakest of the bunch is Canada’s Sunday, a narrative that focuses on a young boy as his family goes through its Sunday ritual (church, Grandma’s). Simply drawn to the point of crudeness, the film offers charming images of squawking birds, bouncing cars, and houses that shimmy and shake whenever a train goes by. But, weirdly, a couple of animals get hurt throughout the story, which itself doesn’t seem to have much of a point.
Canada’s other entry is Wild Life, a 13-minute tale of a young Englishman who relocates to Alberta in 1909 and lies to his family about becoming a successful rancher when really he lives in a shack. Writers-directors Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby intersperse sometimes-amusing interviews with villagers about the stranger throughout, as well as not-so-successfully compare his trajectory to that of a comet’s. It doesn’t quite connect, but there’s a sadness that can’t be denied.
Another silent but jazz-scored entry is A Morning Stroll, a period-hopping piece about urban living, manners, a zombie apocalypse, and…a chicken that goes out for a walk in 1959, 2009, and 2059. Again, if there’s any message here, it’s not easily unearthed. But the different animation styles for each time setting — from simple, black-and-white lines to bright colors to a dingier but intricate video-game look — is a visual feast offered up in a mere seven minutes.
Pixar was unsurprisingly shut out of the Best Animated Feature running with its disappointing Cars 2—-and it seems as if it barely squeaked into the shorts category. Its entry, La Luna, is pristine but relatively charmless, driven by an attempt at the magical instead of the witty. What exactly La Luna is about is a head-scratcher: Two grumbling (again, gibberish) old men and a boy paddle their rowboat to the middle of the sea and set up a ladder to the moon, on which they then sweep up stars.
So…they’re lunar janitors? Who knows. There’s a suggestion at the final image that they’re responsible for the moon’s phases, but the connection is tenuous and ultimately inconsequential.
The most ambitious and satisfying of the lot is The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, another wordless and fantastical tale about the redemptive power of books. Co-directors William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg use a combination of miniatures, CG, and 2D animation to present a literally whirlwind story of a tornado that blows the words out of books and the quasi-Oz the titular character discovers when he lands in an initially black-and-white world bereft of literature.
Not to worry: He soon finds a library, and life is suddenly sunny again. In ideal programming, Flying Books would be shown last of all the nominees, and you’d know exactly how Mr. Lessmore is feeling.