Oscar Gold 2021 – Animated Short

I say this every year, but it remains 100% true. The Short Film categories are my favorite part of Awards Season. The ability to watch an entire category in one go is an absolute thrill, because the nominees run the gamut of themes, subject matter, and artistic style. Just about anything can get a nod, opening up limitless possibilities. Unless you monitor the film festival circuit, HBO, Vimeo, and Netflix on a near-continuous basis, odds are that when you watch the category, you’re going in completely cold, with no idea what to expect.

There was a little bit of uncertainty with these categories this time around thanks to the continuing COVID pandemic. The whole point of ShortsTV packaging and distributing the reels for each category sort of necessitates a theatre in which to display them, and there are still hundreds of shuttered theatres nationwide. Los Angeles was allowed to reopen on March 15, the day nominations were announced, but there were no guarantees, as larger chains like AMC would have the infrastructure to do so, but smaller, independent theatres would need a few more weeks, and while it was possible for a larger chain to show the Shorts, it wasn’t exactly probable. Thankfully, ShortsTV did come up with a contingency allowing for online viewing this year for the first time ever (which means you have no excuse NOT to watch), which alleviated any anxiety that I wouldn’t a) complete the Blitz, and b) get to enjoy the best part of it.

Because of streaming, it was a little bit easier this year to watch the shortlisted films before the nominations were announced, but most years you basically have to bank on high output from Disney/Pixar and hope the features were preceded by a short. Occasionally DreamWorks and the now-defunct Blue Sky Studios would include one as well, but they were rarely nominated.

Thankfully, the Animated Short presentation is supplemented with more than just the nominees. Because animated shorts tend to be, well, short, even when compared to the other two categories, ShortsTV adds in a few “Highly Commended” films as well, to pad the runtime of the whole thing to feature length. And it just so happens that this year, the three additions were on the shortlist for this category as well. Through that and some quick streaming (one on Vimeo, the other on Disney+), I actually finished the entire shortlist for the first time ever. So, once we get through the nominees – but before I reveal rankings – we can take a look at the full slate of 10 entries.

This year’s nominees for Animated Short are:

Burrow – Michael Capbarat and Madeline Sharafian

Two Pixar entries made it onto the shortlist this year, and of the two, this is the one that got nominated. It’s available on Disney+ if you can’t make a screening, and I actually saw it back in December after I watched Soul.

The story follows an anthropomorphic rabbit digging a hole in the ground to set up his new burrow home. It’s a simple area with almost no appointments, though he’s considering a disco ball as he does his construction. His domestic revelry is interrupted when a mole digs through his wall. Not wanting to be disturbed by neighbors, the rabbit continues digging, running into the much more decorated holes of a variety of subterranean animals. He desperately digs until he hits an underground spring, causing the holes to flood unless he can enlist the help of the very animals he avoided to avert catastrophe.

Like most of the best Pixar shorts, this film is essentially silent, save for cuddly animal sounds. The art style is not Pixar’s traditional CGI, but a 2D spectacle with thick black outlines and a bright color scheme that looks like it was designed in crayon. That’s part of the charm, not a dig. It reminded me of the Richard Scarry books and cartoons from when I was a kid. It’s sort of in following with last year’s nominee, Kitbull, which was also created using Pixar’s “SparkShorts” program, where artists working at the studio can use company resources for independent projects.

From a thematic standpoint, the short is very funny and very sweet. It’s also a rare depiction of an introverted character in a Disney property. The rabbit isn’t anti-social, but it’s clear that he desires a bit of alone time, and there are hints that this hole he’s digging is sort of his first home on his own, a dream “house” he’s always wanted. He knows the value of friendship, but is clearly nervous around strangers, and isn’t used to a bigger, more congested world. He also doesn’t want to be bombarded with company when it’s not on his terms. It’s very relatable.

Genius Loci – Adrien Mérigeau and Amaury Ovise

Of all the nominees, this was the hardest for me to decipher. It appears to be either set in France or a French-speaking African nation. I couldn’t quite figure it out. In the film, a young woman named Renee is asked to watch over a baby while its mother takes a shower and cooks dinner. Instead, Renee escapes through the window of their apartment’s kitchen and goes exploring in the urban atmosphere at night. Eventually, she comes upon what looks to be a dilapidated church, where a friend of hers is playing music. There’s something in the music that excites her, and she transforms into a wolf or dog-like animal, running in a frenzy until she reaches home, as if nothing had happened.

The art style here is very much without form, and is filled with surreal, abstract, and cubist influences. Colors flash in the fore and backgrounds, creating complete chaos throughout. It’s a bit hard on the eyes at times, but it’s in keeping with the eccentric and enigmatic nature of the film’s lead. Renee herself is drawn very androgynously and speaks with a mid-level tone, suggesting that “she” might be a transgender character. It would certainly explain the confusion and fear she experiences along the way. When she meets her friend, she’s looked upon by faces that can’t seem to know what to make of her, which also supports that theory. Her transformation into a wolf may symbolize the physical transition of gender, and also the insecurity involved, where she thinks people see her as a threat or a monster.

I could spend days trying to parse this thing, which is both good and bad. Art is supposed to be a conversation, and this film certainly sparks it, almost begging for a litany of interpretations. Unfortunately, it also makes it hard to judge properly against much more straightforward entries, leaving it as a conspicuous outlier.

If Anything Happens I Love You – Michael Govier and Will McCormack

Oh my God this one broke me. I saw it on Netflix completely at random back when it first came out around November of last year. I was literally walking upstairs to the kitchen to get some water, and my roommates were in the living room scrolling. They saw that the film was short, so they decided to take a look. From the first frames, where a man and a woman sit on opposite ends of a long table lazily picking at food while pencil sketch-style shadows loom overhead, I was hooked enough to see where it went.

And it killed me. It absolutely fucking killed me. It was all I could do not to bawl my eyes out right then and there as the story unfolded and realization dawned on me as to what the film was actually about. Watching my worst fears get confirmed over and over again through the course of just a few minutes was almost a traumatic experience.

It’s exactly what this category should be all about, exactly what it should encourage. A lot of the time we default to lighter stories, mostly from the House of Mouse and its subsidiaries, but this is the first time I can remember an animated short taking aim at a critical and relevant modern issue, and doing so with such a deft, brutal touch. It makes real a parent’s worst nightmare with such gripping yet simple visuals (charcoal, pencil sketch, minimal colors, alternating jerky and flowing movements) that it sticks with you long after you’ve finished watching. When I went to the screening for the category, knowing this film was there, I had to brace myself once again to not blind myself with tears. At least, having seen it once before, I knew how much time I had to wipe everything away so I could see the next entry without fogged vision.

This is one of the greatest pieces of animation ever created.

Opera – Erick Oh

This is one of the more unique animated shorts I’ve ever seen, and it almost has to be experienced to be believed. On a technical level, it reminded me of Pearl, a nominee from a few years ago that was the first Virtual Reality film to ever be nominated. The presentation gave us the most complete experience possible, but the film existed in a 360-degree space where someone with a rig could turn in any direction and watch the story unfold. It was a brilliant concept, but sadly didn’t translate all that well to the traditional 2D screening.

I got the same impression with Opera, which opens with a small triangular room beneath a moonlit sky that turns to morning. As it does, the scene slowly zooms out until a whole pyramid is revealed, filled with interconnected rooms that serve a clockwork-like function. It’s at this point you realize that the title has nothing to do with music, but rather it’s a play on the word itself, referring to the operation of a machine, which keeps a rhythm because every piece does its individual part, like a meticulously choreographed dance.

And it’s a morbid fucking machine, as each symbiotic room demonstrates some aspect of the social order, from clergy and rich people at the top to the exploited and dead below. It all works in tandem, even when the oppressed masses revolt. Despite the connectivity, there’s enough separation and insulation from one room to another that when the largest group at the bottom finally rises up, they can be led to fight and kill one another rather than direct their ire to the instruments (and people) of their suffering. And even then, it’s all a continuous cycle. Eventually the fighting dies down, nothing has changed, and with the start of a new day, the class struggle begins anew.

Conceptually, this is very strong and very creative. But like Pearl, I don’t think it was intended for a traditional theatrical presentation. The way we get to see it, the shot slowly zooms out until the pyramid is fully revealed, then it holds for a few minutes, then slowly zooms back in to end the film. But there’s so much going on in each room, so many details that get smaller and smaller with no guide for your attention, that it feels like some kind of compromise had to take place in order for it to be shown at all, and this was the best way to attempt to get everything across to the viewer. Unfortunately, everything becomes so tiny that it’s hard to make out what’s what. I could watch this film 10 times and still not properly see everything I’m probably meant to.

Yes-People – Arnar Gunnarsson and Gísli Darri Halldórsson

Every couple of years you get a nominee that’s just a couple solid minutes of laughs from a simple concept. This year that honor goes to Yes-People, a 3D CGI film with stop-motion influences from Iceland that derives all of its comedy from an apartment building where everyone can only say the word, “Yes” (or “Já” in Icelandic).

There are basically three pairs of people who make up this building and say their singular line over the course of a day. An older married couple goes about their daily business, watching TV and shoveling snow, basically enjoying their retirement. A middle-aged couple deals with their failing marriage, as each has “let themselves go,” and neither has any passion in their relationship. The third is a mother and son. The mother is happy-go-lucky, but a strict matriarch to her teenage son, who would rather play video games than study or go to school.

The jokes are fairly rapid-fire in this very brief entry, but the speed is part of the fun. Everybody gets their “Já”s in here and there in good ways, from a music lesson where the teacher is trying so very hard to be encouraging, to a fat husband pouring out his healthy smoothie in favor of a donut. The biggest laugh of all comes at the end, and I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say, whatever the Icelandic equivalent of Viagra is, it works! This movie is very simple, but I found it to be just delightful.

***

Now, as I mentioned, before we get to the rankings, let’s take a brief look at the other five films in the shortlist.

Kapaemahu

Narrated in Hawai’ian, the story is an ancient tale about how the earliest Pacific Islanders worshipped several gods when it came to the formation of their society and the healing of the sick. These deities were simultaneously male and female, making this the first true non-binary/trans story I’ve seen in the category. It’s a simple tale, and the animation – which looks like it was painted from sand – is certainly very intriguing.

Out

Available on Disney+, Out is the other Pixar entry this year, and it breaks with tradition in that it’s not only 2D, but has full dialogue. The film, which is cheekily introduced as “Based on a true story,” follows Greg, Disney’s first confirmed gay protagonist. He lives with his boyfriend, Manuel, and the two are moving out of their old home. Greg’s parents show up, ostensibly to help him pack, but mostly his mother is sad because he’ll be living so far away. The big problem here is that Greg has not come out to his parents, and thus sends Manuel away and tries to hide any evidence of his relationship. Things go awry however when some “magic” creates a body switch situation between Greg and his dog.

The whole story is sort of silly, especially the body switch, given the introduction. The animation is nothing we haven’t seen before, either. I’m guessing all this, plus the talking, is why the film ultimately wasn’t nominated. That said, the resolution is something truly heartwarming. I’ve had gay friends whose parents resisted the situation at first and others who fully embraced it. But through it all, there was an understanding that’s highlighted in this film at the conclusion that is just really sweet, and that alone makes it worthy of consideration.

The Snail and the Whale

Every few years or so, we get a British entry from Magic Light Pictures, a nice half-hour adventure based on a children’s book, voiced and narrated by top-level UK actors. The last one to get a nod was Room on the Broom back in 2013, I believe. Now we have The Snail and the Whale, which follows in the same tradition. It’s a 3D CGI effort that has a slight lag in the animation to give it a somewhat grainy texture, sort of like the most recent SpongeBob movie. Based on a hit picture book, the film was shown as a Christmas special on the BBC.

The story is about a restless snail living on a rock near a dock (the whole thing is rhyming), but she wants to see the world, so she hitches a ride on the tail of a humpback whale. It’s all very charming. Rob Brydon voices the whale and Sally Hawkins is the snail. She was also in Room on the Broom. Personally I think she’s making up for lost dialogue from The Shape of Water, aka Grinding Nemo. The whole thing is narrated by the late Diana Rigg, and more than anything, it was just nice to hear her voice again. This is a very nice, quaint little film that kids will love.

To: Gerard

Part of me wonders whether this film got left off for trying to mosey in on Disney’s territory. Produced by DreamWorks, this is inarguably the most “magical” film in the entire shortlist, as well as the most wondrous. Can’t have that without Mickey’s stamp of approval now, can we?

In lieu of dialogue, there’s an audio recording of a magic show from decades ago. Calling for a volunteer, a young boy named Gerrard gets to participate in a trick where the magician makes a gold coin appear using sleight of hand. He gives it to Gerrard to encourage him to “make a little magic of [his] own.” As an adult, Gerrard works in the post office, but it’s clear he took the lesson to heart, as he uses skillful hand techniques to sort out the mail. One day, a young girl wanders in after seeing the coin and tries to take it. Gerrard, initially hesitant to give up his most prized possession, eventually shows the girl the same trick and gives her the coin, giving her the same encouragement the magician once gave him.

It’s a very sweet story, with an even sweeter resolution, and it’s a great visualization of the old adage that magic must be passed on to the next generation so that it doesn’t die out. I understand wanting to highlight unique and experimental artistic achievement, but it is practically criminal that this didn’t get nominated.

Traces

Available on Vimeo, this is another tale of ancient cultures, possibly going back as far as cro magnon man. In a tribe of hunter/gatherers, there is one person designated as a sort of summoner. Whatever animal they paint on the rock will show up to be hunted for food. The one holding that role tries to teach it to his daughter, but instead of drawing buffalo, which are full of meat and relatively docile, she wants to see more exotic animals like bears and lions, leading to magical danger.

I definitely liked this one. It’s a bit unique artistically, using charcoal and red paint, but instead of drawing outlines, the charcoal draws inlines, like war paint and patterns of hair, leaving the outer dimensions of the characters largely to your imagination. It’s also kind of novel to see the overprotective father/daughter dynamic taking place during an ice age. For a largely silent film broken up only briefly by native tribal language, it somehow manages to say a lot.

***

My Rankings:
1) If Anything Happens I Love You
2) Yes-People
3) Burrow
4) Opera
5) Genius Loci

Shortlist Rankings:
1) If Anything Happens I Love You
2) To: Gerard
3) Yes-People
4) Burrow
5) Kapaemahu
6) The Snail and the Whale
7) Out
8) Opera
9) Traces
10) Genius Loci

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Next up, we break down the last and most wide open of all the acting categories this year. It’s Best Actress!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which short was your favorite? Do you default to Disney/Pixar? If you didn’t choke up watching If Anything Happens I Love You, what is it like to not have a soul? Let me know!

One thought on “Oscar Gold 2021 – Animated Short

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s