Oscars 2021: Short Films – Animation.

Oscars 2021: Short Films - Animation.

In the yearly tradition, we review the Oscar nominated short films, and give you our pick for who should win.

This year, Shorts TV is again presenting the collected Oscar nominated short films. Due to the pandemic, Shorts TV is partnering with venues that would usually screen the shorts programs to sell digital screenings, much like how Kino Marquee and others have done Home Theatrical releases with indie movie makers and theaters. I highly recommend checking them out this year as it’s a much needed boost to art-house and indie theaters that are definitely hurting. The programs can be bought individually for $12 each (Animated, Live Action, Documentary) or in a bundle of all three for one lower price. You get to select the theater who gets the revenue share based on your location. You can then screen it on your computer, or Chromecast it, or use the associated app on devices like Roku.

This year’s selection of Animated shorts is bit all over the place, not necessarily in a bad way. From cute and lighthearted, to obscure and artsy, to emotionally devastating, there’s a lot going on this year. I felt like last year was a bit lighter than usual, and the year before a bit heavier. This year’s five picks lands right in the middle. If you go through Shorts TV, you also get three runners-up shorts, so you get quite the bang for your buck.

Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films 2021

Burrow (USA)

A young rabbit embarks on a journey to dig the burrow of her dreams, despite not having a clue what she’s doing. Rather than reveal to her neighbours her imperfections, she digs herself deeper and deeper into trouble.

There’s not too much to unpack here. From Pixar’s SparkShorts collection, Burrow is quite a bit like their other offerings – well animated, cute, well-paced and landing with a family friendly message. Last year it was about not judging by appearances, this year it’s about the importance of community…and letting yourself rely on your community. It checks all the boxes and should be a hit with children, but it’s not exactly challenging on either a technical or intellectual level.

Genius Loci (France)

One night, Reine, a young loner, sees the urban chaos around her as a mystical oneness that seems alive, like some sort of guide.

From a straightforward kids story to the exact opposite. Genius Loci has smoking, swearing and brief nudity, so not exactly for the kiddos. It’s story, as much as it has one, seems to be about mental illness/distorted perspective? There’s a scene in the film that talks about listening to music as just a collection of sounds without meaning, so I’m assuming that same philosophy applies to this film as a collection of images that may not be structured with an eye to telling a “story” the way Burrow is obviously telling a story with a moral.

The visuals are a mix of watercolors, abstract shapes, and swirls of color that all morph and shift as the story progresses. Reine narrates the piece in a Beat poetry-esque interior monologue as she experiences her world, often watching mundane place warp into surreal landscapes and people, including herself, change into animals.

This film is such an oddity that it’s really going to be up each viewer’s tastes to decide on its quality. Is it surreal or nonsensical? Minimalist in it’s art style or lacking finesse? I have to say that while I liked some of its beats, it was too disorganized and jumbled to really stay with me.

Opera (South Korea/USA)

Opera is a massive 8K size animation installation project which portrays our society and history, filled with beauty and absurdity.

Get ready for something you’ve never seen before. Opera, directed by former Pixar animator Erik Oh, defies easy explanation. Sure, on a technical level it is a pyramid that reflects life and history, with different activities going on each level and side of the pyramid (midway down, for instance, the left side has the cycle of life from birth to graduation while the right side has a reverse-cycle from burial to old age/illness.) The film proceeds through one cycle down the pyramid, where all hell breaks loose at the bottom until the hour-glass at the top of the pyramid flips and we come back up the pyramid again.

Opera is like a Swiss watch, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and a Hieronymus Bosch painting had a wild weekend on Absinthe. Each layer is minutely detailed, to the point I’m glad I streamed this film instead of caught it live. I definitely wanted to pause several times to see all the layers, and rewind to get a sense of how they flow (at points the progression of time/hierarchies seem to flip so that the upper layer precedes the lower, but others have the lower seem to precede what is above it.) There are religious motifs from a myriad of religions, life cycles from different historical periods, and a ton of allegorical elements that defy quick categorization. It’s a sprawling, intricate, mesmerizing and confounding piece of art. Loved it.

If Anything Happens I Love You (USA)

In the aftermath of tragedy, two grieving parents journey through an emotional void as they mourn the loss of a child.

Have a tissue handy for this short film. We journey with two parents who have grown distant from each other in their grief after a school shooting takes their child. Indeed, this is a cartoon dealing with most American of pastimes, trying to grapple with horrific gun violence.

If Anything Happens is put together very well. The pacing is just a touch on the slow side, as several times you can see where the story is going to go but the film takes a little more time to get there. but overall effectively plotted. The visuals fit the piece perfectly, with approachable, cartoonish characters in the foreground and often nightmarish, jagged shadow characters behind them personifying their emotional states. There’s quite a bit of detail in what is rendered, bu the short takes a minimalist approach to its backgrounds, only animating what is completely necessary. It is suffused with a fantastic soundtrack that makes the emotional beats even more effective.

I have to say that the film makers communicate grief and depression in one of the most effective ways I’ve seen, animated or live-action. You feel the gaping void in these people’s life early on, and when you get the details of what happened, you feel the acute sadness and pain just as vividly. If Anything Happens is not an easy movie to watch, but it’s a sadly necessary movie for audiences in the US.

Ja-Folkid [Yes People] (Iceland)

One morning an eclectic mix of people face the everyday battle – such as work, school and dish-washing. As the day progresses, their relationships are tested and ultimately their capacity to cope.

Our last entry, Ja-Folkid, is both the easiest and hardest to judge. On the surface level, it’s just a slice of life, day-in-the-life drama where we follow three tenant families through an average day. On the deeper level, Ja-Folkid shows how moving, funny, harrowing, or soul-crushing an average day can be. From the minor disappointments of having to re-shovel a driveway, to the self-anger and humiliation of wrestling with addiction, these folks have a lot going on.

I like the style of Ja-Folkid. I’m assuming the title is referencing that the only word the characters vocalize is “Ja.” The rest of the time is pantomime and grumbles like Shaun the Sheep. The film deploys “yes” in wildly inventive ways: we get the sheepish yes of an over-eater sneaking a cookie, the churlish yes of a boy bored at school, the shameful yes of a housewife sneaking a drink, and the bawdy yes of an old couple having vigorous sex after having annoyed each other all day. We even get the comical omission of a yes when a student learning the flute looks to his instructor for a thumbs up and she demurs.

It’s not like I didn’t already have Eurovision Song Contest‘s “Ja Ja Ding Dong” stuck in my head already, Ja-Folkid!

The animation itself is a little frumpy and homey, which fits the piece nicely. It mixes its vignettes nicely, so that the darker/sadder elements have time to resonate and then we move onto something funny…or at least less bleak. I don’t know if it has got the mettle for Oscar gold, but it’s a nice short film.

And the Winner Is…

This year, I had a much easier time narrowing down the list. Burrow is cute, but it’s certainly nothing special. Genius Loci left me cold with all of its pretenses and abstractions. Ja-Folkid is wonderful, but doesn’t feel like it gets an Oscar. That leaves Opera and If Anything Happens.

Doing the whole head versus heart thing, I’m going to guess which film the Academy voted for: If Anything Happens. It’s a quality short, and for an American voting audience going through a particularly rough patch of gun violence, this movie is going to walk away with the statue in a rout.

Oscars 2021: Short Films - Animation.
Easy call. Like gun reform. Just saying.

For my personal pick, if I could hand the Oscar to Opera, I would. It’s a work of art. It’s a piece that would be at the very top of its class in any year. It would be nice to have such a technically and imaginatively audacious oeuvre get the recognition it deserves.

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