2019 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

This was not a banner year for the animated shorts. You know that’s the case when at the theatrical presentation of the nominees, one of the shorts they add on as filler (also known as the “Highly Commended” group) should have been included as a nominee. That’s right, Zhana Bekmambetova’s “Tweet-Tweet” was, for me, the best conceived and executed in the program (trailer here). I can only guess it suffered from its proximity to 2017’s winner, “Piper”, as “Tweet” also has, as its hero, a bird. But its subject matter is allegorical…not literal. Confounding.

That said,

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“Animal Behaviour” (Canada)
Directed by David Fine and Alison Snowden

anmialposterDavid Fine and Alison Snowden won the Oscar in this category in 1994 for the brilliant “Bob’s Birthday” (it’s available on Amazon Prime, and well worth twelve minutes of your life). So it make sense that they would be honored a quarter of a decade later for their next bit – a fifteen minute film about animals in group therapy. Clever idea.

The only problem is that it’s just not all that good. Or, maybe it’s that we’ve become so used to the adult themes in popular animal-centric animated features that the jokes seem to have all been told already. As a result, more than half of its intended charm is washed away in a sea of obvious jokes. The other half is pretty funny, but never laugh-out-loud.

As for the animation, the crudeness of their imagery certainly has charm and is the better aspect of the film than the script or story. But even here, the basic strokes and two-dimensional nature of their art portrays exactly what we would expect of each character. Everything is just a little too obvious.  It’s an approach that somehow worked better with humans as the subject. “Bob’s Birthday”, for instance, was filled with basic imagery as a baseline, but from a uniquely odd perspective. Every frame was a bit of a surprise. Here you see the visual cues coming from a mile away.

I really wanted to like it. I love the style. But they seem to have forgotten that in animation, the broader the joke, the more it comes across as a roll-your-eyes, “knee-slappers” (in fact, I think I said “oy” to myself ten different times). We want to laugh at how much we identify with the unforeseen responses to typical problems that accompany anthropomorphized animal characters. A sloth speaking slowly isn’t all that funny on its own. Put him at the DMV (“Zootopia”), and you have something hilarious. We know a gorilla has anger issues, so him simply yelling just as a human would doesn’t really do anything for us. In other words…show us, don’t tell us.

Probably the weakest of the bunch. But do watch “Bob’s Birthday”. It’s kinda genius!

Trailer here

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“Bao” (USA)
Directed by Domee Shi

baoposterNot sure what I need to tell you. If you saw “Incredibles 2”, then you’ve seen this film as its warmup act. Notable for being the first nominated animation short written and directed by an Asian woman, the story is a little too saccharin sweet for me. I remember thinking it was pretty adorable when I saw it in the theater the first time. Seeing it a second time, however, did it no favors. Granted, much of the oddness of the piece is due to the difference my own cultural perspective brings to the story. I’m Jewish, so while I understand the concept of the empty nest mom wanting to gain some control back, here it comes across as more angry and a little obsessive when I think we prefer action coming from a sense of longing and fear, not. As a result, the final act seems oddly forced…quite literally based on the actions of the father…instead of organic. Again, my perspective. Your mileage may vary.

However, I still marveled at the animation – though having the entire Pixar production team behind you makes things a bit easier, I expect. And, ironically, the imagery on the poster for the film above would never prepare you for how three-dimensional the animation is. In fact, it’s almost too pristine. But now I’m really nit-picking. It’s gorgeous.

And, regardless of my issues with the film, I fully expect it to win since the only Pixar short not to win was, Andrew Coats & Lou Hamou-Lhadj’s 2016 nominee “Borrowed Time” (incidentally one of my all-time favorites – click on that link and watch it – amazing).

That’s too bad, because the winner, in my mind, should be…

Trailer here

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“Late Afternoon” (Ireland)
Directed by Louise Bagnall

lateposterIt’s not a new story – how an older person’s memories wax and wain (especially when influenced by Dementia or Alzheimer’s), or how they dominate the moments of silence that accompany an old age lived in solitude. But it is a fruitful theme for animators. And while the lovely “Late Afternoon” never quite reaches the artistic or depth of, say, Kunio Kato’s 2008 winner and masterpiece, “Les Maison en Petits Cube“, it is, in my mind, the best of this bunch.

Bagnall has imbued it with the tightest narrative of the five, taking you on a lovely journey. A journey we connect to quite fast and completely, as evidenced by the fact that the payoff jerks some tears, even when that ending is fairly predictable early on.

And like Live Action nominee, “Marguerite“, it has all the touches of a story told from a woman’s perspective, eschewing action/story for depth of feeling and illustration of relationship. And in a short film, that perspective is as much needed as it is enjoyable. It’s tempo is relaxed, like slow breathing, and yet there is a swell of energy at the end. And all of the above is aided wonderfully by the music from composer Colm Mac Con Iomaire.

It’s not the flashiest or the most intricate, or even one of the great short films of the decade but, of these five, it made the most impact on me and will be the one I’ll remember the longest.

Trailer here

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“One Small Step” (USA/China)
Directed by Andrew Chesworth, Bobby Pontillas

onesmallstepposterA close second to “Late Afternoon”, this debut offering from Taiko studios is enjoyable, dense and heartfelt. And while it tries just a bit too hard to be a Disney film, in the end, that is its only shortfall.

Revolving around the life of a young woman and her interactions with her doting, aging father, and whose dream is to become an astronaut, covers a lot of ground…perhaps too much. Still, the story packs a combination of emotions from both the girl and from us. The animation, kind of a perfect mix of Disney realism and Anime camera moves, keeps your eyes invested. If I remember correctly, there is no dialogue which means the burden falls on Steve Horner’s music to help the relationship’s ebb and flow. And, interestingly, it is ALSO a kind of perfect mix between Anime and Disney. You can actually listen to the full score on YouTube, and, while you’ll notice it verges on sappy once in a while, it is really lovely film music.

If voters are turned off by the idea of another Pixar short showing up the efforts of less well-funded creators, then this could be your winner. I enjoyed it much more than “Bao”. When it is available via streaming, you should certainly catch it.

Trailer here

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“Weekends” (USA)
Directed by Trevor Jiminez

weekendposter

Jiminez’ “Weekends” easily has the most creative animation and artistic style. Handpainted and complex, it’s a wonder for the eyes. Alas, the story’s narrative is fairly difficult to follow which precludes a deep connection to our hero, a little boy being shuttled back and forth between the homes of his divorced parents, unless, of course, you lived that life yourself. Perhaps there was never meant to be a straight narrative…I suppose it could be a simple collection of memories. Regardless, I’m not sure I should have had to work so hard to piece it together.

Which doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of being in this five. It absolutely is…mostly because of that artwork and its connection to a child’s emotion. Jiminez, perfectly depicts how a little boy’s mind might perceive a violent-natured step-dad as a kind of monster (not unlike Del Toro’s creature in “Pans Labyrinth”, but in a much more subtle way). Further, the insecurity and instability of multiple homes at such a young age is presented in a truly earnest and heart-breaking manner. That this all comes from his art only goes to show that Trevor Jiminez has a very distinct style and I hope we see more of it.

Oh! Extra credit for the hilarious use of a hated/beloved Dire Straits tune!

Trailer here

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So how would I vote?

  1. Late Afternoon
  2. One Small Step
  3. Weekends
  4. Bao
  5. Animal Behaviour

Written on 2/14/2019

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