One of the unfortunate side effects of the Academy’s accelerated schedule this year is the fact that the short film categories weren’t released until yesterday. Less than a week to go in our Blitz, and only now am I able to even crack three of the best categories in the entire ceremony. Animated Feature is especially poignant right now, as the media and pop culture world is mourning the death of Kobe Bryant, who won this category two years ago with Dear Basketball. Obviously this was an unforeseen wrinkle, but problems like this can arise when you rush things. In an effort to try to steal ratings the week after the Super Bowl, the Academy (and really, Disney/ABC) pays lip service to the actual purpose of the Oscars, and leaves themselves in a reactionary state for a news event like this.
Anyway, as I’ve mentioned numerous times, the Shorts are my favorite part of Awards Season. There’s a thrill to just forking over one price of admission, sitting in a theatre with some of the most passionate film fans imaginable, and watching an entire category in one straight go. Everything stays fresh in your head, and you get to make an apples-to-apples comparison and judgment right away.
Now, to be fair, two of our number have been available on YouTube for quite some time. And if you took the chance to watch them, it may color your opinion. At the same time, when I saw the full field (plus four “Highly Commended” entries that weren’t nominated – only one of which even made the shortlist), the two commercially available were leaps and bounds ahead of the pack. It’ll be interesting to see how the Academy breaks it down and votes, but I’ll be stunned if neither wins.
Also, just to be fair, I will place a SPOILER ALERT on this breakdown, as I kind of need to go into plot details (perhaps the entire plot) to properly explain my reactions to each film. You have been warned.
This year’s nominees for Animated Short are:
Dcera (Daughter) – Daria Kashcheeva
A 15-minute stop-motion piece, Dcera focuses on a young woman attending to her father in the hospital. As she wonders how close to get to him, hinting at estrangement, a bird crashes through the window in the ward. This triggers dueling flashbacks of the father and the daughter, both revolving around their relationship in regards to injured birds, both figuratively and literally. In her youth, the daughter made a bird costume, including a mask, which the father kept even after they were separated, making for a loving, sweet, story.
Where the film falls short for me is in the actual animation. The character models, especially the father, are grimy and scratched, which makes it hard to make out facial expressions, particularly since the father’s eyes are so small. The core of the emotion is almost lost because you can’t tell when his eyes are open or closed. Similarly, the film is shot with a lens that blurs the fringes of the frame, which again makes the visuals hard to see. I think it’s meant to draw the viewer’s gaze directly to center of the frame, but if that’s the intent, just film in 4:3. Having blurred edges in 16:9 just makes us wonder if there’s something wrong with the projector.
Hair Love – Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver
Also a story of a father and daughter, Hair Love is a lovely, bright tale of family and culture. Silent but for the narration of an instructional video, the film features a young girl with unwieldy hair who usually has her mother style and braid her afro down to a stylish bun. However, the mother is not around, so it’s up to the girl’s father to take the lead. Some hilariously exaggerated slapstick ensues as the father, well in control of his dreadlocks, tries to tackle the untamed mass. A particularly funny moment has him tackled by an elastic band. Despondent, the girl can only be comforted, and her father can only help her, through the guidance of the mother’s videos, for a reason that becomes apparent at the emotional conclusion.
More of a traditional animation than Dcera, the bond between the father and daughter is much more accessible because the bright colors and normal cell shading allow the characters to be more expressive. It’s also a resonant story in present-day America, as black people are somehow still publicly shamed because their hair is not as “smooth” as a white person’s. Don’t believe me? Check out the major news piece just from this past week where an honor student is being threatened with denial of his graduation unless he cuts off his dreads. Given how long it takes for dreads to grow and be styled, this is premeditated racism to not inform the young man of the “rules” until the last minute. That makes this story not only touching, but essential, because it’s not just the familial bond that strengthens, but also a pride in your own identity and the support of people willing to let you show just how beautiful you are.
Kitbull – Rosana Sullivan and Kathryn Hendrickson
Part of the “Sparkshorts” series at Pixar, in which their artists are encouraged and funded to create their own semi-independent shorts, Kitbull is an adorable tale of friendship and empathy that plays to the very heart of Pixar’s thematic past. Eschewing the usual CGI style in favor of cell shading with pencil-sketched outlines, the film features a small kitten and a pit bull (hence the title), who grow to love each other in San Francisco.
The tiny, black kitten sports a giant head, a short fuse, and an endless amount of energy. Initially distrustful of anyone, it lives in a box at the back of what looks like a scrap yard. Resting its head on a teddy bear, its security is interrupted by the arrival of the pit bull, shepherded into the back by the yard’s owners, and quickly weighted down by a heavy chain. The dog is playful and curious, and eventually the two animals share a little fun over a game of passing a bottle cap to one another. The cat, ever jittery, is hysterical as it spasms about in a mix of play and caution. Seeing its eyes widen as it pounces on the bottle cap is just an utter delight.
Fearful of an attack, the cat falls out of its box and gets tangled in some barbed wire. Shortly afterward, the pit bull, grievously injured as a result of dog fighting, is unceremoniously thrown into the yard, where it suffers another injury saving the cat. Bonded over their shared trauma, the cat helps the dog to escape, leading them to eventually find a loving home.
If you’re a lover of animals at all, this film would likely have you blubbering. I know it did for me the first several times I saw it. The best animated shorts – especially from Pixar – succeed because they can expertly transmit complex emotional stories and themes to a young audience, often without ever saying a word. Kitbull is just another entry in that rich tradition.
Memorable – Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre
This French entry is equal parts beautiful and devastating. One of the most sincere and unique depictions of dementia ever put to film, the movie looks at an elderly couple, where the man has severe memory loss, forcing his wife to take care of his every need. He has a zest for life and a good sense of humor, but cannot remember simple things like his wife’s name, the fact that her mother is dead, or that he’s even married to her. He remembers that he’s married, but is never sure as to whom. The toll it takes on her is immeasurable, but there’s one bit of sweetness that always keeps her going – the fact that every day, he falls in love with her at first sight over and over again. Each day, when his memories have completely failed him, he sees her, fawns over her, and insists that he be able to paint her portrait. The house is littered with paintings of her that he no longer remembers.
It’s heartbreaking to see the effects of Alzheimer’s, but to have them so artistically rendered is in its own way a form of therapy. And it’s a major plus to the animators that the film goes from clay stop-motion (the image of the man essentially melting as his memories continue to fade is haunting) to basically looking like an expressionist painting come to life. When the couple dances together, it’s a thing of beauty.
Sister – Siqi Song
This curious stop-motion entry has some interesting visuals, but unfortunately they’re coupled with a half-baked, politically insulting premise. A Chinese narrator shows his family – himself, his parents, and a sister posing for a family photo, with the sister coming in late. He establishes that he’s four years older than her, and that she’s the most annoying person in the world. She lies to get him in trouble. As a baby she screams incessantly (one of the great sight gags shows him pulling on her infant outie belly button until the umbilical cord comes out and detaches, leaving her to deflate like a balloon). And yet, he loves her, as all big brothers do. For a while I was really enjoying this, as my sister and I fought constantly as kids, including violently over the TV remote, which this film depicts. Now we’re as close as close can be.
But then the rug is pulled out from underneath us for cheap shock value. I kind of guessed this based on the fact that this is a Chinese film, but it is later confirmed that the sister doesn’t exist, as she was forcibly aborted as part of China’s one-child policy. What looked like a charming tale of family is instead turned into manipulative garbage that the anti-abortion crowd will tout as proof of their agenda – that abortion kills living children, and that those who have them universally regret it – which is just patently false.
One of the shortlisted feature documentaries this year was One Child Nation, which explored this same topic. And while I thought it was the worst of the Doc Feature list, it still had some great insights, particularly the fact that you can be against the forced abortion actions of the OCP, but also be adamantly in favor a woman’s right to have one if she so chooses. Such nuance is missing from this cartoon, only the remorse of a narrator who didn’t get to grow up with a little sister, and the judgmental shaming of those responsible. Even if that wasn’t the intent of this film, it just left a sour taste in my mouth.
2. Hair Love
Next up: We go from cartoons made on purpose to cartoons made on accident and then passed off as live action. It’s Visual Effects!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you gotten to see any of these shorts? If so, which was your favorite? Do you need instructional videos to do your hair? Let me know!