The two most interesting nominees this year for the Oscar for Animated Short Film embody a division that has characterized animation in America for at least a century.
Lauren MacMullan's Get a Horse! is a Hollywood cartoon in the best sense of the term. An effective blend of hand drawn and computer animation, this fast-paced tribute to the classic Mickey Mouse shorts of late 20's and early 30s overflows with slapstick humor. The clever juxtaposition of cutting-edge 3D technology and the weightless "rubber hose" animation of the silent and early sound era, Get a Horse! delighted audiences who saw it with Frozen.
Mickey has become a problematic character: No one really seems to know who he is. He's the exuberant star of Plane Crazy, The Band Concert, Thru the Mirror and countless other classic shorts. Baby Boomers remember him fondly as the hgenial host of "The Mickey Mouse Club" on TV. For the old Studio artists, Mickey was always Walt’s alter ego - Ollie Johnston, among others, used to complain that when Walt got too busy to work on the shorts and do the character's voice, no one knew what to do with Mickey. But he’s also the corporate symbol a multi-billion dollar entertainment empire.
The rambunctious fun of Get a Horse! reminds audiences not only - in Walt’s famous phrase - "that it all started with a mouse," but why that mouse could start it all.
In contrast, Shuhei Morita’s strikingly beautiful Possessions, harks back to Gertie the Dinosaur and Winsor McCay's philosophy that animation is an extension of the traditional fine and graphic arts.
A lone samurai seeks refuge from a storm in a lonely Shinto shrine—and finds himself confronting the angry spirits of umbrellas, fabrics and other household objects that are angry at being tossed away by their owners after decades of loyal service. Like Katsuhiro Otomo's stunning Combustible, which was short-listed last year but not nominated (although it should have been), Possessions brings the look of 19th century ukiyo-e woodblock prints to life. Both films were created as sequences for Otomo’s anthology feature, Short Peace: Its US release eagerly awaited by animation fans.
Get a Horse! is clearly the film to beat. It's been widely seen, it's funny, and it's what most Americans think of as an animated film. But Possessions might appeal to the artsier members of the Academy.
Two other nominees are interesting, but less powerful. In Feral, Daniel Sousa offers a slow, monochromatic account of a wild child raised by wolves (very different wolves from the ones who raise Mowgli in The Jungle Book) who must try to find a place in urban society. The faceless figures recall the paintings of DeChirico and express an almost palpable alienation.
Mr. Hublot by Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares is more interesting as an example of Steampunk design than a film. The mechanical title character finds the companionship he’s needed when a mechanical puppy turns up. Both characters and their world seem to have been soldered together from odd scraps of metal and clockwork.
The fifth nominee is Room on the Broom by Max Lang and Jan Lachauer, who were nominated for The Gruffalo in 2011. An additive children’s story adapted from a book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, Room on the Broom recounts how a kindly witch and her less friendly cat acquire a group of friends who help her overcome a nasty foe. The computer animation tries to look like traditional stop-motion, but the too-bright colors suggest the inexpensive marzipan fruit sold at holiday time. The film also suffers from stolid pacing and a repetitive rum-ti-tum narration.
Why Room on the Broom was chosen over the clever graphics of Eoin Duffy's The Missing Scarf or the dramatic metamorphoses of Theodore Ushev’s Gloria Victoria is one of those Academy Mysteries - like how did Caroline Leaf’s brilliant The Street lose to the forgotten Leisure, or how could the members think Crash was more deserving of Best Picture than Brokeback Mountain.