Oscar Blitz 2023 – Animated Short

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
With a ton of cel-shading,
And deep color-grading,
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

It really is refreshing to see that the animation artform is expanding beyond the House of Mouse. It was shocking enough that there were no entries from either Pixar or Disney proper in this field last year, but this marks two years in a row where the Academy’s corporate overlords have been shut out. The last time that happened was in 2000 and 2001, over 20 years ago, and even then the second of those two years only had three nominees. We’re in very nearly unprecedented territory here!

And it really is a good thing, because it means that new, innovative voices are getting the chance to tell their stories. I like Disney animation as much as the next guy (I’m even working on a new video for after the Blitz on this very subject), but if there’s one thing I despise about the Oscars above all other things is when there’s a complete lack of competition, especially when it’s in deference to a corporate entity. I hate foregone conclusions. I mean, what’s even the point of having a vote if you can tell that the winner has already basically been determined by fiat? That’s what Disney/Pixar’s dominance in the animation space has meant for far too long of a time. They’ve got all the money and production resources to essentially price out the rest of the industry, to the point that in most years, the question isn’t whether or not they’ll get a nomination, but how many they’ll get, and whether anyone else can circumvent the machine and come up with something even more unique to draw the attention of voters away from the “safe” choice.

More importantly, their absence clears the way for more mature stories and themes. Every once in a while you get an entry that is decidedly not for kids, but they’re usually rare, and when the nominees are compiled for theatrical screenings, they’re often saved for last (even after the usual “Highly Commended” honorable mentions that are included to get the presentation to feature length, which was not needed this year) and accompanied by a disclaimer and brief intermission allowing parents to escort their children out of the room.

I’m sorry, but that’s just bollocks. Animation was never intended to be a kids-only genre. It’s about expanding the limits of storytelling by allowing artists to draw that which cannot be filmed live. Yes, there’s an innate appeal for children because of the bright colors and the imaginative visuals, but there should never be a default to the so-called “family friendly” set. One of the more surprising aspects of last year’s lack of Disney entries was the fact that not only were four of the five nominees far more adult than normal – including one with scenes of bestiality and the eventual winner, The Windshield Wiper, having explicit scenes of nudity and sex – but some theatres actually took the step of saying that the screenings were not at all appropriate for children and restricting admission, if not banning it entirely for those under 17. That might be something of an overcorrection (though again, given Bestia‘s more grotesque moments, not altogether unreasonable), but it illustrates the point that we shouldn’t treat mature animation as an exception rather than the rule.

Really, there shouldn’t BE a rule at all. Animation is about imagination and art, not the themes of whatever story it’s telling. Thankfully, this year’s set offers a wide range of tales to demonstrate that fact. There is a bit of standard kiddie fare, but there are also ageless family stories, frank discussions of sexuality, and even profound yet silly existential explorations. There’s something for everyone in the field this time, all featuring some incredible art and style, which is what all film should be about, including cartoons.

This year’s nominees for Animated Short are…

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and the Horse – Charlie Mackesy and Matthew Freud

Nominated for seven Annie Awards and already winning the BAFTA for Best British Short Animation over the weekend, this is the “easy” pick in the category. It’s the most kid-friendly, it’s got a massive production and marketing force behind it (having been co-produced by J.J. Abrams), it features three prominent British actors in the voice cast, it’s the most readily available for viewers who can’t make a theatrical screening (it’s been on Apple for two months now), and it was the designated Christmas feature on the BBC last year. If Academy voters are looking for something as close to “Disney-lite” as they can, then this is a shoe-in.

But honestly, it’s a rather slight affair despite its half-hour length. Adapted from Mackesy’s 2019 children’s book about love and empathy, the film is so sweet it’ll give you diabetes, but ultimately it doesn’t say all that much. The story sees a young boy (voiced by Jude Coward Nicoll; who gives their child “Coward” as a middle name, even if it’s a family surname?) alone and scared on a snowy hillside. He’s then joined by a mole (Tom Hollander) who’s looking for some cake, mistakenly thinking a nearby snow-covered tree fits the bill. The boy is lost and looking for “a home,” so the mole decides to help him find his way. That night, they are stalked by a fox (Idris Elba), who they later find trapped in a snare. After setting him free, the fox comes along as well, though initially at a distance. Finally, the trio happen upon a horse (Gabriel Byrne), who offers to take them to their destination faster than they can walk.

Throughout the journey, each character deals with brief bouts of insecurity and self-doubt, with the others taking the opportunity to reassure them that they’re good enough in the world, and that they’re loved. It’s a nice platitude for the youngest of viewers, and the animation style (which mimics Mackesy’s book) uses a nice blend of muted colors and pencil-like outlines to give things a more open-ended, minimalist feel for children to project their own developing emotions.

The problem is that in trying to appeal to the smallest audience, it leaves the rest of us wanting. There are some fairly easy and obvious questions that are never even brought up, much less answered. Where did the boy come from? Where is his home? How did he get lost? What’s the plan once he finds a human community? How do any of the four characters eat, drink, or shit during their multi-day trek? Does the boy even have a name? How does he survive in this wintry countryside with just a plain jumper and trousers? Giving us the answers to all of these would take only a few seconds, but that’s not the point. This story is meant for the tiniest of brains, impressionable minds who won’t ask questions, but simply feel in the moment. That’s why the same relatively empty tautologies are repeated ad nauseum by the different characters.

That’s because at its heart, this is a bedtime story, meant to put little tykes to sleep through repetition of a theme. That’s perfectly fine, but it’s not really Oscar quality, especially when the very core design of the story nearly puts the movie-going audience to sleep as well. I liked it, don’t get me wrong, but it pales in comparison to some of the other entries, so let’s hope that studio heft does not win the day in the Juggernaut’s absence.

The Flying Sailor – Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis

If you follow the animation world closely, you may recognize our nominees, as they’ve been up for this prize twice before, for Wild Life and When the Day Breaks. The duo has already garnered awards in Canada, with the National Film Board backing the project. You tend to see at least one Canadian-endorsed entry in the field each year.

Blending traditional 2D animation for the character models with 3D environments, the brief story is based on the real life incident of a sailor who, during the Halifax explosion of 1917, was blown over two kilometers from the blast site, landing naked but otherwise unharmed. Such a fantastic moment lends itself perfectly to the artform.

Here, we see the sailor in the harbor going about his business when two ships collide and detonate (one of them had stockpiles of TNT in its cargo hold). He’s immediately sent flying on a brief existential journey where his life flashes before his eyes and he contemplates what he surely believes are his final moments.

While I’m sure it was unintentional, I got flashbacks in my mind to the 1982 British short, The Snowman (which was also nominated for this award). The film’s iconic song, “Walking in the Air” played in my head as I watched the sailor careening through the sky. If you’ve ever seen this film, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Picture that, and then have the snowman’s cock and balls out (this was somehow shown before the parental warning slate, but My Year of Dicks wasn’t), and you’ve basically got the gist of what’s going on here.

Honestly my only complaint is that I wish there was more to the story. I’m glad there’s no dialogue, as it would honestly only ruin the effect of the visuals. I just wish it lasted longer and took a few more risks with the art style. Like The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and the Horse, it’s perfectly fine as it is. It just doesn’t hold up next to the rest of the competition.

Ice Merchants – João Gonzalez and Bruno Caetano

A co-production of Portugal and the UK, this silent wonder, which won the Leitz Cine Discovery Prize for short films at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is an absolute masterclass in minimalist storytelling. Using basically only four colors – red, white, black, and yellow – and a pencil sketch drawing style, the film tells an amazing and heartwarming story without ever uttering a single word.

A father and son live in a tiny shack fastened precariously to the side of a steep cliff. Every day, in what has to be the most inefficient business model in history, the father freezes water in an outdoor cooler, takes the giant block of ice out, and chips it away while his son bags it. Once done, the father straps his son to his chest, the bags of ice secured in a sack with the boy, and they skydive to the town below to sell it. Along the way, both characters lose their hats, blown away by the sheer force of their freefall, so each day’s errand includes a stop at the local shop to trade in some of their profits for a new pair of caps. To get home, they sit on a motorbike secured to a harness, and the father pulls them up the hundreds of feet back to their cliffside abode.

One day, the temperature warms, to the point that not only does the previous day’s water not freeze into ice, but the snows above them melt enough to start sliding down the mountain, pelting their home and loosening it from its position. With death staring them in the face, father and son take a leap of faith in hopes that they’ll live to correct their mistakes.

The animation here is just incredible, especially given how little there is in the way of color or form. There’s a surreal nature to the father’s design, as his arms and legs are unnaturally long, making him look like an exaggerated bird-man during their daily jumps. The facial features are largely hidden behind clothing and glasses, yet the state of each character gets across with almost no extra effort. This is an exercise in extreme utility, showing how much great artists can do with such limited resources.

And I can’t say it enough, the ending got me good. I kind of knew where it was going, but that didn’t make the impact any less of an emotional gut punch. Sometimes the simplest stories are the best ones, and this is a near-perfect example.

My Year of Dicks – Sara Gunnarsdóttir and Pamela Ribon

I have been in love with this film for months. I first got to see it back in June when it competed in – and won – the Animation Program at the Brooklyn Film Festival, which I covered for my friends at “No Rest for the Weekend” (go give them some love!), and my enthusiasm for it has never wavered. It’s earned rave reviews and awards from SXSW, the Chicago Film Festival, and the Annecy Film Festival (the most prestigious fest for animation), and it only deserves more! It was recently picked up by FX and Hulu, so I guess this makes it the closest thing to a Disney property in the field, but this is very much NOT a Disney film, so please don’t hold that against it. Just give yourself the chance to enjoy it if you can’t make it to a screening.

Based on the 2014 memoir, Notes to Boys: And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share in Public by writer and voice actress Pamela Ribon (she co-wrote Ralph Breaks the Internet and voiced Snow White in the film), this five-part series takes place in the summer and fall of 1991, where 15-year-old Pam (voiced by Brie Tilton, though Ribon herself performs live action movements for motion capture and rotoscoping) is trying to find the perfect boy with whom to lose her virginity. Joined in her misadventures by her best friend Sam (Jackson Kelly), each “chapter” focuses on a different potential paramour, including special animation sequences tied to the themes of Pam’s fantasies.

The first episode deals with “David the Skater I Know From Riding the Bus” (that intro alone gives you the first truly great laugh of many to come). Voiced by Sterling Temple Howard, he’s a dark, brooding vampire poseur who literally sharpens his fingernails and teeth (but who is ironically squeamish around blood), so his sequence is animated like a gothic romance, with Pam imagining herself in a sort of Interview with the Vampire setting. Later we meet “Arthouse Pam,” who falls for a guy working at a dingy movie theatre, where her imaginings of a passionate encounter go horribly awry, accompanied by deep blue tints in a classic French cinema style. A giddy trip to a carnival with Robert (Sean Stack) reveals the difficulty in expressing one’s sexuality in Texas in the 90s, with Pam’s tragic glee set to kawaii anime scenes. An uncomfortable night at a house party leads to truly ghastly results under a slasher film motif. And then we get to the most grotesque thing of all, “The Talk,” the very, Very, VERY conservative 90s “talk” with Pam’s father (Chris Kelman).

The writing and voice work here is unrivaled, with Ribon imbuing not just her own avatar but every character with remarkable depth and relatability. Every single one of us was this same awkward teenager trying to navigate their hormones. Every single one of us was attracted to some version of the “wrong” guy or girl that Pam is. Every single one of us wishes we had a friend like Sam to be there for us when we were at our lowest in the early stages of our romantic lives. And yet, through it all, the sense of humor is an absolutely perfect blend of cringe, empowerment, and sheer unadulterated comedy.

Even if all of that wasn’t there, I’d probably still adore this film just because of its ambition. This is, by a considerable margin, the most involved entry in the field. Not only does each chapter have its own art style to match Pam’s mood, but the “normal” version of events has the widest color palette of all the nominees (and a somewhat grungy, very 90s-type style that evoked fond memories of Beavis and Butt-Head at times), and the production required the actors to perform remotely over Zoom (or similar apps) with the animators drawing and coloring over their stage directions. The undertaking here is massive, and it shows through in every single frame. I wish I could create something even 1% as good as this!

An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe It – Lachlan Pendragon

If we’re going by title, this is your winner, hands down. And thankfully, this Australian entry lives up to its bonkers moniker, giving us the most unexpectedly fun contender in the group.

Animated in stop motion, but presented in a novel format where we see the finished product on a director’s preview screen while hands move the pieces in an ultra-fast speed in the background, the film revolves around Neil (Pendragon), a salesman working in a boring office trying to sell toasters (the pitch alone is hysterical). As he goes about the humdrum nature of his job, Neil begins to notice things being a bit off, like his coworker Gavin (Jamie Trotter) not having any legs as he sits as his computer, or his boss (Michael Richard) temporarily losing his lower face during a conversation.

Neil falls asleep at his desk, and when he wakes up, it’s nighttime. Preparing to leave, he’s startled by the presence of a talking ostrich (John Cavanaugh), who tells him that everything he knows is a lie. The ostrich guides him to a closet door which, when Neil opens it, leads to an empty void where he seemingly drops into our real world before the hands place him back inside the set. The next day, Neil has an existential crisis, trying to figure out what happened to him, and questioning everything around him. The whole thing culminates in a wonderfully dark punchline that I absolutely never saw coming, and it had me in stitches.

This is what I mean when I tell people about the possibilities of animation. It’s one thing to come up with a fun concept about a talking ostrich meeting an office worker who’s in a rut. That’s fun enough in itself. But to then take that idea to the extremes this film is willing to go for the sake of a morbid joke, and to do so with a truly unique spin on the presentation of stop motion itself is fucking genius. We’ve all seen the time lapse montages of movies from Laika Studios and its contemporaries where we’re shown the scale of how the sets and characters are positioned and moved ever so slightly from one frame to the next. It’s always enjoyable. To extend that further as a means of creating a literal unseen hand that guides the action as a man tries to resolve the very nature of his existence is on a whole other level, one that simply can’t be done with traditional filmmaking or live action techniques. For such a silly title, this short comes dangerously close to redefining what’s possible for animation as a whole!

My Rankings:
1) My Year of Dicks
2) An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe It
3) Ice Merchants
4) The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and the Horse
5) The Flying Sailor

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

Up Next, we just went over all the things you can do when you choose not to use an active camera, so it’s only fitting to look at the exemplary work that was done with a normal camera. It’s Cinematography!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you had a chance to see any of the nominated shorts? Have you ever been to a screening of the full category? What hormone-driven folly do you laugh hardest about today? Let me know!

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