Last year was pretty weak for animated features. After all, The Boss Baby was nominated for an Oscar. But when it came to animated shorts, 2017 turned up with a nice mix of quality works. Sure, there was that Frozen thing that everybody hated. Fortunately it’s not a contender. Instead, the five films that are nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short are all pretty good.
If you’re interested in checking out the animated short nominees on the big screen (starting February 9th) or On Demand (starting February 27th), it’s a strong, fully satisfying program. Still, only one can be the best. Below I’ve reviewed and ranked the nominees based on my preference, and I’ve attempted to guess what the Academy voters will pick, as well.
5. Dear Basketball
There’s no denying this is something of a vanity project for Kobe Bryant, who wrote and produced the short based on a letter he penned as he was retiring from the NBA. Bryant also narrates the six-minute film’s voice-over tribute to the sport he’s loved all his life as we see penciled rotoscope-style animations of him playing as a pro and as a child in his bedroom with a balled-up pair of socks. And it still feels very earnest. Plus the short is directed by Disney Legend Glen Keane and scored by none other than John Williams. Only the best for such a narcissistic yet moving if not inspiring project.
Could it win the Oscar? Dear Basketball did win the Annie Award for Best Animated Short Subject, but only one of its Oscar competitors was up for the same award. As decent as the film is, it’s neither innovative nor substantial enough in its story to deserve the Academy Award.
4. Negative Space
A sweet little story becomes bittersweet as a young man recounts a bond he shared with his late father. The five-minute French film seems autobiographical, but I’m not sure if either of its directors, Ru Kawahata and Max Porter, is in fact sharing a personal perspective on packing luggage and the ironic twist the story leads to. I like that this isn’t just a straight illustration of an anecdote and has clever transitions as it plays with scale and makes imaginative use of props. I don’t know if it’s meant to have an emotional payoff, but if so it’s not effective, perhaps because it’s so brief, yet that’s fine given the rest of its charms.
Could it win the Oscar? It’s the one of the Oscar nominees that was up against Dear Basketball at the Annies and lost, and I just don’t think it has the goods to go all the way with the Academy.
3. Garden Party
As long as it doesn’t have you craving a Budweiser, this computer-animated student film is a real hoot for most of its seven-minute runtime. We see a variety of frogs taking over a seemingly abandoned home, including the pool and kitchen. As the short goes on, more and more clues arise indicating a violent back story to why the place looks deserted. Some of that eventual plot unfolding is a bit much and diverts from the more incidental joys of the film, and the final moment takes away from what’s otherwise a magnificently photorealistic work of animation, but the detailed craft here and considering it’s a school project makes it quite impressive.
Could it win the Oscar? There’s a lot to appeal to voters here, from the quality of the visuals to the kicker of the escalating entertainment of the story, but it’s just not the best of the bunch, whatever your criteria may be.
2. Revolting Rhymes
Children’s book legend Raold Dahl wrote six poems reworking classic fairy tales, collecting them in a publication titled “Revolting Rhymes.” Five of the poems were adapted into a two-part animated special for BBC One and PBS, and now one of those half-hour works has been singled out for an Oscar nomination. Revolting Rhymes Part One, as it’s also known by, combines Dahl’s parodies of “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” with a framing device involving a big bad wolf (voiced by Dominic West) telling the tale of how Red and Snow became best friends and then responsible for the deaths of his two nephews. The animation isn’t terribly fresh or inventive, but the storytelling is engaging and witty. Not unlike co-directors Jan Lachauer and Jakob Schuh‘s previous separate Oscar-nominated animated shorts, Room on the Broom and The Gruffalo, respectively.
Could it win the Oscar? Room on the Broom and The Gruffalo didn’t, and this film is the same sort of thing, an adaptation of material that provided its best narrative elements. But together with Part Two, this half of Revolting Rhymes did win an Annie Award in the animated specials category. There’s a chance.
I almost don’t want to give this top ranking on account of it’s Pixar, and that just seems too easy. And it’s not like Lou has the technological wow factor of previous Oscar nominee Piper (which I ranked in first place and which did win last year). This is more of the adorable, sentimental Pixar touch, a film about a monster made out of Lost and Found items (the name “Lou” is formed from three of the letters missing from the box). One day he encounters a young bully, to whom he teaches a lesson. Maybe it’s sappy, but the six-minute short, which screened theatrically with Cars 3, earns its emotional denouement and does offer children a cute lesson about bullies within its delivery of slapstick and schmaltz. My own daughter can’t stop watching it.
Could it win the Oscar? John Lasseter’s name attached to the short as producer could be an issue, but then that’s not harming Coco‘s chances in the feature category. Lou could easily be one of the Pixar shorts that the Academy doesn’t feel obligated to honor, as it has a light and less-innovative feel. But that’s a good feel, and I can’t see how anyone can watch all five of these shorts, as good as they all are in their own way, and not come away enjoying this one the most.