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Short Stuff: The 2018 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts
by Jay Seaver

Every year, a package is put together with all the animated short films nominated for an Academy Award, plus a few to pad out the running time, and it's generally one of the most enjoyable cinema samplers to come out over the year, with a bunch of different styles and themes packed into an hour and a half. This year's certainly offers up a lot of interesting visual treats, but it's hard not to notice that most are trying to do roughly the same thing. It's hard to fault the filmmakers involved - it's a thing that audiences respond to and which animation arguably does better than live action - but this group of movies could maybe use a bit more anarchy to go with the earnest sentimentality.

In a way, it feels like many are chasing "Bao", this year's Pixar short that everybody knew was almost a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination as soon as it appeared in front of Incredibles 2, and not just because it was the one that the most people would see. It is, as per usual, clever and visually impressive, though I suspect that it raised a lot of eyebrows about three quarters of the way through as viewers watch it and think something along the lines of that not really fitting in with what the short seemed to be going for up until that point. Writer/director Domee Shi has made a short that packs a lot of feeling into a few minutes, visualizing the sort of love you can put into food, how it can be a substitute for what's missing otherwise, with plenty of visual comedy as it goes awry.

And then something happens which works a lot better if you're assuming that the fifty-ish lady making the bao is an empty-nester but not so much if (like me) you thought she'd never had kids, and even if you had... Well, I didn't know about it the first time through, but a nice thing about shorts is that they're pretty easy to give a second look after it's been made clear that this sort of extreme reluctance to let go can often be quite pronounced in Chinese households. There's plenty to love on top of that - the animation style is beautiful, especially as it leans into the bulk of the cast of characters being ethnically Chinese in a way that could look like bad caricature but never does.

Push the characters a couple decades later (and drop them into Ireland) and you may wind up with something like "Late Afternoon", in which elderly Emily (voiced by Fionnula Flanagan) is having her life boxed up around her, perhaps on the way to a home where she can receive more dedicated care - her mind is not what it was - only to have her memory sparked by having a biscuit break off in her tea. It's a rather familiar situation, but its universality is no bad thing.

Writer/director Louise Bagnall knows how animation can help tell a story such as this, especially the traditional-styled work presented here. She defines Emily and the other characters with simple shapes, enough to let the audience track her as she ages in her flashbacks while still having room for different hairstyles and statures, with equally simple environments allowing her to jump back and forth without fancy transitions, so that the past and the present seem to be happening simultaneously for Emily and the audience. She gives the youthful Emily delightful energy and quietly lets it become nervousness in the present.

This short has probably been made a lot, and oftentimes in gaudier, more exhilarating fashion. The laid-back charm of this one is quite nice, though.

At this point, audiences may be ready to do something other than smile with well-earned sentiment, and "Animal Behaviour" offers a nice break. It offers a group of animals in a support group to deal with their compulsions, from pig Todd's constant eating (and "truffaholism") to Lorraine the leech's clinginess to the issues that would make it hard for Cheryl the mantis to keep a man even without the thousand maggots. Their joined by a reluctant new member, Victor the ape, who doesn't really think his temper warrants this.

Filmmakers Alison Snowden & David Fine build the short as kid jokes with edge, gags based on obvious animal habits but with enough phrases like "sexual cannibalism" to mark this as pitched just a bit above eight-year-olds. The jokes may be easy but the well never runs dry, and the willingness to switch things up never hurts. The voice work is solid if not necessarily flashy, with Taz Van Rassel's Victor enjoyably incredulous and Leah Juel's Lorraine most delightfully unhinged. Visually, it's cartoony but solid.

"Animal Behavior" has got jokes more than anything else, and with the rest of the nominees working much harder at pulling on heartstrings, it's a nice change.

It's back to family relationships over time with "Weekends", in which a young boy splits time between a recently-divorced parents, the seasons changing in the background as each settles into new lives. There's a pattern to it that likely crops up in a lot of such families - the modest home of the custodial parent, the exciting and cool trappings of the other but time eventually showing that this sort of affectation isn't necessarily the same as actual involvement.

Director Trevor Jimenez fills his movie with nice little details, from the way the boy is pushed from the front seat of his father's car to the back once he's got a new girlfriend to how his mother seems to be in some sort of neck brace, her new boyfriend literally square compared to the father. The film suffers a bit for not having any dialogue; as much as Jimenez visually establishes bits of personality for this family, there are times when the metaphor he's going for seems just out of reach, of the story becomes specific enough to deserve voices instead of just broad symbols.

When I initially saw "One Small Step" as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival's animation program, I noted that the beautifully designed dialogue-free short, built to efficiently grab at the audience's heartstrings and pull, was the sort of thing that someone watching it without logos would almost certainly presume that it's this year's Pixar short film. That's not what every filmmaker aspires to, but when you hit that goal as well as Andrew Chesworth & Bobby Pontillas do, you're doing something right.

Admittedly, this hits a lot of my sweet spots, with a kid who absolutely adores space; an immigrant dad working hard to support her dreams, both making her adorable moon boots as a kid and to send her to college; bright, colorful visuals that emphasize the excitement of the goal; and sharp design that can feel a bit mocking when she is falling short. The falling short isn't necessarily a sweet spot in and of itself, but it's the unexpected thing that makes the story work - there's a moment when it genuinely feels like this may become a movie about learning to still love something after it's clear you won't be part of it in the way you'd dreamed.

And it may be that story, eventually; it ends with hope but no guarantees. Still, it's interesting how seeing shorts in a different program can change the perspective; at Fantasia this was a charmer, and a delightfully sweet moment in the middle of an often-bloody program; in the Oscar program, it can seem a bit too polished, especially as the third or fourth targeting a specific take on this parent-child relationship.

The first of two "Highly Commended" shorts, "Wishing Box" has a fun gag - a treasure chest is empty for a pirate, but his monkey can pull whatever he wants from it, with the irony being that a monkey's tastes are simple and not so materialistic as his human master's. At one point toward the end, the little guy just trying to make the pirate happy pulls out a frog, and more or less locks down that it's basically a variant on Chuck Jones's "One Froggy Evening", where a man's greed won't let him enjoy something magical and amazing if he can't profit by it.

Zhang Wenli's film isn't built quite so well as that classic, though admittedly few are. Of all the shorts in the program, this one seems to target kids most directly, and could maybe use the visual volume turned down a little: It's animated with the sort of CGI style that can seem rather weightless, without a great deal of nuance in the expressions. It's good enough for the short's purposes, but that frog can't help but remind one just how well this particular bit can be done.

The second "Highly Commended" piece is "Tweet-tweet", which feels like filmmaker Zhanna Bekmambetova had a nifty idea to animate but not necessarily a story. It starts with a bird flitting around a clothesline, soon joined by the feet of a little girl walking it like a tightrope. As time passes, the clothesline takes on other forms, the girl grows up, and eventually the rope reaches its end. It's a great way to depict a life, although Bekmambetova seems to run out of steam after a while, as the rope turns into clock hands when she needs to move forward without having a lot specific happen.

As pretty and clever as the animation is, it in some ways turns out to not be ideal for telling a story - Bekmambetova puts as much personality as she can into those feet and how they move along the rope, but it's hard not to feel like more is being hidden than shown, another attempt to be blandly universal rather than strongly individual. And for as much fun as the bird is to watch doing bits of slapstick and the like, what's it meant to be in relation to the tightrope watcher - guardian angel? pet? spirit? It adds some life and laughs, but doesn't quite serve a purpose in a short that is otherwise a visual metaphor.

Maybe that's why it didn't make the cut. Of the ones that did, it's hard to bet against the Pixar taking the award, but I must admit that it's kind of alarming that so many of the animated shorts considered worthy of being in contention are so clearly along the same lines. "One Small Step" in many ways remains my favorite, and while it, "Bao", "Late Afternoon", and "Weekends" all tell different stories and are quite worthy, I can't help but hope that there's a little more variety in next year's group.

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originally posted: 02/23/19 09:54:17
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