This is, by far, my favorite part of Oscar season, when I get to watch the nominated short films. For the longest time this was also the hardest part of the season, due to a lack of accessibility. Until recently, the short film nominees in all three categories were voted on by Academy members who attended special screenings and voted then and there. About five or so years ago, however, ShortsTV took it upon themselves to create public screenings, putting the five nominees on DVDs that were screened in theatres for anyone to see. Sure, you still probably had to find an indie or arthouse theatre to do so, but at last it was an option.
The Animated Short category is rich in history, but it’s one most of us haven’t experienced because of the modern media. This category is responsible for 12 of Walt Disney’s 22 Oscars, and the Tom and Jerry series by itself has won seven. This is because in the 1930s-60s, animated shorts were part and parcel with the movie-going experience. The idea of seeing a movie with newsreels and short cartoons was normal back then, but almost unheard of now. Instead we get a thinly veiled half hour commercial reel hosted by Maria Menounos, followed by 20 minutes of trailers (and more concessions ads) at the listed showtime, before actually getting to the movie. All the cartoon shows we watched as kids with classic Looney Tunes and such were compiled from previous theatrically-run shorts, many of which were nominated in this category. Most of us never had access to them in their original format.
The rare event that we get to see an opening short is with Disney/Pixar films, which is at least part of the reason they have so many wins. If an Academy voter doesn’t go to a shorts screening, they can still vote on those categories now, so between Disney and Netflix, they’re likely to vote for the ONE they’ve seen.
Despite the lengthy preamble, this will be one of the shortest analysis columns I’ll do, mostly because for four of the five nominees, the actual cartoons are fairly short, less than 10 minutes. There’s only so much to write about. The other short categories, Documentary and Live Action, tend to push closer to the 40 minute limit, but the Animated ones stick to the formula of five to seven minutes.
This year’s nominees for Animated Short are:
Dear Basketball – Glen Keane and Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant is one of the all-time greats of the NBA, playing his entire career for the Los Angeles Lakers, who retired both his jersey numbers (8 and 24) earlier this season. He’s sure to be a first ballot Hall of Famer. Before his final season began, he commissioned this love letter to the game that made him who he is. However you come to judge Kobe in moral or ethical terms (especially considering the scandals he faced a decade ago), one thing that can’t be denied is his love of the game, and even without this film, no one would doubt that he gave the game everything he had.
The actual film is a lovely pencil sketch and charcoal style, narrated by Kobe, jumping back and forth over the course of his life, from his childhood rolling up his father’s socks into a ball to shoot from his bed, to his youth ball days, to high school, and then the NBA. The film is scored by none other than John Williams, which lends some mighty Academy heft to the project. The only color in the film is used for Kobe’s uniforms over the years and the stripes of those rolled socks. I’m a big fan of pencil sketch animation, and the limited use of color really worked for me.
Garden Party – Victor Caire and Gabriel Grapperon
This is probably the best pure piece of animation in this year’s set, though there’s basically nothing in the way of story. A group of very lifelike frogs hops around the grounds of a very big mansion, complete with back yard pool. The place looks like there’s been a pretty big party the night before. One of the frogs chases a butterfly, one eats everything in his path, including a bunch of caviar and pastries. A couple others try to get frisky. It looks like some frogs having fun, and while there’s no real story, there are background clues that lead to a very good dark joke to end the film.
Now personally, I was conflicted on this, mostly because I am irrationally terrified of frogs, have been since I was very young. So the idea of seeing incredibly realistic CGI frogs projected on a movie screen was juuuuuuuuusssst a bit unsettling for me. That said, once the joke landed, all my anxiety melted away and I was just laughing my ass off.
Lou – Dave Mullins and Dana Murray
This is the one entry in this year’s set that has the best chance of being seen outside the screenings. Thankfully, we have the internet and video hosting sites like Vimeo, so access isn’t completely cut off, but for the average viewer who doesn’t go hunting, this is about as good as you can get, because Lou, produced by Pixar, played at the front of Cars 3 in theatres, so anyone who went to that movie got to see this. For a while I was wondering if Pixar had an entry this year, as there was no short for Coco from them – instead we got the utterly terrible Olaf’s Frozen Adventure Christmas special from Disney at large, and even that was pulled after a few weeks because people hated a half hour schmaltz fest after all the previous crap I mentioned in the preamble. Disney said they had always planned to pull it, but that makes no sense, because why pull a Christmas special before Christmas?
Anyway, on to Lou. The title character is an anthropomorphic pile of toys inside the “Lost and Found” box at a kindergarten playground (his name being the three letters of the phrase that have fallen off the box over time). Every day he watches kids play in between classes, and when they go inside, he collects all the toys the children absentmindedly leave behind. He then either stows them or places them out in the open to be found the next time they come outside. One day, a bullying child starts stealing the kids’ toys, so Lou teaches him a lesson about sharing, complete with comically karmic bitchslapping and well-animated action and chase sequences. It’s not the best piece of isolated animation, but it’s still Pixar quality, and it probably has the best, most complete story.
Negative Space – Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata
The second entry from France (the other being Garden Party), though just like its companion, there are no subtitles (this is narrated in English and Garden Party had no dialogue). The story is very short and sweet, about the bond between a father and son over the oddly specific ritual of maximizing the available space whilst packing a suitcase. The film takes an obvious emotional turn towards the end, but undercuts it with an ending joke that lands, but not terribly well, mostly because what little we have beforehand establishes enough to telegraph the punch line.
Where the film succeeds is in the actual animation. Using a stop-motion style with what seems like papier-mâché pieces and characters, with very dull and de-saturated colors, the film sets the perfect tone for a slightly dark comic tale of honest emotion. The actual character models are a bit abstract, but not off-putting.
Revolting Rhymes – Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer
This is the longest entry of the set, at a whopping 28 minutes, based upon the poems in the book of the same name by Roald Dahl, and produced by the BBC. It’s also something of an incomplete entry, as the film was a two-part special that aired at Christmas 2016 in the UK. Only Part One is nominated here. It’s on DVD if you want to see the complete story. The animation style is competent but nothing special, mostly clever uses of circles and sharp angles in standard CGI animation.
As for story, well, being a half hour long, we certainly get a lot, but again, we only get half of it. A woman meets a wolf in a diner, where he recounts the deaths of his nephews at the hands of Red Riding Hood and Snow White. The whole affair is a very fractured fairy tale, where the Red and Snow are friends growing up together and living their own stories, in a magical kingdom that’s right next to modern London. Per the title and the poems, the dialogue and stories are told through rhymes, and the humor works very well. Also, Rose Leslie voices Red, so I got to imagine Ygritte the whole time, hoping she’d say, “You know nothing, Snow White.” Apparently Isacc Hempstead-Wright plays a character in Part Two, so we could have had a double dose of Game of Thrones with Ygritte and Bran!
This is a pretty strong set this year. Normally there’s at least one entry that utterly baffles me as to why it got picked, but not this year. Every nominee has its own strengths.
2) Garden Party
3) Dear Basketball
4) Revolting Rhymes
5) Negative Space
Because the Animated Shorts are so, well, short, audiences who go to screenings get a bonus treat, a selection of “Highly Commended” shorts that didn’t get nominated, a sort of honorable mention so they can get some exposure. We got three of them this year.
The Lost Property Office – Submitted by Australia, it’s the story of a man who collects lost items at a train station and tinkers with things that need repair. The film opens with him fixing a toy robot. Eventually, he’s laid off, and must now contemplate his next move, with suicide being presented as an option. The animation style is stop-motion, and the figures evoke steampunk. The entire film is also sepia toned. This is the one entry in both sets that I didn’t really care for all that much, mostly because I’m not the biggest steampunk fan, and despite the dark themes, the twist ending is easy to spot, so all tension is lost.
Weeds – This film is very short. A dandelion in a dry yard sees sprinklers and green grass in the neighboring yard as its fellow weeds dry up around it. Determined to survive, it pulls itself up from the roots and attempts the perilous journey across a scorching driveway. The very concept is silly, but it puts a smile on your face for its three minutes.
Achoo – Another French film with English narration, it tells a children’s book-style story of how dragons and fireworks came to be part of Chinese New Year celebrations. It features a scrawny, Spyro-esque dragon who can’t breathe fire because he’s allergic to gunpowder, but he must put on some sort of lighting spectacle for a stern judge (who has a heart hilariously tattooed on his ass) in order to gain some special honor. He’s also taunted by two bigger dragons who are dicks for no reason. The ending is predictable, but lovely, and there are some decent sight gags thrown in for good measure.
Next up: We’ll take a look at what didn’t end up on the cutting room floor with Film Editing!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What was your favorite short? Are you looking for ways to see them? Let me know! I’ll help out however I can!