Ideally, animation showcases the best of what cinema as an art form has to offer – unmoored from the typical physical and monetary limits, the camera sees what it will, constrained only by the imagination of the filmmaker. In a similar way, the short film format is also a showcase for film as art, a format that requires strict discipline and careful structure. Unfortunately, carelessness and a lack of imagination don’t seem to be in short supply in this year’s Oscar Nominations for Animated Short Films. It’s not all bad – only two are really terrible – but it is a little disappointing. However, though none of the nominees this year are run away classics, several are good, and one is especially worth seeking out.
Let’s start with the dregs. These nominees feel obligatory in some fashion, both in what motivated them to be made and in what got them nominated. “Dear Basketball” is the brainchild of noted cinematic mastermind Kobe Bryant, who has finally obeyed the clamoring masses and quit basketball to pursue filmmaking. Written by Kobe and directed by Disney alum Glen Keane, the film is based on Bryant’s letter announcing his retirement, and has been described somewhat kindly as “poetic,” which I guess would be true as far as that word means “to resemble poetry” however distantly. All in all, it’s quite pro forma, narrated by Bryant over a sketchy animation showing him as a child practicing, dreaming of stardom, achieving stardom and naming his reasons for leaving the sport, mostly due to the stress it takes on his body. The animation is the film’s sole selling point, being quite sufficient, but otherwise unremarkable. John Williams lends what must surely be his most disposable work in these five minutes celebrating Kobe Bryant’s career, which gets at the biggest problem with this film – ultimately, it’s a souped up, oversold vanity project that somehow is getting a leg up from the academy, probably in exchange for Laker tickets. By the end, I was happy to retire this overly saccharine offering and write off Kobe studios entirely for the time being.
The only thing that could be more mandatorily Hollywood than a pointless veneration of Kobe Bryant is an Oscar nomination for a Pixar short film. To be fair, there was a time these were actually a lot of fun and quite clever, even if they never really moved the bar in any meaningful fashion. “Lou,” this year’s obligation, seems to have gotten in only because Pixar’s other short, concerning everyone’s favorite snowman and only technically to be called a short, was so reviled. This short stars a Lost and Found Box (missing the titular letters in a design that must signify brainlessness), and a Bully Who Will Be Changed. The Bully is a bully because he lost his bear, which bear is inside the Box. The Box, by the way, is sentient, at least long enough to collect detritus around the schoolyard and try to return them to their rightful owners. The Bully is stealing those things, which starts a fight with the Box, which is really unfair, because the Box has the bear trump card (of hearts, no less). Cue formulaic emotional arc and convenient resolution. This has slightly more imagination than the Kobe Bryant Hour, mostly in the clever animations of the collection of detritus that is the Box when it’s out collecting stuff, but it’s packaged in such a harmless and safe way as to be even more offensive, really. Whew. It gets better from here.
“Revolting Rhymes,” adapted from a series of Roald Dahl poems by English animator Quentin Blake, comes from the studio behind The Gruffalo and Chico and Rita, the latter of which I consider to be a modern animation classic. “Rhymes” fits within the ironic fairy tale genre, and it’s a fairly charming repackaging of the Three Pigs, Snow White (here a blonde), and Red Riding Hood which simultaneously acknowledges the violent horror roots of the original stories while eliding any actual horror in its own telling (though several of the primaries get dispatched throughout). It’s very fun, though pretty standard. Mostly notable for making Snow White and Red Riding Hood into modern women who act as the protagonists throughout against ravenous wolves, greedy pig bankers, and gambling addict dwarves. At 29 minutes, it’s the longest by far, and appears to have been meant for television. Still, it is a little long in comparison to the others, none of which break 10. All in all, a fun little film for slightly older children.
“Garden Party” is the graduation project of six French animation students who’ve dubbed themselves the Illogic Collective and it’s a stellar first outing that promises great things. A palatial house sits abandoned as a crowd of frogs, toads, and amphibians various climbs over, on, and throughout it, slowly revealing to the viewer something of the story of how this strange, violent emptiness came to be. It’s quite experimental in its way, offering nothing in the way of plot, character development, etc., all those standard film conventions. Instead, it simply allows us to watch beautifully lifelike animated toads eat the rotting food and frogs climb over abandoned beds and video consoles, switching on the house’s electricity and setting in motion the film’s slow, grotesque reveal. All in all, it’s fairly light, but it has a nice touch. My only quibble would be with the scoring, which is largely superfluous and on the nose. The film would’ve been better with diegetic sound only. Otherwise, though, it’s an extremely promising debut.
My favorite of the lot, “Negative Space,” is another French film, animated by Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata, and is the only film nominated here to truly put both its length and its animation to advantage in a way that a longer or live-action film could not. The only nominee done with other than computer animation (claymation), this film adapts a prose poem by Ron Koertge, of the same name, concerning the relationship between the lead character and his father. This relationship is explored through the central metaphor of packing luggage, taught to the lead as a child by his father as the latter prepared to leave on many trips away. It details the method passed down from father to son, here not an act of passage or emotional binding, but instead a representation of alienation and loneliness – the perfect bag packed to leave. Through this small act, animated in many incredibly creative and arresting ways, we explore the psychology of this relationship, began when the lead was only little, visualized as a tiny child struggling to roll up a sock twice his size, and ending with the father’s death in adulthood. The environments perfectly morph to fit the psychology of this moment of grief, one though passing into another like waves, as the film touches on small, powerfully pregnant moments exploring this family dynamic, each laden with a history only hinted at but clearly discerned. “Negative Space” is an excellent illustration of what animation can uniquely offer as a medium, as well as the power that an extremely disciplined short can pack, pun intended. It’s the only must-see of the nominees this year.
It’s perhaps quixotic to hope for the best a medium can offer in any awards crop but the notion of “best of the year” certainly lends itself to such windmill-tilting. Either way, this years nominations run the gamut, from perfunctorily and imagination-less offerings relating only to their brand or originators, to perfect little gems exploring the medium of animated film and pushing its boundaries. At the very least, the better of these films feature an established studio continuing to put out good work, and showcase two newer studios with much to offer. Hopefully their future holds many more such nominations and a challenge to the others to elevate the medium as a whole.