In "Possessions," one of five very fine entries in The Oscar-Nominated Short Films 2014: Animated, the ghost spirit of a broken old umbrella springs to life, causing a night of splendid havoc for a weary Japanese traveler. A gorgeously realized homage to the concept of Tsukumogami - that after 100 years, tools and instruments attain souls and self-awareness - Shuhei Morita's 'toon works as a metaphor for the process of animation itself: Whether the artist is using pencil and paper, or spacewarp software, the inanimate is transformed into something alive and vital. Imagination takes flight.
Flight is the idea behind "Room on the Broom," another of this year's Academy Award nominees. Adapted from Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's children's book, this British-German featurette, narrated in whimsical rhyme by Simon Pegg, is about a witch, her cat, and her broomstick - which acquires a new passenger after each of a number of mishaps. By the end, the soaring sorceress is joined by a veritable Airbus-load of companions - a dog, a frog, a bird - all of them pursued by a lumbering, fire-breathing dragon. The CG animation has a bright, picture-book quality, and the voice talent reads like the cast of a promising parallel-universe film: In addition to Pegg, there are this year's supporting-actress nominee Sally Hawkins, plus Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon, and Timothy Spall.
Also adapted from, or inspired by, an outside source, "Mr. Hublot" is a steam-punk fantasy that brings Belgian artist Stéphane Halleux's mechanical sculptures into a sublime 3-D animation realm. The titular star of Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares' 12-minute gem is an accountant whose orderly world is upended by a stray, doglike robot. The characters are stitched and soldered from gears and dials, clockwork mechanisms, metal, and leather, and the cityscape has a retro-futuristic Industrial Revolution charm.
"Feral," from the Rhode Island School of Design's Daniel Sousa, reimagines the "wild child" story of Francois Truffaut's 1970 film, making it something more primal and fierce. The pencil animation casts a noirish sheen over this wordless tableau, in which a boy, living among wolves in the woods, is discovered by a hunter and brought to the city to live. The customs and crowds do not sit well with this edgy urchin.
Linking past with present, tradition with new tech, and starring that squeaky-voiced rodent Mickey Mouse, the Disney short "Get a Horse!" takes the conceit of Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo - that characters from films can step off the screen into the theater and vice versa - and has a slam-bang romp doing so.
Joining Mickey in the fourth-wall fray, which toggles from ink-and-paint black-and-white to vivid CG hues, are assorted vintage Disney figures: Minnie Mouse, Clarabelle Cow, and Horace Horsecollar, and Peg-Leg Pete as the road-hogging lug trying to get Minnie in his greasy mitts.
"Get a Horse!" is the short in front of Disney's megahit Frozen, so it is far and away the most seen of these five Oscar contenders. Whether it's the most deserving is another matter.
See them all and decide. You won't be sorry.
The Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animated ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden ("Feral"), Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim ("Get a Horse!"), Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares ("Mr. Hublot"), Shuhei Morita ("Possessions"), and Max Lang and Jan Lachauer ("Room on the Broom"). Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Bourse and the Colonial, Phoenixville