Judging from this year's Oscar-nominated animated shorts, animators are learning the wrong lesson from Pixar. The studio has perfected a style of big-screen digital animation that emphasizes busy-ness: frenetic action, vertigo-inducing camera movements, frames packed with detail. And let's not forget the cutesy, bug-eyed characters. Some or all of those figure in a majority of these animated shorts, which Sundance is screening along with the nominated live-action shorts.
It's the other part of the Pixar formula that's crucial: good writing that emphasizes vivid personalities, compelling stories and canny insights into what makes people tick. This is lacking in the films that visually hew closest to Pixar: "French Roast," "Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty" and "The Lady and the Reaper." Of the three I prefer "French Roast," about a stuffy guy in a cafe who's lost his wallet and can't pay the bill. The design is breathtaking. The narrative is ho-hum.
More ambitious is an Argentine film, "Logorama," which imagines a Los Angeles in which everything and everyone is a corporate logo or symbol. It's fun to watch a rogue Ronald McDonald shoot it out with a police force staffed by Michelin tire men. But these sequences draw too heavily on action-movie clichés, and no smart satirical point is ever made about what all this marketing means.
Which brings me to my pick of the animated shorts: "A Matter of Loaf and Death," a Wallace and Gromit film from Nick Park, no stranger to this Oscar category. Park's stop-motion animation is wonderful, but he doesn't let it overwhelm a funny, poignant story in which the faithful hound Gromit helps rescue love-struck Wallace from a romance that's murderously wrong. Filling out the animated bill are three shorts that didn't get Oscar nods, including Pixar's "Partly Cloudy."
The live-action shorts are more interesting. I'm least taken with Australia's "Miracle Fish," about a sad little boy who wakes to find his school deserted. And although "The New Tenants" has promise and features Vincent D'Onofrio, its tale of convulsive apartment living devolves into pointless violence and even more pointless absurdism.
Two live-action films deal with international tragedies that are all too real. In "Kavi," members of a poor Indian family work as brickmakers in what amounts to slavery, and "The Door" deals with a family's sorrow in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.
My favorite is the Swede Patrik Eklund's very funny "Instead of Abracadabra," about a self-absorbed young magician, his dubious parents and the cute nurse who lives nearby. This is expert short-form storytelling. We understand these characters even though we don't have time to learn a lot about them. The action is swift and pointed, and at the end comes a great comedic twist.