The art of animation is no laughing matter for many of the films comprising this year’s class of Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts (★★★★☆). While the Academy’s nominees for Animated Feature, including the blockbuster Toy Story 4 and the charming Missing Link, imagine colorful worlds of fantasy and adventure, the animated shorts generally draw on a more serious palette to portray extraordinary events in ordinary lives. On the whole, the current compilation achieves a sense of balance between pathos and exuberance over the course of 83 minutes and eight films (the five Oscar nominees, plus three Honorable Mention selections).
What remains striking about this group are the disparate ways these storytellers use animation to explore complex emotions. In the nominated Czech short “Daughter” (★★★★☆), writer-director Daria Kashcheeva casts expressive papier mâché puppets in the dreamlike depiction of a grown daughter standing vigil beside her ailing father’s hospital bed. Confronting a dark and frightening moment in her adult life, she reminisces about her childhood being raised by this single dad who didn’t always understand her. The film’s elegant, tactile quality, and dialogue-free storyline, focus attention on the looks and gestures that express the daughter’s complicated love for her dad, and his for her.
Daddy-daughter bonding also anchors nominee “Hair Love” (★★★☆☆), written by Matthew A. Cherry, who co-directed with Everett Downing, Jr., and Bruce W. Smith. Already a viral online hit, with 13-million Youtube views and counting, this confection subtly subverts stereotypes, offering a relatable scenario of a young black girl learning that her bountiful head of natural curls “takes a little bit of work and a whole lot of love” to tease and tame into the tight ‘do she desires. The point of the film is that her loving, macho dad also needs to learn how to do his little girl’s hair in her mom’s absence. And the film succeeds in combining a frank look at a family in flux, with its adorable girl’s-eye view of hair drama. The story’s impact might be blunted somewhat by the basic-looking digital animation, but its message asserting self-esteem and representation comes through loud and clear.
Oscar Shorts: Animation — Memorable
The nominated French short “Memorable” (★★★★★) lands a powerful impact with its message and style, essaying the poignant claymation tale of elderly painter Louis and his wife Michelle (ably voiced by André Wilms and Dominique Reymond) struggling together through his dementia. Filmmaker Bruno Collet softens the blow of such heavy subject matter with the bright-eyed visages of the painted marionette characters, the script’s dry sense of humor, and whimsical visual allusions to other painters, including Van Gogh. Adding the excellent score by composer Nicolas Martin, “Memorable” stands out as the strongest selection in the bunch, by virtue of its completeness as a vivid and compelling short story.
“Sister” (★★★☆☆), a nominated short by L.A.-based Chinese filmmaker Siqi Song, might be just as vivid, depicting a young man’s recollections of his four years younger sister via plush, woolen, stop-motion animated characters. An insightful political commentary, the beautiful film falters slightly by leaning hard into its maudlin mood, epitomized by the heavy piano-and-strings score and tragic plot twist. Fortunately, the visual appeal and inventiveness of the quirky fabric figures stirs the imagination, as some compensation for the oppressive atmosphere.
Oscar Shorts: Animation — Kitbull
The final Oscar nominee in the program, “Kitbull” (★★★★☆), presents its bittersweet drama with more poise and buoyancy, the latter quality not a surprise since this is the program’s practically required entry from Pixar Studios. Although, this slight but sweet story of a playful stray kitten who befriends a mistreated backyard pit bull happens to be a Pixar short that doesn’t much look like a Pixar short. The animation is less slick, a little rougher around the edges, in an artfully soulful fashion that serves writer-director Rosana Sullivan’s affecting fable of friendship well.
Rachel Johnson’s short “Henrietta Bulkowski” (★★☆☆☆) could use some of that soulfulness. An eye-rollingly twee stop-motion fable in the Wes Anderson mold, complete with arch voiceover narration, the film relates the story of Henrietta, a lonely dreamer self-conscious about the abnormal bone mass fused to her spine giving her a pronounced hump. Based on the post-apocalyptic play The Snow Hen by Brooklyn-based theatre company the Debate Society, the short features the voices of Christina Hendricks and Oscar-winner Chris Cooper, and, despite Henrietta’s preoccupation with becoming a pilot, the short never really takes flight.
“The Bird and the Whale” (★★★☆☆), on the other hand, might be thin on story, but evokes both depth and weightlessness with its richly impressionistic animation, hand-painted on glass by writer-director Carol Freeman and her crew. The bird and the whale of the title do take flight, as does this spirited, wordless delight. But the richest delight might be found in the program’s inclusion of one truly LOL-worthy film, the French comedy “Hors Piste” (★★★★☆), directed by Léo Brunel, Loris Cavalier, Camille Jalabert, and Oscar Malet. Charting a two-man rescue team’s daring, and painful, attempts to save a climber stranded on a towering mountain peak, the short boasts the deft physical comedy of a Pink Panther or Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon, and more importantly in this case, provides necessary lighthearted balance to a brilliant show highlighting the serious art of animation.
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