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2019 Oscar-Nominated Shorts: ANIMATION

February 21, 2019

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Four out of the five animated shorts that have been nominated by The Academy this year revolve around family in some fashion. Parenting in particular, from the viewpoint of both parents and their children. This isn’t all that surprising, since personal, often semi-biographical memories are often the best place for storytellers to draw from and shorts can be a great avenue for them. While it may strike some as repetitive or perhaps too coincidental to have a common theme in most of these shorts, the animation does exactly what you hope to find in this category, which is to offer a variety of styles and perspectives, reminding viewers of the endless possibilities the medium offers.

What I look for in an Oscar-nominated short is something that transcends what we typically see or expect from the medium. That can be found either in the writing or the visuals, but ideally in both. The shorts that just don’t work typically suffer from an odd implementation of the story. Only three out of the five nominees truly succeed, in my opinion, but I can see how others would disagree. Still, there is something to appreciate in all of the nominees here. It’s just that some stand out more than others.

Overall, this is a pretty strong category with some well done shorts, but there is a clear best of the bunch here, which is not always the case. Most of these shorts can be found either online or in select theaters leading up to the Oscar telecast on February 24th.

NOTE: If you want to HEAR my thoughts on these nominees and the ones in the other Shorts categories (Live-Action and Documentary), click here.

Below are my thoughts on each nominee, from least favorite to the clear winner…

 

 

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ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR

Let’s get this short, the only one without a family/parenting focus, out of the way first. The quirky Canadian short is directed by Alison Snowden and David Fine and it’s the duo’s first animated short since winning an Oscar in this category for “Bob’s Birthday” back in 1995, and follows a group of anthropomorphic animals who meet for a weekly group psychotherapy session in the offices of psychiatrist Dr. Clement, a pit bull who does his best to keep his sessions on track, while repressing his own animal urges. His patients include a pig with a chocolate addiction; a bird with a traumatic past; a plump cat (voiced by Snowden), a tiny leech with a big mouth, and a praying mantis who can’t stop eating her boyfriends. The atmosphere is upturned when an ape with a short fuse sits in on one particular session and the results are, well, wild. There are some funny bits here and there’s a theme of not dealing with your natural instincts that’s only explored for laughs, but overall the cute humor of this surprisingly not-very-kid-friendly is, ahem, short-lived.

RATING: **

 

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BAO 

I didn’t like the latest Pixar short when I saw it last summer in front of “Incredibles 2” and, after giving it another watch since it is now an (inevitable) Oscar nominee, I changed my mind. It’s not bad. While I still have problems with it, I can appreciate the approach writer/director Domnee Shi (who’s worked as a storyboard artist on “Inside Out”, “The Good Dinosaur” and “Incredibles 2”) takes here as she essentially tells her own experience as a Chinese immigrant who grew up in Canada. Learning that the dialogue-free, seven-minute short, which includes themes of food and family, parenting and aging, as well as the feelings of loss that comes from empty nest syndrome, was such a personal story added some context, but the it’s the original approach of a handmade bao dumpling coming to life and the doting mother raising her animated edible bun as her own son. I wasn’t sold on any of that and was one of those who were utterly confused/baffled by one scene in particular. I’ve come to an appreciation of “Bao” the more I read up on Shi’s intention and mindset and I’m definitely interested in her future work, but ultimately this one still doesn’t do it for me.

RATING: **

 

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LATE AFTERNOON

One of the more touching shorts of the five nominees is Louise Bagnall’s contemplative tale that follows Emily, an elderly woman suffering from dementia, who reflects on her random memories that are triggered as sips on tea and nibbles on a biscuit offered to her by her adult daughter. Told in an abstract stream of consciousness manner from Irish studio Cartoon Saloon that artistically conveys the tide of reflection that comes and goes, the short definitely comes across as a very personal piece. The slowing animation is simple and yet appropriately dreamlike and the voice work of the main character by Fionnula Flanagan is quite lovely. It’s definitely a short that will resonate with those who have or are going through taking care of a loved one ailed with the awful disease.

RATING: **1/2

 

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ONE SMALL STEP 

This charming Chinese-American short from Andrew Chesworth & Bobby Pontillas also feels very much like a story based on someone’s life. The story here centers on a young girl named Luna, who lives with her humble shoemaker father. She dreams of piloting a spaceship and her supportive father is there for her in his own way at every turn. Like “Bao”, the breadth of this short covers a child growing up and how time brings its challenges, inevitably shifting the parent/child dynamic, yet eventually coming back to the bond of love. It’s certainly more straightforward in its approach than the Pixar short – adding a nice time-lapse energy touch – which I appreciated and its clean CGI look (reminiscent of the animation styles of “Zootopia” and “Big Hero 6”, no surprise since the directing duo here worked as animators for those Disney features) from Taiko Studios is visually pleasing. It lands on a few well-earned weepie moments as it nears its conclusion and the fact that at no point does any of it feel overly precocious or manipulative scores major points. I wouldn’t mind seeing these directors take a stab at helming feature-length animation.

RATING: ***

 

 

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WEEKENDS 

My personal favorite and the most emotionally and aesthetically complex is an American short from writer/director Trevor Jimenez, which features a striking variety of visual styles that propel an touching immersive story. This is the best of the four parent/child stories, offering a surprising nuance to its characters and a uniquely designed world from the perspective of a young boy who’s getting ping-ponged between his divorced mother and father as they take custody turns. The boy has an understandably dark and confusing perspective on his family status and Jimenez accentuates that with greys mixed with bold colors and rough line work, at times feeling like a mixed media illustration that’s come to life. The story is a familiar one for any child of divorce. It definitely reminded me of my own parent’s divorce when I was in middle school and how haphazard it is to navigate the different worlds each parent starts to represent as stability is. It doesn’t take long to assume that what we’re watching is biographical and it turns out that Canadian animator Jimenez (who’s worked as a story artist on the likes of “Finding Dory”, “Coco” and another Oscar nominee, “Ralph Breaks the Internet”) indeed drew from his own childhood experience when, like this young boy, he’d spend the week living with his mother (in Hamilton, Ontario) and the weekends with his father (in Toronto). I enjoyed how it depicts the hard-working mom as exasperated, overwhelmed and distracted (often times noodling Eric Satie on the piano) as she tries to make ends meet and there’s the weekend dad who happens to have a samurai sword fetish, the latest video games and a cool car in which he cranks Dire Strait’s “Money for Nothing”. The awkward introduction of significant others for each respective parent is handled in a relatable manner as well. In fact, several of the specifics here are on point, eerily hitting close to home in an uncanny way.  “Weekend” is probably too dark and weird to win the Oscar, but I don’t care. It’s the one animated short in which I strongly felt that it should win as soon as it was over.

RATING: ****

 

 

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