Compared to this year’s Oscar nominees in the live-action short category, which range from fine to offensively awful, the animated short contenders are pretty good to great. That’s refreshing but also unsurprising. Most animated shorts these days seem to be made by veterans of the industry and receive a lot of help from within. Among this year’s animators nominated for Best Short Film (Animated) are a few filmmakers who work at Disney/Pixar or used to, as well as a couple of prior Oscar nominees. Another one of the shorts was produced at Cartoon Saloon, which has put out some nominated animated features.
The five animated shorts up for the Academy Award this year are also notable for their representation both on and off screen. The directors include a Filipino American, a Filipino Canadian, and a Chinese Canadian and their stories are about a Chinese-American girl, a Chinese-Canadian woman, and a Filipino-Canadian boy. Pixar’s Bao has received more attention for its cultural representation, though, because it’s from Pixar. Another theme this year is the depiction of the characters’ imaginations, which isn’t uncommon for the animation medium but isn’t always so prevalent among the Oscar nominees.
As usual, ahead of these shorts being available in theaters (starting February 8th) and then on VOD (starting February 19th) via ShortsTV, I’ve reviewed and ranked the nominees from least favorite to my preferred winner. I’ve also tried to guess what the voters will pick as the winner of the Academy Award.
5. Late Afternoon
After watching all the live-action shorts, I found it funny how much this 10-minute animated film by Louise Bagnall starts out so similarly to Marguerite. But it’s not about a closeted lesbian reminded of a love long lost. It’s about dementia! Tastefully depicted in a dreamscape of an old woman remembering events in her life, the story of this woman having a sudden realization is sweet and heartwarming if still a little melancholy. Like a cup of tea with biscuits but the tea goes cold as you’re thinking deeply about it. It’s fantastical but still grounded.
I love seeing that an animator at Cartoon Saloon who has worked on such feature Oscar nominees as Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner got to make a film of her own and now that’s become the Irish studio’s first nominee in the shorts category. It’s like what we regularly see at Pixar with their shorts and the evolution of their filmmakers. Late Afternoon is kind of old school in its abstract 2D style, reminding me of animation from the early ’80s (maybe it just reminded me of The Snowman in its moments of flight), and I enjoyed its simplistic but still very rich visuals. It ends too neatly, though, and plays the moment as if it was a plot twist, which wasn’t necessary.
4. One Small Step
Speaking of being reminded of Pixar, this short really feels like something made by that studio (it’s like La Luna, Sanjay’s Super Team, Bao, and the first part of Up all mashed together). But with the design of a short from Walt Disney Studios (a la Paperman and Feast), which is, of course, where co-directors Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas worked before joining the new Taiko Studios. The company’s founder and CEO, Shaofu Zhang, who co-wrote this inaugural film, was also previously at the Mouse House.
One Small Step follows a Chinese-American girl (Taiko is based in both the US and China, hence the representation) through her young life, from a childhood of dreaming of going to the Moon to studying astrophysics in college in the hopes of making it into an astronaut program. Along the way, she’s supported by her single father, who is there by her side in times of fancy and in times of substantial reality. Until he isn’t. The eight-minute short is sweet and inspiring, also melancholy, too. But it does feel a bit too familiar.
And here’s the obligatory Pixar nominee itself. And I presume it will win, both because people love it and because the narrative of its cultural representation and how personal a story it is for filmmaker Domee Shi (who also worked on animated feature nominee Incredibles 2) has been heavily hyped for a while. All of it deservedly so. The eight-minute short was not my cup of tea as much. I just don’t like the exaggerated design of the characters and it’s kind of a cheesy story. And also the climactic moment made my daughter scream. But other than that, it’s pretty well done.
Bao is about a Chinese-Canadian woman with empty nest syndrome who suddenly one day has a new child to take care of — but that child is an anthropomorphic Chinese dumpling. We watch them together as the dumpling grows up and then also gets to the point where he’s going to leave the nest. That stuff really didn’t work for me. But while I stand by my personal distaste for some of the short, I also have to acknowledge that what it does right as far as sharing a unique story that’s culturally unlike anything we’ve seen before, at least from this perspective, is very effective and even enlightening.
2. Animal Behaviour
The husband and wife team of David Fine and Alison Snowden are veterans of a different kind than the rest of the nominees. They previously won the Oscar in this category together in 1995 for Bob’s Birthday, which spawned their animated series Bob and Margaret. Before that, Snowden also received an Oscar nomination for her 1985 animated short Second Class Mail. In recent years, they’ve also worked on the cartoon Peppa Pig and co-developed the wonderful Shaun the Sheep series. It’s no wonder they’re finally back with another great film of their own.
Animal Behaviour, which marks the National Film Board of Canada‘s 75th Oscar nomination, is set during a single session of group therapy for a bunch of anthropomorphic animal characters. There’s a dog who leads the meeting, while the attendees include a leech, a praying mantis, a pig, a cat, a bird, and then suddenly an ape. Their issues, including the dog’s, are all based on normal natural traits of the animals, such as the leech’s parasitic separation anxiety and the praying mantis’s difficulty at keeping a man because she kills and eats them.
It’s funny and clever and even kind of says something about real therapy and the desire of humans to get away from our inherent animalistic wants and behaviors in order to conform to a social construct. It doesn’t play as deep, though, because of its crudeness (particularly the anus jokes), and I get why a lot of people see this one as a silly and often gross gag, but that crudeness is important to the point. I wouldn’t watch a spinoff series, which I could see happening especially given Fine and Snowden’s history, but it works for me as is, at just 14 minutes.
Admittedly, this one really hit home for me, as a child of divorce. But it’s not just a subjective appreciation that lands Weekends in first place in my ranking. Even at 16 minutes in length (the longest animated short nominee this year), the film doesn’t feel too long despite its rather simple premise. Basically, it’s just about a boy going back and forth from his mom’s house in the suburbs to his dad’s apartment in the city (Toronto, but it could be anywhere), repeated over and over through a year. Of course, each visit and return is different, inside and outside the two homes.
Writer/director Trevor Jimenez, who based the film on his own memories of the back and forth of split custody, is another Disney/Pixar guy. And before that Blue Sky. He’s worked on many of the same teams as Chesworth and Pontillas, plus this year’s feature nominee Ralph Breaks the Internet. Weekends was even made with Pixar resources as part of their co-op program that allows its employees to produce their own independent works. Yet it doesn’t resemble anything he’s worked on at his day job. If anything, it’s more Plympton-esque, but not as weird. Maybe a bit like a Chomet film.
There’s still an expressive surreal quality to much of the film in dealing with dreams, nightmares, perceptions of parents’ new significant others, and more. It’s specific in the details but also very relatable in the whole sensation of such an existence for kids (plus, maybe “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits is a universal dad’s car song?). I hope even viewers whose parents weren’t divorced can get it and feel what it was like for Jimenez and for many of us. My one and only complaint: I could do without Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie,” as much as I love it, being in everything.