The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films, by Alexander Miller
Time’s fleeting transience and the damaging effects of guilt that can upset the relationship between a father and Daughter is the emotional thrust of this year’s obligatory Eastern European stop-motion candidate. There’s no doubting the emotional sincerity of Daria Kascheeva’s Daughter, which boasts some impressive aesthetic chops alongside some inspired conceptual design but suffers due to a sizable narrative distance as a result of its oblique structure and delivery. Daughter feels deliberately art-forward (a complaint seldom lodged) and stop-motion being an ideal avenue for expression. Yet, the affair feels like a case where the artist wants us to admire their creation and are indifferent as to whether or not we can identify with it. Presentation superseding narrative is fine, as well as art for art’s sake, but Kascheeva elaborates on its themes of alienation and pushes away the viewer in the process.
Following Daughter is the sweetly realized Hair Love. Short length animation seems to work its best when the creators try to hit broad emotional arcs; after all, it’s a short. When a young black girl Zuri is struggling with a lethal case of bed head, enlisting the unlikely candidate of her father, aided by a youtube channel (that she has a clear affinity for), they bond over the challenging hair-taming. The creative trio of director Matthew A. Cherry (who’s also credited as writer) Bruce W. Smith, and Everett Downing utilize a fluent and lively animation style. The character’s movements are brimming with exciting authenticity, and the pink/purple color palette gives the film a youthful air of femininity and the sometimes tumultuous innocence of childhood. It’s easy to forget, but being a kid can be tough.
Despite a brief runtime, Hair Love dishes out more than sweetly rendered familial sentiment, there’s an outward social/racial context. Its playful emphasis toward afro-textured hair styling (Zuri’s father symbolically wrestles with her hair as it comes to life) and painting a black patriarch in a positive light as an attentive, present and loving father offers substantial resonance.
In the spirit of tonal consistency, Hair Love warms us up for another slice of charming animation, Kitbull is a simple story of mismatched critters when a cat befriends a pit bull.
What might sound like a saccharine rehash of the mismatched critters Kitbull introduces us to an urban backdrop, the cat is a stray, and the dog is a pitbull used for fighting. The darker elements are revealed in and initiating union between our titular duo has an organic vibe. The presentation is bolstered by a pseudo-impressionistic animation style that dually retains a winsome magnetism as well as a scratchy naturalism. The animal design eschews conventional cutesiness in favor of a more intuitive look; the cat is a bug-eyed spike ball with thin limbs, and the pitbull is more round borders with minimal features. The abstraction in design feels like creator Rosanna Sulivan modeled her creations after the vibe of the animals rather than traditional anatomy, pitbulls are broad, non-reductively simple. On the other hand, cats can be skittish, jumpy, and hard to read.
Kitbull is casually endearing and casually uncomplicated. For a Pixar submission, this is affectionate without the syrupy emotion bating one would anticipate from a larger studio offering.
Bruno Collet’s Memorable might be the most affecting of this year’s lot, both in its thematic and aesthetic dimensions utilizing stop motion to achieve a remarkably potent arc exploring the nature of dementia and/or Alzheimer’s. An aging painter living with his wife is growing more and more distant from his surroundings due to his ailment. Collet’s execution is overflowing with a painterly fantasia (evoking Van Gogh and Matisse along the way) emotional depth, and most importantly, doesn’t seek to resolve, explain or rationalize the emotional tumult one endures, but finds solace in the fleeting moments of lucidity. Artistically rewarding with a strong emotional backbone, Memorable is one of this year’s strongest entries.
Coming in from China, Siqi Song’s Sister is a unique venture that has some distinction among the other candidates. Electing a quiet platitude of contemplative sadness, Sister examines childhood recollected from our narrator where he meditates on his family, especially the towering presence caused by the arrival of his sister. Employing stop motion to bring cotton/felt material puppets to life in an outwardly drab atmosphere, with a near-colorless stifling palette evokes a subtly menacing air of cultural and political repression. The animation channels hypnotic sustenance that any curious viewer won’t soon forget and Song whittles a memorable degree of atmosphere with some scenes that make solid use of ethereal dream-like energy. With short films, the political context can seem like a punchline, as if to say “gotcha,” there’s a bit of that here, but the film confronts China’s one-child policy, and there’s some strength in the delivery.