Day & Night, Teddy Newton
The Gruffalo, Jakob Schuh and Max Lang
Let's Pollute, Geefwee Boedoe
The Lost Thing, Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann
Madagascar: A Journey Diary, Bastien Dubois (WINNER)
The next five categories are voted on not by the entire Academy constituency but by only those members who take the effort to see the films at special showings they must swear on a stack of Oscars that they've viewed every nominee in the category; no DVD screeners allowed. As a result, only a couple hundred people may be eligible to vote for, say, Best Foreign-Language Film, and the winner may receive as few as 50 votes. For outside prognosticators, these are the toughest choices. What follows, then, are not sure-thing bets but descriptions of the nominees to help you choose.
The three Shorts categories Animated, Live-Action and Documentary are vestiges of Hollywood's golden age, when, in addition to the feature film (maybe a double feature), audiences were treated to "selected short subjects" that could be the brightest part of the three-hour program. For nearly half a century, though, shorts have not been not widely shown in theaters; virtually the only people who saw the Oscar nominees in these categories were the voting members. Recently, Magnolia Pictures has put the short-film finalists in theaters and on DVD, so avid Oscar bettors can at least see what the voters saw.
In animation, Pixar has dominated the Oscars at feature length, that is. In shorts, the studio hasn't won since 2002, with Ralph Eggleston's For the Birds. This year's Pixar short, Day & Night, was surely the most widely seen entry in the competition, since it played in theaters with Toy Story 3. It's a clever, semiabstract competition between the two title characters, animated in the stripped-down style of such '50s UPA cartoons as the Oscar-winning Gerald McBoing-Boing and When Magoo Flew. An honorable candidate.
Let's Pollute appropriates the cheerful narration and cheesy animation from '50s schoolroom short films to mock the current environmental crimes of U.S. corporations (and citizens). The movie makes its satirical point in the first few seconds, then continues for another six minutes spiffy, but way too smug.
The Gruffalo is a straightforward adaptation of Julia Donaldson's best-selling fairy tale, animated very much in the style of Alex Scheffler's illustrations from the book. Narrated by Helena Bonham Carter (her third film nominated for Oscars this year) with vocal assists from Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, Rob Bryden and, as the shaggy gruffalo, Robbie Coltrane, the film pursues its whimsy in expert fashion but at exhausting length.
Shaun Tan adapted his 2000 picture book The Lost Thing for the Australian cartoon of the same name. It's the story of a beachcombing boy who discovers and cares for a strange sea creature that's part lobster, part octopus and part infernal machine. The scene in which the boy leads the creature to its true home provides a supreme movie moment, and that may be enough to beguile the voters.
The crème de la crème here is Madagascar, carnet du voyage, a gorgeous, animated sketchbook based on the filmmaker's trip to the Indian Ocean island. Bastien Dubois, a French video-game programmer, creates a wondrously impressionist panorama in which faces jump off the pages, villages burst into life and, in a touching ritual, the locals exhume the bodies of the dead so they can "live" for one more day. The Lost Thing or Day & Night may win the Oscar; the magical Madagascar is the one that should.