Once again, the nominated live action and animated shorts became available for audiences to see nationwide a month before the Academy Awards ceremony on February 28. Opening at arthouses everywhere on January 29, this year’s animated category is full of range, emotion and style. One thing they almost all have in common is a particular upbeat nature. Compared to the dark subject material in this year’s live action short nominees, this group is almost buoyant by comparison. And they’re a must-see for any lover of cartoons, movies or the Oscars.
One of the most jubilant of the entries, and perhaps the one to beat, is the Disney/Pixar entry “Sanjay’s Super Team.” It’s about a young Indian boy who would rather watch his favorite TV show about a group of superheroes than participate in his father’s prayer ritual. Dad forces him to engage and soon the boy realizes his father’s gods have a lot in common with his beloved caped crusaders. His imagination runs wild and combines the two worlds. Sanjay comes away with a new appreciation for the hope and heroics found in his dad’s idols as well as his own. Based on the personal experiences of animation director Sanjay Patel, the colors, cutting, and pace have a dynamism that is infectious. And in this Oscar season, when the lack of diversity has given the Academy such a black eye, it’s great to see this short’s focus on an Indian family.
There are two that could upset the Disney/Pixar favorite however, and both are equally exuberant as the tale of Sanjay. One is Don Hertzfeld’s “World of Tomorrow.” It’s a sci-fi tale about a futuristic clone visiting her “source material”, that being a four-year-old child named Emily. Hertzfeld recorded his own niece as the voice of the child who speaks with unabashed enthusiasm in counter to every blackly comic line delivered from the ambassador from the ‘brave new world.’ The sweetness projected by the child makes you wonder how her clone could ever end up so cynical, and Hertzfeld not only draws a startling contrast there, but he does so by animating in a cell animated stick-figure style. Is he commenting on how the reliance on CGI has dehumanized the future of animation as well? Indeed.
The other one that could very possibly take the Oscar is a delightful dark horse from Russia. It’s called “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” and writer/director Konstantin Bronzit tells a wordless story about two Russian astronauts training to go into space. They’ve been lifelong friends since childhood and they share the same boyish enthusiasm for interstellar travel as they did as kids. Drawn in a simple, New Yorker style way, it nonetheless showcases a marvelous sense of physical perspective and technical expertise in its renderings of everything from a module simulator to the vast hallways in the space center. More importantly, it showcases the joy of the human spirit and following one’s passions with boundless energy throughout the 16-minute piece. Even when the film turns a bit dark at its climax, it never loses its buoyancy.
“Bear Story” from Chile has won dozens of animation awards throughout the world and it’s easy to see why. It’s an incredibly rendered piece of moving art. None of this year’s shorts are rendered better, as this creates a world of anthropomorphic CGI bears living in a quaint village, but it also showcases the world within the work of its lead toymaker character. In fact, the main story takes place as a story within a story, as the toymaker shows off his nickelodeon to a cub who finds all the endless mechanical layers and characters in the contraption to be endlessly fascinating. So do we. The toy is magical, elaborate, and impossibly complex, yet director Gabriel Osario makes it all believable, from every working hinge to grooved bolt. He truly has outdone himself with this masterful tribute to freedom, family and toys.
One of the best things about the animated shorts program at your local cineplex is that they come with the runners-up and this year’s collection of also-rans would be contenders in any other year. One of the most elegantly beautiful and heart-warming is “The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse.” It combines some of the slapstick of the Scrat character’s shenanigans from the “Ice Age” franchise with the poetic movement of a dance ensemble. It’s a shame the animated short category couldn’t extend to six nominees as this student animated short from Hugo jean, Juliette Jordan, Kevin Roger, Marie Pillier and Camille Chaix is so worthy of inclusion.
The last of the five finalists chosen is something of an anomaly. It’s called “Prologue” and it actually comes with a warning to parents that it’s too mature for children. That it is, with its battle between nude soldiers and the amount of carnage their fighting leaves on the battlefield. It’s all wondrously hand-drawn, and has the pedigree of direction by veteran animator Richard Williams. He did the legendary work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” back in 1988, and this is almost 30 years and a million miles from that achievement. “Prologue” is gory, mean, and unforgiving in its commentary on the futility of war, but it is beautiful nonetheless due to how artfully it’s drawn.
Animation has long ago surpassed the domain of children. Still, most of these entries, with the exception of “Prologue”, stand as cartoons for all audiences, young and old alike. And these entries are so exceptional that any could take the Oscar. And in a year when so many categories, particularly the acting ones, seem like foregone conclusions, it’s nice to know there is a genuine contest for the Best Animated Short. Even if only one wins, they all deserve heartfelt applause and admiration.