2016 Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films Ranked From Worst to Best

By  · Published on January 27th, 2016

It’s that special time of year when movie theaters all over America start playing short films. Some places are hosting a total of 15 of them. Most of those participating, though, will be screening only 10. The shorts receiving this privileged exhibition are the Oscar nominees in the three categories devoted to the best in cinema of a length of 40 minutes or less. Thanks to Shorts HD, each category – live-action, animated and documentary – are showing separately (docs in fewer theaters), and all five contenders for each are included. You can find them in a theater near you (find one here) beginning this Friday.

In addition to reviewing all of the 2016 Oscar-nominated shorts programs, each contender individually critiqued, we’re also ranking them this year in order from worst to the best in each category. Below is my personal take on the five nominees for Best Animated Short. You can easily guess which is ranked number one, because it’s FSR’s movie of the year. It’s also the only one with dialogue spoken by its characters (another has a TV program with dialogue on), which is funny because I’m otherwise super excited about so many of them being “silent” shorts. Overall it’s a good program, though I mostly recommend it to see my top choice on a big screen.

5. Bear Story

Gabriel Osorio Vargas’s beautiful but (appropriately) clunky Bear Story is like a stop-motion short inside a computer-animated short. The 11-minute film is about an old, lonely bear who makes and then shares an autobiographically inspired miniature mechanical theater. Inside a box, his life story plays out with tin figures in clockwork fashion, showing how he was beaten in his own home and stolen away to a circus, separating him from his family. The machine is not actually done with stop-motion but it’s made to look like we’re seeing a physical process play out.

Only it doesn’t really pull that effect off completely if you watch closely. The “camera” work is mostly stiff and formulaic, as far as modern motion-graphics style is concerned. That’s not necessarily a problem for the film, which would be less consistent in its aesthetic if it had used real physical pieces for its centerpiece. But in the context of the story, it is supposed to be something being watched by another character. It doesn’t feel cemented in reality, even for a story set in a world run by bears. It’s definitely a cool short, but it’s also a cold one and neither the most innovative nor most interesting of these five.

Could it win? I don’t think so.

4. Prologue

It’s great to see Richard Williams return to this category 43 years after winning the Oscar for his version of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” You may know him better as the director of animation on Who Framed Roger Rabbit (for which he also won an Academy Award for visual effects and a Special Achievement Oscar) or the guy who spent decades working on the would-be masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler before it was taken away from him and totally ruined. Here he has another ambitious project. Prologue is literally the six-minute prologue for something much bigger, a movie he’s wanted to do since he was 15 years old. His working title for the whole thing is, humorously, “Will I Live to Finish This?”

The short, whether or not it will wind up actually being part of a feature, is expectedly an impressive work of hand-drawn animation, so detailed in the art and meticulous in the movement, that it does deserve acclaim. Yet the film itself, without considering the story behind it or the accomplishment of its craft, isn’t really that great on its own. Just a bloody, dialogue-free battle sequence between Spartans and Athenians, witnessed by a little girl. It does feel too much like the start of something, not a complete and concluded effort. Also its characters all seem too soulless to care what they’re doing.

Could it win? Especially given the fact that Williams already has three Oscars, I highly doubt it.

3. Sanjay’s Super Team

Pixar’s representative in the category this year is a special project from one of the studio’s longtime animators making his directorial debut. Sanjay Patel took inspiration from his own childhood, when he was having trouble appreciating his Hindu religion, to the dismay of his father. The way Patel related was, if the seven-minute short is so true, thinking of the gods as superheroes. Sanjay’s Super Team depicts his fantasy of Vishnu, Durga and Hanuman fighting against the villainous Ravana, as well as a bookending scene showing his relationship with his father at the time.

One of the best things this film does is showcase characters and a culture not common to Western animation. It’s also very sweet and heartwarming and bright and action-packed. The animation is soft and cartoony on the outer edges and then changes up some of its style in the fantasy section, blending perfectly while staying respectful to Indian tradition. It’s a vibrant, candy-colored treat, albeit one that also could very easily be just a part of a greater whole. Hopefully Disney never dilutes the power of the short by giving Sanjay and his Hindu heroes their own series like the one the kid is watching at the start.

Could it win? Very easily, yes, because the Academy loves Pixar and it’s quite pretty and lovable and safe.

2. We Can’t Live Without Cosmos

This Russian sci-fi film is directed by another prior nominee, Konstantin Bronzit, whose Lavatory Lovestory was up for the Oscar in 2009. Here he gives us the story of two cosmonauts who grew up as best friends and went into the space program together. They share a room and most of their training duties, and then comes the mission they’ve been waiting their whole lives for… That’s as much as needs to be said about the 15-minute short without spoiling the story. The film is done in a fairly simple 2D style and like most of the others contains no dialogue.

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos is a bittersweet look at friendship and the passion of two guys who want to go into space, or at least watch their pal do so. It’s cute, funny, strange and sad. And best of all it’s really devoted to its story and storytelling over any gimmicky or flashy visuals. Is the Oscar meant to go to the short that’s most advanced in the art of animation, though, or just the one that’s most effective overall in presenting its narrative? This is a film that has to be animated, and its more minimal look is the best way to do it. I love this short and think it has to be seen regardless of what voters will think constitutes the merits of the category. I’d have even included it on my list of the best sci-fi of 2015 if I’d seen it earlier. It’s a much better astronaut/cosmonaut film than The Martian.

Could it win? If the voters are going to go with a sci-fi animated short, this won’t be the one.

1. World of Tomorrow

Obviously this is the best of the nominees. It was the best sci-fi or fantasy film of last year, too. The 17-minute short is written and directed by Don Hertzfeldt, who was previously nominated in 2001 with Rejected, and uses very minimal and abstract computer-animated visuals to show the story of a little girl on a strange adventure with her clone from the future. Hertzfeldt’s own niece voices the main character, a stick figure with pigtails named Emily Prime, and much of her dialogue is unscripted, so especially adorable. For my full praise, written on behalf of the whole site, can be found in our post on why it’s our pick for movie of the year.

Could it win? If the Academy loves the thing as much as we do, as much as critics do, as much as many people have since its debut at Sundance last year, yes. If there’s anything that will beat Pixar (not that they’re undefeated, but Sanjay is pretty lovable), it will be, or it better be, World of Tomorrow.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.