The Gruffalo
A clever mouse deals with a ferocious beast in “The Gruffalo,” one of five animated films nominated for an Academy Award this year.

As they’ve done in past years, Sundance Cinemas is screening all the Oscar-nominated short films in both the Animated and Live Action categories, as well as, for the first time, the Documentary Shorts category.

Even if you’re not gunning for a perfect score on your Oscar ballot, it’s worth catching these cinematic sampler platters to see what different filmmakers can do within a limited running time.

That’s especially true of the animated short films, which is the strongest collection of nominees in years. In the past, we saw a lot of nominated animated films that seemed to be trying to out-Pixar Pixar, mixing gorgeous 3D animation and frenetic physical comedy. But this year’s batch is more adventurous, harder to pigeonhole.

That includes, ironically, Pixar’s own contribution. “Day & Night” is a brilliantly inventive piece that mixes old-school hand-drawn animation with 3D in a way I’ve never seen, following two characters representing day and night. It’s funny, it’s weird, and when you least expect it, it ends up as a very clever plea for tolerance.

The centerpiece of the animated collection is a handsome half-hour adaptation of the children’s story “The Gruffalo,” about a cunning mouse who invents a fictional monster to help evade predators. It features voiceover work by Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Wilkinson and John Hurton and is lovingly illustrated.

But my favorite of the animated films was “The Lost Thing,” also based on a children’s story, about a boy living in a drab world who befriends a weird and colorful creature that’s part monster, part machine. The surreal animation reminded me of a film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Delicatessen”), and the simple story is vaguely haunting, with an understated message about growing up and losing a sense of wonder about the world.

In contrast, the live action shorts seem weaker than usual this year. It’s a rule of thumb that the most depressing film usually wins Best Live Action Short (one critic joked that the ultimate Oscar-winning short would be called “The Holocaust and the Teddy Bear”). This year really plays into that, with films about ethnic cleansing in Africa (“Na Wewe”), a teenage cancer patient (“Wish 143”) and not one, but two films about troubled schoolboys that end in violence (“The Confession” and “The Crush.”)

They’re all well-made, but none of them really grabbed me. The keeper of the bunch was the delightfully daffy “God of Love,” in which a lovesick lounge singer (Luke Matheny, who wrote and directed) finds himself in possession of magical darts that make the victim fall in love for six hours. It’s a charmer, and a respite from the dreariness that marks the rest of the films.


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