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Short Stuff: The 2019 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts
by Jay Seaver

Most years, the program for the Oscar-nominated animated shorts is built with an eye toward family-friendliness, often arranged to put the one or two entries that might prove to be too much for the younger viewers at the end so that parents with small children can duck out early. The nominees this year have made that a bit trickier; though none are particularly violent or otherwise unsuitable, there's plenty of adult themes that make this year's selections a different group.

That's something to be celebrated, on the one hand; animation is an amazing medium that can be used for so many things that treating it as something only for kids is only recognizing part of its potential. Still, it's a bit of a shame that this means that there might be a little less in the ceremony celebrating the uplifting rather than the dark.

Then again, the first entry in the program, "Hair Love", is in some was the most traditional: Brightly-colored and playing at an energetic but no overwhelming pace, it has a little girl whose nappy hair is apparently particularly difficult to manage enthusiastically pulling up a YouTube channel about styling hair for black ladies ahead of a special occasion but having trouble doing it on her own, with her father also fairly daunted by the prospect.

It's a delightfully sweet-natured short that managed to get some theatrical play last year, full of playful and good-hearted visual gags that never appear to be making fun of anyone. The design is delightful, mostly drawn in a simple enough way to feel like it's from the kid's point of view but letting her hair become this scraggly, hyper-detailed other thing that's not quite a monster but plenty overwhelming. And for all it spends time on hair-related gags, it's got more than enough room at the end to pivot to something that brings bigger smiles without changing the tone.

Things change up quickly for "Daughter", though, as the title character is watching her father decay in his hospital bed, and a bird crashing through the window causes her to remember a similar incident when she was younger. The short doesn't have dialogue, and occasionally uses jittery camera work and close-ups to obscure how it is jumping around in time, but that also allows one to layer one's own fears upon the characters. The daughter's exceptional vulnerability in the past and identifying with the baby bird that needs to be cared for hints at adoption and/or also losing her mother, while a similar situation in the present hints that she is realizing that there is nothing more she can do.

It's a visually fascinating movie beyond that, although one that sometimes asks a lot out of the viewer. The technique is incredible and also difficult to pin down - it looks like stop-motion the the maquettes' eyes and mouths repainted between frames, with the camera-work is incredibly smooth for being that complex. The care taken in the design impresses as well, with a lot of changes between periods done with paint rather than changing body types. The film sometimes has trouble escaping its darkness, beyond the extent that seems intentional; there's a helplessness to the silence in the present-day scenes that probably shouldn't be so powerful in the past, but filmmaker Daria Kashcheeva doesn't adjust quite as much as the film could use. There's also something showy about the close-ups and transitions that seems more like she's trying to impress with the cinematography than telling a story.

There's a similarly heavy tone to Song Siqi's "Sister", which opens with a family picture picture and narration from a man about how, as a four-year-old boy, he was annoyed by the arrival of his new sister in 1991, but, as time passed, he grew to love the troublesome, often-eccentric little girl But, of course, it's at best 50/50 as to whether a short film with this sort of atmosphere ends with "and we remain incredibly close to this day".

Its particular twist to this is somewhat unique, at least, and Song has some visually whimsical twists on this material that are fun to watch, even if this is the millionth story of a kid not initially welcoming a younger sibling that one has seen. It's frequently clever and often well-executed, and the fact that these visuals come out of modern middle-class China without being ostentatious about it makes it stylistically unique among the group. It is also, alas, a bit predictable in the broad strokes if not the details, and that a canny viewer knows how this goes inevitably means it walks the line between creating dread and underwhelming the audience, likely winding up on the wrong side a bit too often for some.

There's also something kind of familiar to "Mémorable", in which filmmaker Bruno Collet introduces the audience to Louis (voice of André Wilms), an elderly artist whose mind is falling apart, and his wife Michelle (voice of Dominique Reymond), who loves him but is not necessarily shy about displaying how this is taking a toll. His life as an artist melds well with the animation, as it allows Collet to vary his visual style and use effects to illuminate Louis's state of mind.

It's been done a few times before, but works well here. There's an impressive solidity to the digital animation that makes it seem more three-dimensional even as the characters become more stylized and fanciful, with Louis developing thick layers of paint with more visible brushstrokes as time passes and he recedes further into a world disconnected from reality, while other things and people become less defined, smeared shapes that he should recognize but doesn't. It's tragic, and the fact that Michelle is not perfectly comfortable makes it feel more real, but there's definite beauty in how it's being reconstructed.

The last of the nominated shorts in the package is "Kitbull", which despite being made at Pixar was not attached to a Disney film last year, with the logos indicating that Rosana Sullivan's short is more of a side project than a regular production. It opens by introducing a stray kitten who is mostly doing all right on its own, but one must be wary when living on the street, and when a dog shows up near its cardboard box, the kitten is naturally wary, especially since its owner is trying to train the pit bull to fight, though it doesn't really seem to be in the dog's nature.

Despite coming from Pixar and seeming to use many digital tools, "Kitbull" is mostly hand-drawn, and though the style is a bit odd for the cat, it does get across a stray kitten's twitchiness and fear without just imitating familiar movements, with nice character animation for the dog as well, especially since he's got to have a softer but still distinct personality. The short moves pretty quickly, sometimes to the point where it seems like it could have used a side adventure or gag or two just to flesh the pair out or keep the end from being rushed.

Because animated shorts run just a few minutes, this program is often filled in with a number of "Highly Commended" shorts that presumably just missed the nomination, the first of which is Rachel Johnson's "Henrietta Bulkowski". The title character (voice of Christina Hendricks) dreams of being a pilot but can't as she has kyphosis, a large bony mass fused to her spine. Hearing of a derelict plane still sitting in the junkyard where it crashed years ago, she decides to move in and repair it, not aware that the area is set for demolition until security guard Danny Wilcox (voice of Chris Cooper) finds her on the cusp of completing her project.

It's an odd one, having the air of being based upon a true story, although if so, more "inspired by" than anything else. There are a fair amount of interesting bits in it, although maybe not always the right ones; Johnson has a strong idea of how she wants themes to resonate but sometimes one can see what she's doing rather than feel it. She's got a distinct style that gets a fair amount of emotion out of models that don't necessarily move a whole lot, and makes a models-of-models bit work, although some of the more unusual bits of design don't feel quite as solid as they could.

The next goes for a different look, with Carol Freeman's "The Bird & The Whale", which blends deceptively simple character design with painterly style from the first moments when a baby whale winds up apart from its pod and a bird who appears to be the sole survivor of a sunken ship, its cage resting on a piece of flotsam. It's an odd friendship, out in the middle of the sea.

Can it last? Well, that's the trick, but Freeman is awfully good at getting the audience to quickly buy into this unlikely friendship even as she doesn't shy away from the dangers of being lost at sea. Despite the cheerful character design and charming high concept, there's room for more than just surface appeal even when the film looks like it's going to be built entirely on cuteness, leaving her plenty of room to create dramatic or ethereal imagery later on. The film's final moments are actually quite beautiful.

In contrast, "Hors Piste" is unabashedly a cartoon, but it is also one of the absolute funniest cartoons to be shown in one of these programs, starting from two rescue workers in a helicopter flying to recover an injured skier from the top of a peak that makes one wonder how he got there in the first place and then just having everything go incredibly wrong in such a way as to make one wonder if the guy they're helping wasn't better off before.

Comedy really doesn't get enough respect in awards contexts, especially this sort of Chuck Jones humor where the filmmakers have likely agonized on just how many explosions from a crashed helicopter, spaced apart by how many seconds, is funniest, or whether a bit of slapstick that might be terrible with more realistic character designs works with this look. The four credited directors of "Hors Piste" seem to get every single frame of this right, down to the bombastic retro logo and soundtrack. The audience responded enthusiastically to this one, and it's not hard to see why - after 75 minutes of animation where even the funny ones are looking to pull at heartstrings and be taken seriously, this short zeroes in on making a viewer laugh and does not fail.

The last "highly commended" short, "Maestro", also came from a large team of French animators, and bless them for using detailed, photo-realistic animation to do something this delightfully silly, just two minutes of a blue jay singing opera and a squirrel direction a swamp choir. It looks like a lot of effort being expended on something with no larger message than music being fun, but at least the first time, it works. Maybe I wouldn't laugh quite so hard at the goofy mismatch if I saw it a few more times, but at least the first time, it does the job.

If I had a vote, I would probably give it to "Hair Love", though I wouldn't bet against Pixar's "Kitbull" for the actual winner. Nevertheless, I strongly suspect that when people leave the showcase, it's going to be "Hors Piste" that they love the most.


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originally posted: 02/05/20 13:12:55
last updated: 02/05/20 13:14:02
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