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Short and sweet

“The 2006 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animated Short Films”Magnolia PicturesNot rated/85 minutesThree-and-a-half out of four stars

My love for animated films is closely matched by my love for films that don’t overstay their welcome. This week, the Tower Theatre is screening the 2006 Oscar Nominated Shorts, bite-sized films of boundless imagination and refreshing brevity. These animated films run anywhere from five to 15 minutes but will linger in your memory for much longer.

You owe it to yourself to see these movies, not only because they’re technically brilliant and, in a few cases, wickedly dark-humored, but also so you can fill out your guessing ballots on Oscar Sunday with confidence (and since neither Pixar nor Aardman Studios has a short in the running, you won’t have any safe guesses, amigos).

This year’s program features all five nominated shorts, as well as five more that almost made the cut. I’m glad we get to see those coulda-been-contenders, some of which are actually better than the final five. The fact that the newest animated short starring Scrat, that acorn-obsessed cave-squirrel-thingy from “Ice Age,” made the final five instead of something more groundbreaking and emotionally felt, like “The Wraith of Cobble Hill,” only proves that sometimes the Academy picks comfort over originality.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the silent, slapstick comedy of Scrat. He’s like a modern day Harold Lloyd, climbing icebergs instead of buildings, with a hunter-gatherer single-mindedness that blinds him from danger until he’s hugging his prize in a shadow of cascading doom. In “No Time for Nuts,” the bushy, bug-eyed critter finds a glitchy time machine buried in the ice that sends him hurtling through the ages in pursuit of that ever-elusive nut.

Funny, yes, but not particularly fresh. A nomination for this short is sort of like a nomination for John Williams or Sean Penn, as if the Academy only saw the flashy titles on top and didn’t bother digging any deeper.

“Deeper” would be “The Wraith of Cobble Hill,” written, directed and animated by a supremely talented University of Southern California student named Adam Parrish King. His black-and-white photography and minimalist clay-animation creates a haunting inner-city world in which an impoverished teenage boy cares for his feeble mom who lies in bed all day while the cupboards go empty. The owner of the mini-mart downstairs admires the boy’s responsible behavior and entrusts him with keys to the store. “I’m going away for a while,” the shopkeeper says.

Of course, the boy and his buddies take advantage of the situation and help themselves to the food on the store shelves. It’s around that time that the boy begins to hear strange thumping noises from the apartment above, which leads him to a startling discovery. Is the building haunted or is the wraith in the title simply a reference to the feelings of anger, disappointment and despair embodied by the building? Either way, the film is effectively spooky.

Other highlights from the program:

1. Torill Kove’s “The Danish Poet,” one of the five nominees, is a whimsical, charmingly animated story about a sad poet who finds love and inspiration in the books of an author he admires. He travels to Norway to meet the author, now an old woman who also seeks inspiration, but he gets sidetracked by a romance with an already-engaged farm girl-a romance that oddly echoes the storyline from his favorite book.

The film is quaint and appealing, with lovely narration by Liv Ullmann.

2. Roger Allers and Don Hahn recapture some of their Disney heyday magic (they were the creative minds behind “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King”) with “The Little Matchgirl,” a shamelessly sentimental but nevertheless heartbreaking story about a homeless, orphaned girl in Russia who can’t find anyone to buy her matches. She shivers in an alleyway and contemplates using her remaining matches-her livelihood-for her own temporary warmth.

With each strike of a match, she escapes into fantasies of crackling fireplaces, generous turkey dinners and the welcoming arms of a mother she never had. But her reality grows grimmer and grimmer.

Featuring crisp and fluid animation, “The Little Matchgirl” may tug enough heartstrings to win the Oscar.

3. Geza M. Toth’s “Maestro” is basically a one-joke film with 5 minutes of setup, but that one joke is genius. Set in what looks like a tiny dressing room, a wooden bird prepares for his “big number” by sipping water, testing his opera voice and suiting up in a tux.

The tick-tock rhythm in which we circle the bird makes more sense once we know the punchline.

4. And finally, former nominee Bill Plympton (“Your Face,” 1987) brings his distinctive colored-pencil work to “Guide Dog,” a sequel to last year’s nominated short “Guard Dog.” You’ve probably seen Plympton’s work before in commercials and even on MTV (he animated the Kanye West music video “Heard ’em Say”). In “Guide Dog,” an eager-to-please, job-seeking canine lands a job as, well, a guide dog and proceeds to inadvertently (and hilariously) guide all of his customers into harm’s way.

Plympton’s exaggerated pencil work is always amazing in how it seems to effortlessly morph from one absurdity into another. It’s a strong argument for how hand-drawn animation can still make our eyes pop in the computer age.

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