It's a happy circumstance that the Oscar-nominated shorts have received theatrical screenings in major markets in recent years. They're frequently an uneven bunch, to be certain (they are, after all, Oscar nominees), but it's refreshing to see movie audiences paying to see short films—even if they're doing so in the hopes that they'll earn their investment back, with interest, by winning the office Oscar pool. This year's animated shorts—soon to screen at a theater near…well, some of you—pretty much run the gamut: There's the odd (This Way Up, in which two pallbearers meet uncommon obstacles, some supernatural, in their attempt to bring an old woman to her final resting place), the silly (the brief squid-in-love adventure Oktapodi), the confounding (Lavatory Lovestory—she's a worker in a public toilet who's just looking for romance, and someone's giving her flowers!), and the delightfully clever Disney-financed behemoth (the rabbit-revenge comedy Presto, which played before the comparatively somber Wall-E this summer). And then there's the one film that just totally takes your breath away.
La Maison en petits cubes, by Kunio Kato, is set sometime in the future. An old man wakes in the morning in the small room he calls home. He opens a hole in his floor, revealing a vast sea of water underneath, and begins fishing. It turns out that most of the world is now submerged, and the sea continues to rise. Our protagonist seems to spend most of his time building a new room in which to live on top of the old one, brick by brick, so he'll have somewhere to go after the water floods his home. He's done this many times before.
When he loses his pipe to the sea below, which has engulfed many stories of his home, he goes diving for it. His plunge into these literal depths stirs a corresponding dive into memory. As he descends, he recalls the moments of his life lived in these spaces—his daughter's wedding in this room, a dinner with his wife in that; his life is retraced, floor by floor, story by story. Like most of the nominees in this category, the drama is wordless, depicted here through stunningly colorful, sumptuous hand-drawn animation (even more striking when placed next to this CG-heavy slate of nominees).
A life remembered wistfully, not regretfully: La Maison en petits cubes is as simple as that. But in its beauty, purity, and emotional delicacy, it makes an impression that resonates well past its twelve-minute running time. Presto, the prohibitive frontrunner in the category, is a lovely little film, but setting the Pixar pedigree aside, La Maison en petits cubes' melancholic, apocalytpic loveliness makes it more of a spiritual cousin to Wall-E. La Maison might, just might, score the upset, but really: who cares? Whatever you pick in the office Oscar pool, just be sure to see them both.