This year’s Oscar nominees for the short film awards break in a somewhat uncomfortably clichéd way: The live action films are dark and disturbing (with one exception), and the animated films tend to be light and uplifting (with one exception).
True, “Helium,” a Danish film about a hospital janitor who befriends a dying boy and tells him stories of the magical land to which he’s bound, isn’t all dark. But it’s still the story of a dying boy, something that can’t be diluted by its fanciful visions.
And “The Voorman Problem,” an English piece starring Martin Freeman (“The Hobbit” and “Sherlock”), is more mind game than malignant. Freeman plays a psychiatrist brought in to treat a prisoner who thinks — and has convinced others — that he is a god.
But things take a tense and awful turn in the French “Just Before Losing Everything,” in which a battered mother gets caught at the store where she works as she’s preparing to flee her abusive husband with their children. The mundane setting plays perfectly off the woman’s terror.
Speaking of terrified women, two Spanish doctors are taken prisoner by child soldiers while trying to cross some embattled African nation in “That Wasn’t Me,” and the encounter turns more than hellish. This one is outright nerve-rattling.
The only live-action relief comes from “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?,” a goofy Finnish piece about a family that’s late and unprepared for a wedding.
By the way, the live-action shorts are tied together with comments from assorted directors, actors and producers, some of which are enlightening, most of which aren’t. Better to let the films speak for themselves.
On the lighter and brighter animated side, the laughs are plentiful, beginning with the Mickey Mouse cartoon “Get a Horse!” Starting out with classic black-and-white lines and characters from Mickey’s early years (Walt Disney’s voice is even used), the piece then flips into modern mode, turning the screen itself into a device. Walt would be proud.
“Room on the Broom,” a British TV show narrated by Simon Pegg, is a nice, light work about various creatures trying to squeeze onto a flying broom alongside a kindly witch. And in “Possessions,” a Japanese anime work, a traveler takes refuge in an empty house and realizes all its abandoned artifacts have taken on a soul, making for nice commentary on materialism.
The most unique animated work has to be “Mr. Hublot,” a French piece about an obsessive-compulsive fellow who seems to be part adding machine, living in a world of mechanical wonders. When he rescues a robotic stray dog, he finds his ordered life scrambled.
In a darker mood is “Feral,” the story of a wild boy found in the woods by a hunter, who brings him back to civilization. It’s drawn in raw, primal swaths that match the subject matter.
As a lot, this year’s nominees — both animated and live action — seem a bit more direct and grounded than in some year’s past. Even “Mr. Hublot,” as transfixing as its odd world is, turns out basically to be a story about a man and his dog. It’s a year for getting back to basics.
2014 Academy Award nominated shorts
Running time: More than 180 minutes
At the Detroit Film Theatre
2014 Academy Award nominated shorts (Not rated) This year’s nominees, while uniformly fine, tend toward uncomfortable cliché, with the live-action films generally dark and the animated ones lighter. (More than 180 minutes) GRADE: B+