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Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts (2020) review

February 2, 2020

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It’s that time of the year again, when the Oscar-Nominated shorts are in select theaters for a short window of time leading up to the telecast on Sunday, February 9th. That is…if you’re in a major metropolitan city here in the states. If not, you can probably find some of these shorts online if you’re resourceful enough, but it is traditionally (and unfortunately) a challenge to track them down. Obviously, seeing them in the theater is the most ideal setting, so if you’re an Oscar completist, you’ll want to get yourself to one of the theaters showing the collection of Animated, Live-Action and/or Documentary Shorts.

It’s a strange commonality, but typically the shorts selected in each Shorts category are on the downer side in terms of subjects, but the tone and creativity can often be hopeful and inspiring, respectively. In the Animated Shorts category specifically, we can typically find some type of loss or grief examined in these stories, so when there’s a short that’s kind of upbeat in tone, it definitely stands out amongst the other nominees. Looking at the five nominees in this category, there is one that definitely could be considered as more upbeat than it’s fellow nominees. To be honest, that may not be in that short’s favor, since the more emotionally impacting stories usually wind up holding a golden guy. But, who knows, voters this year might just go for upbeat and heartwarming.

Interestingly, three of the five nominees here were directed by women and it’s very cool to see that all of them hail from different countries, which brings a diversity sorely needed in this category. There’s also a good variety of creativity on display, with each nominee applying different animation styles and sensibilities – unlike, sayt the Best Animated Feature contenders, released by major studios.

All five animated shorts are executed excellently and display magnetic storytelling, but only two really rise above the others, offering something artistically unique while offering compelling stories. Each short is certainly intent on eliciting emotion, but none of them feel heavy-handed.  I’ll list them off below, along with my thoughts, ranking them from Good to Really Great.

 

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HAIR LOVE

By far the most upbeat of the bunch is “Hair Love” and it has every reason to be. This mostly dialogue-free short focuses on a young black girl who requires hair help from her father. The sweet and charming story is essentially about how a black father learns how to navigate and style his daughter’s hair for the first time. I’m sure it will be encouraging for certain viewers to see themselves and something they can relate to in this short, but what interested me more was the revelation that we learn of later on. I’ll just say the father is not a single parent. The Sony Pictures short, which debuted last year before “Angry Birds 2” (I forgot that even came out!), was written/directed by former NFL player, Matthew A. Cherry. The 6-minute short, designed to highlight a black family not only in animation, but in a positive representation for black kids and normalize black hair, but maybe it could’ve taken more time to flesh out that potent revelation.

RATING: **1/2

 

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KITBULL

What you get out of “Kitbull” might depend on how you feel about dogs, especially ones who are abused or live on the street. If you prefer cats, one of the two main characters is a scrawny and resourceful neighborhood kitten who’s on his own. Granted, this is the obligatory “cute animals” selection of the nominees, but at least they’re not talking and it is quite good. The 9-minute short occurs during a single stormy night, in which the kitten stumbles upon a pitbull, a victim of his abusive owners. At first, it’s a cat-and-dog situation, but they soon come to the conclusion that they’d be better off with each other. That moment is executed in a thrilling manner and where the two buddies eventually wind up will warm your hear.  Written and directed by Rosana Sullivan as part of Pixar’s SparkShorts program – which finances independent shorts by young Pixar artists – using an attractive 2-D animation style that I’d love to see more of in animation, “Kitbull” manages an engaging variation on the opposites-attract trope. It’s not a winner, since it’s not tackling anything from a human standpoint (just my gut) but hey, it is quite adorable and put me in a good mood in the end, instead of a troubling or contemplative one like the next three.

RATING: **1/2

 

sister

SISTER

One of the more personal shorts of the nominees comes from Siqi Song, who tells a compelling tale of family longing and pain derived from the effects of China’s one-child policy (which occurred from 1979-2015), serving as something of a haunting memoir. The short occurs in the early 90’s, where we find a Chinese man reflecting on his childhood with his trouble-making younger sister. It seems pretty straightforward at first, but there’s something off about his memories that’s hard to put a finger on – until we realize that his sister never existed and that his parents were forced to abort their pregnancy when he was a young boy. Siqi, who made “Sister” during her studies at CalArts Experimental Animation Program as her 8-minute graduation film, takes a unique approach by used wool stop-motion puppets for her characters and filming in inky black-and white (which emphasizes the feeling of dream-like memories).  It’s rare that we see such a tragic mandate from the point of view of the potential sibling and ruminating over what life would’ve been like with a sibling is something that is both specific to a certain group of people in China and universal to all who’ve experienced abortion.

RATING: ***

 

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DAUGHTER

I had to watch this haunting 15-minute short twice to get what it was about and take in the unique animation style – and that’s a good thing. This Czech short, written and directed by Mosocow-born Daria Kashcheeva (as her graduation film for Prague’s FAMU film school) is another wordless entry, one that also incorporates a flashback into its story in order to communicate the perspective of the main character in the present. At the side of her dying father’s hospital bed, we find a woman sadly recalling how lacking their relationship was, how she felt ignored by him as a child. To tell her 2D animation story, the director incorporated hand-held camerawork, moving from frame to frame as she captured her messy papier-mâché coated characters, conveying a jittery-yet-uncanny sense of realism. Petr Vrba’s luring score is a perfect companion to this strange and memorable short. The result offers a magical sense of closure, coming across like a cathartic and abstract achievement and it makes sense that Kashcheeva has mentioned films by Lars Von Trier and he Dardenne brothers as sources of inspiration.

RATING: ***1/2

 

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MEMORABLE

French director Bruno Collet aimed to capture Alzheimer’s, as experienced by an aging painter, in “Memorable” and the result is an intimate and enigmatic look at what is left of one’s mind as it is ravaged by the disease. As the story unfolds, we see how the artist’s condition creates challenges for his marriage, as well as his perception of his past and present, the people around him and his artistic process. The way in which Collet goes about telling his 12-minute short – using sculpted puppets covered in latex foam and paint and incorporating a combination of stop-motion and computer-generated 3D effects – is quite impressive. As the artist’s condition worsens, the artwork on display changes drastically which coincides appropriately with the what is happening in the story, accentuating the overall viewing experience. While it is assumed this subject is usually inspired by real-life experiences, it’s interesting to learn that Collet has used the experiences of painter William Utermohlen (who passed away from the disease in 2007) as inspiration.  Presenting an illness in an understandable and creative manner, using the perspective of the ailing artist and his closest loved one, is the short’s strength and it feels like this is the one short which will resonate with the most viewers. “Memorable” is my favorite of the nominees for how it captures the psychological and physical deterioration of its subject with great humor, pathos and artistic creativity.

RATING: ****

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