A little film like Australia's "The Lost Thing" can make all the hype, hoopla and wasted time surrounding the Academy Awards seem worthwhile. The achingly lovely CGI short from Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann earned a nomination for Best Animated Short and is a highlight of the "Oscar Nominated Short Films 2011" program screening at Landmark Midtown starting Feb. 11.
Ingenious illustrator Tan co-directs a faithful adaptation of his picture book of same name. "The Lost Thing's" grown narrator recalls a boyhood visit to a beach in a weird, seaside city designed with a steampunk-like combination of clunky technology and handmade craftsmanship. While scanning the shore for bottle caps, the boy discovers a friendly, homeless entity that defies simple description. It looks at once like a sea creature and a man-made object, sporting bells and tentacles, a wagging tale and metallic hatches along its surface. Huge and faceless, the long thing conveys enough shy uncertainty and puppyish enthusiasm to make it innately likable, whatever it is.
The boy sympathizes with a creature that just doesn't fit in. He brings it home, feeds it old Christmas ornaments and tries to find a place where it belongs. Over its 15-minute running time, "The Lost Thing" relocates the boy-and-his-alien plot of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial into an obsessively cluttered environment comparable to Terry Gilliam's Brazil. The odd couple roams the city streets, navigating the contradictory road signs and seemingly random exhaust pipes. Montages unfold in little frames, surrounded by old-fashioned charts and diagrams. Tan's artistry conveys a community that doesn't paper over antiquated designs as efficiently as we do.
The film builds to a bittersweet, satisfying resolution, but more subtly hints that another kind of "lost thing" may be an adult's inability to notice and feel compassion for abandoned or bereft animals or objects. At one point the narrator visits the "Federal Department of Odds and Ends," a sinister bureaucracy for "forgetting" things that don't conform. The narrator conveys deep affection for the lost thing, but acknowledges that grown-ups, like the man he became, can lose their sense of wonder in the press of life's mundane demands.
At the Academy Awards, "The Lost Thing" may face sharp competition from "The Gruffalo," a 30-minute CGI fable, also based on a children's book. "The Gruffalo" has star power going for it; its voice cast includes Robbie Coltrane, John Hurt and Best Supporting Actress nominee Helena Bonham Carter. A mother squirrel tells her skittish young a story about a resourceful mouse that frightens off predators with stories of a "Gruffalo," which he thinks is just make-believe. The warm English short features lovely renderings of nature but also proves twee, predictable and snail-paced.
The French-language "Madagascar, a Journey Diary" presents a highly unconventional, impressionistic travelogue as a young European visits the villages of Madagascar and observes a funeral celebration called "the turning of the dead people." The water-color style animation evokes the heightened colors and expansive, timeless landscapes of the island nation off Africa.
A retro approach defines the remaining nominees. You've probably already seen "Day & Night," Teddy Newton's CGI short attached to Pixar's Toy Story 3, in which the embodiments of daytime and nighttime resemble famed New Yorker cartoonist James Thurber's characters. Speaking of Pixar, Geefwee Boedoe (yes, that's his credited name) applies a style comparable of his Monsters Inc. opening credits to his nominee "Let's Pollute" a 1960s-style educational cartoon with an ironic environmental message. "Needless waste hasn't always been this fun and easy," chips the peppy narrator as he offers tips on how to avoid being as Green as possible. Inevitably, the short grows a bit polemical, but its vibrant energy is irresistible.
The animated program of The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2011 also includes two non-nominees that hinge on mother-child relationships, the German folk tale "Urs" and Bill Plympton's "The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger." "Lost Thing," however, is the real find. I know what I'm rooting for on Feb. 27.