Movies · Reviews

The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts Reviewed and Ranked

Short-form Academy Award nominees hit theaters this week and on VOD later this month. The animation contenders are a heavier bunch than usual.
Oscar Animated Shorts
By  · Published on January 30th, 2020

The Best Animated Short Film category is not traditionally associated with big issues. That’s often the Best Documentary Short Subject’s area of expertise. And the latter’s Oscar nominees this year mostly follow suit. But the animated short nominees are also very heavy. Not all necessarily confront an issue, but even the ones that aren’t “issue films” still deal with death, illness, and deep family relationships. Similar to last year’s winner, Bao, they can be a punch to the gut and bring you to tears.

Most of this year’s nominees are also very expressive, displaying the value of animation to illustrate the most imaginative approaches to storytelling. Anything goes in these five films, and they mostly show rather than tell. Compare them to the four additional animated shorts joining them in the annual theatrical program from Magnolia and ShortsTV (Henrietta Bulkowski, The Bird & The Whale, Hors Piste, and Maestro) as evidence that they are the deserving contenders, best of the best.

You can find some of the Best Animated Short Film nominees streaming online for free or through subscription VOD services, but all five (plus the bonus films) can be watched on the big screen in New York City starting on January 29th and nationwide starting on January 31st. The program will be available on VOD soon after. As usual, I’ve reviewed and ranked them from least favorite to my preferred winner. The winner will be announced at the Academy Awards on February 9th.

5. Kitbull

Kitbull Still

Disney and/or Pixar have been winning this category every other year lately, and since they won last year, this will not be their time. That’s perfect since they’ve got the least-great contender of the bunch with Kitbull. The directorial debut of Rosana Sullivan, who has worked at Pixar since 2011, this traditionally animated short is part of the studio’s SparkShorts series, which showcases more diverse voices and relatively mature themes in rather personal films that have limited productions and budgets. Kitbull, which Sullivan also wrote after being inspired by cat videos on the internet, is not my favorite film of its brand, but at least it’s not Purl, which I absolutely despise.

With a runtime of nine minutes, Kitbull follows the story of a stray cat who wanders into the backyard home of a pit bull. This is no pet canine, though, as he is implicitly revealed to be employed in dogfights, resulting in terrible injury. On one level, it’s a familiar kind of dialogue-free cartoon about two unlikely animal friends forming a bond. On another level, the short offers social commentary on the mistreatment and stereotyping of pit bulls as inherently violent beasts. It’s sweet but sad and fortunately has a happy ending. Visually it does nothing for me, though its simplicity in character design makes you pay more attention to the well-intentioned plot. The lack of personality makes the cat and dog more common, too, rather than specific cartoons for fun. Ultimately, that also makes this one of the more forgettable Pixar shorts.

4. Daughter

Daughter Still

The Czech film Daughter (original title: Dcera) has the opposite effect as Kitbull. The animation style stands out so much that I lost focus on the story. That’s not a problem for me because I’m a style-over-substance kind of guy, appreciating films with narrative problems if the visuals are unique and imaginative enough. This is puppet animation with a dramatically rough aesthetic, one that draws us in for being different rather than easily appealing to our senses. I loved watching it.

And soon forgot what it was about. The film expressively and often surreally depicts a relationship between a woman and her father, who seems to be dying in a hospital room. A sudden incident with a bird breaking a window has the titular daughter recalling a memory from her childhood involving another injured bird and her father’s lack of understanding. That’s mostly what I get out of the official synopsis. Daughter is a visually driven film and I’m all for that, though the plot isn’t totally clear as directed. Fortunately, there’s not too much to the story and can be enjoyed just for how it’s about rather than what it’s about.

Daughter already won first place at the Student Academy Awards last year in the international animation category, but I don’t expect it to win at the Oscars. That’s okay. I suspect that this won’t be the last we see of writer/director Daria Kashcheeva.

3. Sister

Sister Still

This short has a twist that I did not see coming. I can’t really review it without addressing and highlighting that spoiler, but I’ll see how far I can go without doing so, in case you want to avoid. Firstly, the eight-minute film is written, produced, and directed by Siqi Song, a Chinese woman who also worked as a model maker on the Oscar-nominated Laika animated feature Missing Link. I specify that she’s a woman because I figured Sister was more of an autobiographical story, but it’s about and from the perspective of a Chinese man. And no, she’s not the titular sister.

Okay, spoiler time. She’s not the sister, obviously, because there was no sister. The film sets up this simple memory of growing up with an annoying little sister, but then we learn that the girl was never born because of China’s One-Child Policy. The main character’s parents did become pregnant with a girl but were forced to abort the baby. If you’re unfamiliar with the now-abolished government policy, do yourself a favor and watch Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s Oscar-shortlisted documentary feature One Child Nation. I have to give credit to the film’s effectiveness if you’re not aware of what it’s about. I do think some of the fantastical expressive exaggerations of the fuzzy puppet animation are sometimes unnecessary or ill-fitting to the theme of the short, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad. And maybe they’re partly there to distract in order that we feel the twist even more.

2. Memorable

Memorable Still

This year’s nominees have a stop-motion majority, and of those three films, this one is definitely the best. Creative use of the medium plus a comprehensive narrative equals perfection. Of course, this one does have more dialogue than the others, and that’s normally something that loses points for me in the animated short category, but it’s not for exposition nor is it overdone conversation. Memorable is economical in its storytelling, choosing to not spell out the affliction of the main character, who is obviously suffering from dementia.

The clarity comes through in the animation, which does an amazing job conveying the man’s perception and cloudiness of his memory on-screen with visual abstraction. Writer/director Bruno Collet’s use of form proves that animation is the best medium to find empathy with certain human conditions. And on top of the animation style complementing the character’s psychology, it’s also perfectly fitting for his profession as an artist. The film looks like it’s made with oil paints, and the characters look like living portraits by Van Gogh, Picasso, and other masters. The whole thing is a masterpiece of form and function that rejects the idea that those two things together must be bland and basic.

Honestly, I think Memorable could win the Oscar, and I’d be happy if it did. It’s exceptional work. But the one I rank higher is also exceptional work with a more loveable story, both on- and off-screen.

1. Hair Love

Hair Love Still

This one has the best production backstory of the nominees. Hair Love was conceived by NFL pro turned filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry, who had never worked in animation before. He recruited Everett Downing Jr., an animator who has worked for Blue Sky, Pixar, DreamWorks, and Netflix, and Bruce W. Smith (Bebe’s Kids, The Proud Family) to help in the unfamiliar format. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse co-director Peter Ramsey and Pixar animator Frank Abney are among the executive producers, as is Jordan Peele. They started a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to raise $75,000, and they topped out with close to $300,000, breaking the record for a short film on the platform.

The six-minute film was then completed and partnered with Sony Pictures Animation, which released it in theaters with The Angry Birds Movie 2. I believe it was the only short attached to an animated feature last year since both Toy Story 4 and Frozen II surprisingly lacked accompaniment. Therefore, it’s also technically the highest-grossing of these nominees (as the only grossing of these nominees). However, Hair Love is such a different kind of film than the lowbrow video game adaptation it was shown ahead of. It’s smart and sweet and full of truth and melancholy while The Angry Birds Movie 2 is brighter, brasher, louder, and violently slapstick.

Hair Love is about a little African-American girl trying to do something with her hair for a special occasion. She watches an online tutorial video for help, but she has no luck. Then she pleads with her father to give it a try. Where is her mother? We don’t know until the end, but the dad is tasked with the job. He watches the videos, which turn out to be created by the girl’s mother, and he succeeds! Wonderful! Is the animation particularly innovative? No. But the visual storytelling is perfection, from the more realistic representation bits to the fantastical sporting sequence, done mostly – as I like it – without dialogue. And it’s emotionally effective. It reminds me of Pixar shorts, and due to its subject matter, I think it would have fit well with the SparksShorts series had Cherry been a Pixar employee. Alas, it’s better than all of that brand’s output so far and is my favorite to win the Oscar.

Given how much support Hair Love has from its crowdfunding patrons, Hollywood friends, fellow animators, and other big names (Gabrielle Union and Gabourey Sidibe are also credited producers), I trust that the film is also the most likely winner. One of its fans, as I learned after I’d already seen it a few times and set it as a frontrunner, was Kobe Bryant. He acknowledged on Twitter after the nominations were announced that, like his own Dear Basketball, Hair Love is another animated short from a former pro athlete to become an Oscar contender. I doubt Bryant’s death and that connection will wind up a factor for voters. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Cherry dedicated his win to Bryant.

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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.