Short Film Review: 2019 Oscar Shorts – Animated.
Bring a handkerchief to the theater this year as the collected Oscar nominated animated shorts tug on the heartstrings.
2019’s selection of animated shorts vying for the Academy Awards showcase some fantastic variety. They tackled issues as diverse as living with dementia, being the child in the middle of a divorce, to the thorny relationships between parents and children. They also feature several unique aesthetics and styles, from the glossy computer animation of Pixar Studios to rough and tumble hand-drawn images. While this year is dominated by mostly North American animators, the stories span the globe and beyond. We’ll break down the contenders and pick our favorite from a crowded field.
2019 Oscar Shorts – Animated.
1. Bao (USA)
Story: An aging Chinese mom suffering from empty nest syndrome gets another chance at motherhood when one of her dumplings springs to life as a lively, giggly dumpling boy.
This short is probably the most famous of the selections, though I had trouble warming up to it. The novelty of Pixar’s shiny graphics has worn off, and Bao contains several of the studio’s shortcomings. The textures on the skin for the characters looked plastic, as did many of the objects. For a short relying heavily on food, the meals looked fake. The malleable texture of the dumpling boy was handled deftly, but everything else looked off. Even the fuzz on peaches was off-putting.
The story itself is fairly traditional, a gourmand version of Tom Thumb or The Bamboo-cutter and the Moon Child. There were several touching moments, but the lack of novelty and uncanny visuals kept Bao from being truly remarkable.
2. Late Afternoon (Ireland)
Story: Emily is an elderly woman who lives between two states, the past and the present. She journeys into an inner world, reliving moments from her life. She searches for a connection within her vivid, but fragmented memories.
Late Afternoon excels at evoking emotion and memory with sparse visuals. I think the visuals were just a touch too sparse; the simple lines and water-color aesthetic at times were very basic. At its best, it reminded me of The Snowman. At it’s worse, it felt like budget Nick Jr. animation. It’s a shame since Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon has previously wowed us with animated features such as The Secret of Kells and the amazing The Breadwinner.
The short does use music and ambient sound to great effect, making the settings visceral and immediate. For anyone who has dealt with an older relative struggling with cognitive decline, this film is going to break your heart.
3. Animal Behaviour (Canada)
Story: Dealing with what comes naturally isn’t easy, especially for animals. In ‘Animal Behaviour’, five animals meet regularly to discuss their inner angst in a group therapy session led by Dr. Clement, a canine psychotherapist.
It seems that we get one comedy short each year, perhaps as a balm to all of the pathos of the dramatic shorts. Animal Behaviour is a laugh riot. Seeing different animals embody various neuroses that were natural to them was a treat. A Leech has attachment issues, a Gorilla has anger issues, a Cat is a neat freak. They were a bit on the nose at times, but the lively, frenetic animation and great voice work sold the jokes. There wasn’t a big “Ah Ha!” moment that made the silliness sublime, but the film certainly had the audience roaring with laughter.
4. One Small Step (USA/China)
Story: Luna is a vibrant young Chinese American girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut. From the day she witnesses a rocket launching into space on TV, Luna is driven to reach for the stars. As Luna grows up, she enters college, facing adversity of all kinds in pursuit of her dreams.
Another computer animated film, again dealing with the fraught relationship between parent and child. This time we get to see all of the strengths of the style. The animation is vibrant and magical – here the gloss is used to stylize the visuals perfectly. Everything looks vaguely futuristic, in the way a child’s toys imagines the future. It works thematically as much of the flights of imagination that power the story are tied to a child’s objects: moon boots, model spaceships, mobiles of the solar system. Elements such as television footage of the Apollo program and the very grounded neighborhood Luna lives in contrasts well with her imagined flights through space and the futuristic campus she attends.
One Small Step tells a tale as big as the moon and as small as the tender way Luna’s father repairs her sandals as she sleeps. It’s a touching blend of ordinary and the fantastic. It’s also great to see a young woman as the protagonist inspired by the moon landing, as we almost never get to see that event outside of a male perspective.
5. Weekends (USA)
Story: Weekends is the story of a young boy shuffling between the homes of his recently divorced parents. Surreal dream-like moments mix with the domestic realities of a broken up family in this hand-animated film set in 1980’s Toronto.
The rough and messy style of Weekends takes a while to warm up to, but it fits the narrative like a glove. Life is messy and strange and scary for the little boy at the center of this drama. The animation reminds me of Bill Plymton’s work, which made the ordinary grotesque. At times, this short is a downright horror film, with the boy experiencing his mother’s new (abusive) boyfriend as a humanoid monster. The surreal experience of being split both literally and metaphorically between two worlds transforms the visual style, and vice versa.
Weekends also uses its soundtrack deftly. The father’s world is informed by the cacophony of Dire Strait’s “Money for Nothing” played at max volume, while the mother’s world is suffused with mournful piano music. As one world or the other comes to dominate the boys attention in an emotional tug of war, we have the two musical styles overlap and compete for attention. With the riot of colors, lines, and sound, Weekends communicates the experience of its characters wonderfully.
And The Winner Is…
This year it feels like a competition to see which narrative can cut the deepest. So many of these stories are heartbreaking and haunting. For pure emotional impact, it’s hard to beat Late Afternoon’s bittersweet portrayal of a woman slowly being betrayed by her memories. Had the animation been just a touch more disciplined, it would be an easy pick. For the film that brings everything together in a supremely satisfying manner, I’m moved to pick One Small Step.
One Small Step is both a joyous celebration of imagination and inspiration, and a deeply moving tale about family. The animation is rich and beautiful with a unique style blending Eastern and Western techniques. It covers the emotional spectrum, and provides a redemptive arc for its pathos. Taiko Studio has done a fine job on their first big release, and I’m looking forward to see what they create next.