Short Stuff: The 2017 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts
By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/11/18 17:51:56
Or, "The 2018 Oscar-Nominated Shorts (Animation)", as the program would have it. They can say that officially so that it doesn't look stale, but I say that the proper title ought to refer to the year the films were released, and not the one where the awards are given.
At any rate, here we are once again, looking at the Oscar categories that historically have been some of the most opaque for the viewers at home despite potentially being a huge deal for the people nominated, as "Oscar-Winning Director" certainly makes people look twice at your loan or grant application when you're looking to fund the next project. They are, thankfully, much easier to see these days, as they are packaged into a single presentation and play in most cities with a decent boutique cinema, and are apparently available on demand elsewhere. I've long argued that the true worth of awards is not in who actually wins but in how they provide people with a list of noteworthy films (or films that have some noteworthy element) and a sense of urgency to see them, and being able to see these good short films in anticipation of the ceremonies is the very definition of that.
As usual, the animated films tend to be quite short indeed, so the presentation is not only broken up by amusing cartoon interludes, but three "Highly Commended" features have been added to the program. This year's program is very kid-friendly, basically one bloated corpse away from an American PG rating.
If "Dear Basketball" is a vanity project on the part of Kobe Bryant, or a canny entry into producing films (like I said, "Oscar-Nominated" looks pretty good when you're trying to enter into a business relationship in this industry), it's certainly one where he found top talent - director Glen Keane was long one of Disney's best character animators before a shift to almost entirely working in CGI rearranged how the process worked, and composer John Williams is John Williams. As a New Englander whose default position is "screw the Lakers and screw Kobe in particular", I don't exactly doubt his sincerity, but I'll readily admit that it doesn't make my heart well up in a way that a similar project from, say, David Ortiz would. Bryant may be one of the greatest of all time, but he was never a bigger-than-the-game icon the way Jordan was, no matter how much ESPN insisted we should love him.
Still, it's capable as heck. Bryant's poem seems heartfelt even if his delivery sometimes seems like it's rehearsed rather than spilling out of him - there's a reason why you often leave emoting to the professionals - although it picks up in the end. John Williams's score is a fine five-minute John Williams score, uplifting but not really having the time to be playful that he has in his best work. It's Keane's work that impresses the most; his work at Disney was character design and animation, and as in his previous short "Duet", he spends much of his time focusing on that to the exclusion of all else, using rough lines and transparent shapes to convey form and movement, especially with flashbacks to Kobe as a kid as compared to the rotoscoped-seeming scenes of him on the court as a pro. Keane's first feature as a director is due in 2020, and this nomination has probably raised its profile.
There's a methodical charm to "Negative Space", quite literally - filmmakers Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata are describing the proper method for packing luggage, and it's something that is enhanced just a bit by the fact that this is a stop-motion production, and all the folding, rolling up, and squeezing in is something the animators actually had to do. Not that other forms of animation are any less meticulous, but you can cheat a bit with pencil drawings and computer models; not so much with tangible things, even if Kuwahata & Ru are occasionally putting them in fanciful situations as their narrator talks about how packing suitcases with his oft-traveling father was a way that they bonded.
Those fanciful bits help pad this 5-minute short out a bit and make the pacing work, creating time for reminiscence that allows the world to fill in a little more, and just enough time for the viewer to adjust to a third new setting that waits just long enough to spring what has become an inevitable, but perfect, joke.And then it's done, having accomplished the neat trick of getting the audience to care about the set-up on its own without tossing it away for the punchline.
Though the category stalwarts at Pixar did not have a short included with the release of Coco (and that Frozen follow-up is certainly not getting nominated for much), they did put Lou out in theaters, playing in front of Cars 3, which has been thoroughly forgotten. Still, this was almost certainly the best part of an afternoon watching Cars 3, and while it doesn't necessarily shine quite so brightly when placed in the middle of a group of excellent shorts rather than in front of a mediocre film, it's still an enjoyable cartoon.
It's not quite so ambitious as other recent Pixar/Disney shorts that have played before their features: The kids that make up the main characters and playground where the action takes place seem familiar, and even the title character - a chimera made of various objects in the school's lost & found - seems like it's constructed from reused models. That's perfectly fine; good storytelling is, after all, a matter of what artists do with their tools as opposed to how well they create new ones, and there's some fine character animation on display here, a lot of kids and one monster given distinct personalities and a lot of expressive slapstick. This may not be Pixar's most memorable short, but it is certainly an example of how they relentlessly crank out quality work.
The BBC Christmas Special is nearly as regular a nominee as the year's Pixar short, and "Revolting Rhymes Part One" suggests that there may be some gaming the system going on in order to secure that spot - why else would this not simply be one hour-long special rather than two that run 29 minutes and are thus Oscar-eligible? It even ends on something of a cliffhanger rather than coming to a true conclusion, although it is self-contained enough that watching it alone is a satisfying half hour.
It's perhaps a bit familiar, though, in how it mashes up a number of fairy tales (Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and the Three Little Pigs cross paths here), gives them a more modern setting, and serves it up with a dry self-awareness. Filmmakers Jan Lachauer and Jakob Schuh do that fairly well here - there are plenty of good jokes, and Dominic West narrates the film in character as the Big Bad Wolf with a perfect sneer, and they do wonderful things with the friendship between Red and Snow - and only stretch things too far once or twice. It's just good enough that I'm curious to see where the second part goes, even if I'm not ordering a DVD right away.
French entry Garden Party, meanwhile, is rather less conventional, as it is populated almost entirely by photorealistic frogs and other amphibians hopping around a seemingly empty estate. The animation is good enough that it occasionally makes one wonder about categorization; is this an animated short or a live-action one with some impressive creature effects? It doesn't much matter, because the frogs themselves are funny, especially a big toad that gorges itself on rich food once it has found its way on top of a table.
What the filmmakers do that is most impressive, though, is to amp up just how sinister the situation is as the film goes. The frogs are never quite anthropomorphized enough to be cheerful, but they're not examples of horrific and uncaring nature, either, but the setting becomes more unnerving as the short continues - even without certain details showing up in the background and then moving forward, it slowly becomes clear that it's not a case that people have just left, giving the frogs free reign, but something happened. The big reveal isn't quite so well-executed as the one in "Negative Space", confirming what the audience has already guessed rather than twisting things around, and the dark comedy is a little shakier at the end than it was earlier. It makes for something genuinely weird, though, and a fine way to cap off a set of nominees that are otherwise very conventional, even when they're being eccentric.
That eccentricity continues in the first of three "Highly Commended" shorts that fill the program out toward feature length, Lost Property Office, in which writer/director Daniel Agdag tells the story of a drone working in the public transit system who meticulously collects, files, and repairs the items left behind, only to be laid off as nobody ever actually comes to claim them. It's the sort of story that combines dreary reality with a flight of fantasy, but does so well.
What makes it work is the detail, as is often the case with stop-motion projects that involve tinkering. The most obvious visual impression is just how thoroughly grey this Art Deco world is, with the most obvious visual jokes being the ads for drowning one's sorrows in alcohol that have the sharpest black-and-white contrast. Still, they tend to fade into the background once the viewer starts noting the body language of the main character. This "Edward Hopper" is extraordinarily well-designed, with a straight back and a face that, while not terribly detailed, suggests a bit of age and weather. There's a hint of despair when he learns about his redundancy that allows Agdag to fake the audience out with a couple of visual gags, but the whole of him makes it obvious things will go another way. He has too much pride and care despite how spare he is in a world that tends to the crowded and caricatured.
Of the three extra shorts included, Weeds is the one that will likely lead to the most second-guessing of the nominations, as its three minutes of a dandelion seeing its friends whither and die in one patch of dirt before straining to uproot itself and make its way to a nearby spot that has a sprinkler and sunshine is spot-on perfect, giving the flower a distinct design and personality, suggesting that three feet can be a tremendous, perilous adventure, and ending on a moment that mixes triumph and tragedy as well as films fifty times its length.
Is its message tremendously obvious and on-the nose? Oh, yes; without ever directly stating its metaphor, Kevin Hudson's film is about as subtle as a well-labeled political cartoon. But that's the power of animation and cartooning, being able to pack that information tight and make it clear without having it come across as a lecture.
The bright cartooning continues into the final short added to the collection, Achoo, an amusing story of a small Chinese dragon whose stuffy nose prevents him from breathing fire and creating floating, flaming art the way that the larger dragons do, although he may be onto something by accident. It's a fluffy, kid-friendly short that can be a little clumsy, but errs on the side of being charming.
The filmmakers also have a knack for switching up visuals to impress; a "two-and-a-half-D" opening sequence gives the CGI shenanigans that follow a little more gravitas while the bigger dragons' successful artistry after watching the little guy stumble is a genuinely nifty effect. both make me curious as to whether the short was animated with 3D exhibition in mind, as does the different sort of effects animation used at the climax.
If I had a vote for this award, it would probably go to "Negative Space"; it's got the best balance of convention and creativity, though I suspect the smarter money when filling out your entry in the Oscar pool is probably on "Dear Basketball" or "Lou". "Dandelions", it seems, is the one that got robbed.