As it turns out, the five-way Oscar race for best animated short of 2011 is a battle between the U.S., the U.K. and Canada. Canada wins. In Dimanche (Sunday), one of two films that hail from the storied National Film Board of Canada, we take a look at the lazy weekend day of a young tot as he suffers through a boring church service and endures an equally dispiriting get-together with his folks. Respite is found in flattening coins on the railroad track and conversing with non-human life—from a fish seconds before it’s decapitated for dinner and a mounted bear head that’s actually a live bear with his head stuck through a hole in a house. The animation deliberately rough, the piece is loose and aimless, filtered through a playful depiction of death where a murder of pesky crows are never far off.
Similarly detached, Wild Life, also from NFB, takes a fragmentary look at an English dandy who takes up life “out west” in Alberta, 1909. Scenes from his misadventures and “interviews” with his new neighbors, suspicious of anyone British, paint an agreeably incomplete portrait of one lonesome journey, which is periodically highlighted with semi-cryptic facts about comets, the much-feared loners of outer space.
It would be foolish to make a generalization of a single, large country’s art, but Dimanche and Wild Life share qualities with much of Canada’s other animated output: they’re modest, quietly affecting toons. Neither adjective describes The Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which is crassly American in its heartstring tugs. Baldly swiping the B&W/color idea from Pleasantville, it then applies that to a “reading is fundamental” lesson involving a magical library in a land recently ravaged by a hurricane (read: New Orleans, for extra brownie points). In other words, it’s the Oscar lock.
A Morning Stroll, British though set in N.Y.C., is the requisite “cute, slight one,” imagining the same joke about a smart chicken from three different periods, including a retro-silent rendition (though set in 1959, nonsensically) that will appeal to The Artist voters. Pixar’s La Luna, which will subsequently accompany this summer’s Brave, is cute and slight, too, but also wondrous, conjuring up a more fantastical/meanial reason for the shape of moonlight. Of the lot it’s the prettiest, but the real winners are gorgeous in more important ways.
Starting in 1949 Havana, the story plows through several decades in the lives of its titular heroes, respectively the country’s “hottest piano player” and a prostitute with not only a heart of gold but also a pair of pipes. Her sexy-breathy act leads her to fortunes in New York and Hollywood, while Chico contends with more modest work, including touring Europe with Dizzy Gillespie. Our central pair try to stay together, but the vagaries of history and film plotting more often keep them apart.