MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Animated Short Films’ is the Oscars’ most low-key stacked category

oscar shorts

Scrambling to catch up on all things Oscars? The big categories are easy: Mad Max should win but won’t. Leo shouldn’t win but will. The little people will be played off and someone will be just insufferable.

We’ve been over all that time and again. What doesn’t get as much love are the smaller categories—your documentaries, shorts, and foreign films. Each of those categories is more interesting than the big races, for the most part. They’re also much more difficult to actually see. That’s why we’ve put together this combination review/primer.

The big takeaway from the smaller categories? They’re dark, man. Almost all of them are dark. We’re talking animated shorts, though, and that category has one major exception…


The Favorite: Sanjay’s Super Team

Pixar gave us two of its greatest creations in 2015, each attached to one of their lesser works. Inside Out, which should be a best picture nominee, was preceded by the surprisingly off-putting Lava, while Sanjay’s Super Team outshone The Good Dinosaur.

To be fair to Pixar’s first flop, Sanjay would outshine many feature lengths. The titular, super hero-obsessed boy and his devout Hindu father find a common ground for their particular passions. We see the boundless creativity of a child’s imagination and feel the heart-shuddering power of the moment when a parent and child find true connection.

It seems almost unfair to the other shorts that they’re up against the might and budget of Disney Pixar. Sanjay is beautiful and exemplifies all of Pixar’s greatest assets. It has originality of concept, creativity in execution, and an authenticity in its emotion.

To the latter, while the “based on a true story (mostly)” at the beginning, and the photo of the creator and his father at the end, contribute to the literal authenticity, they are only bookends to a story that has plenty of it to stand on already. Pixar is able to show children’s creativity, unintended selfishness, and innate desire to please the parent, as well as a parent’s conflicting love and exasperation.

Those things are rare enough, but it also does this while giving a stage to Asian protagonists and Hindu practitioners. Sanjay is remarkable for both its text and its subtext, accomplishing something on par with the best of Pixar’s feature films in just a few short minutes.

world of tomorrow

The Dark Horse: World of Tomorrow

All that said, World of Tomorrow may be even better. It is the latest from cultishly adored animator Don Hertzfeldt. Hertzfeldt’s animation is rudimentary; every character is a stick figure.

What makes Hertzfeldt’s creations stand out, the reason he is able to kickstart his ventures, is the ingenuity of his creations. World of Tomorrow is a remarkable piece of emotional science fiction.

A 4-year-old girl, whose lines are actual recordings of Hertzfeldt’s own niece—thus explaining some of the odd tangents—is contacted by her third-generation clone from the future. This clone explains the future to her uncomprehending progenitor before revealing the purpose of her contact, and the ideas we’re exposed to in the telling are some of the most touching, melancholy, and fascinating we’ll find in film.

Somewhere amidst all the fascinating futuretech and peculiarities of creation, we’re exposed to a depth of introspection on the meaning of existence, fear of the unknown, and the memories that formed us. It’s trite to say “it’s a shame only one can win,” but both this and Sanjay are worthy of stumping for.

Having said that, my head think’s Sanjay will win, while my heart hopes World of Tomorrow pulls it out.

bear story

The Overshadowed Contender: Bear Story

It feels like Sanjay and WoT have sucked up most of the discussion in the lead-up to the Oscars ceremony, which is too bad for Gabriel Osorio’s Bear Story, a lovely story that I had no prior knowledge of.

Forgive me for describing this film about a labor of love by calling it that very thing, but both the bear’s creation in the film and the short film itself feel lovingly fussed over. Our protagonist is a tinkering bear, crafting away at his worktable. He takes an odd, large box into the city—a vendor selling an experience rather than goods.

As a young boy (cub?) approaches, we discover that the box is a kind of moving diorama, a pop-up book turned to life. In it we see the perilous journey of a bear stolen from his wife and child, brought to life by meticulous mechanical figures and settings.

It feels like an inspired, abbreviated take on a familiar plot. The whole story (both the one in the film and the film itself, and this is getting far too meta) leaves a feeling of a melancholic warmth, and an appreciation for the family. Oh, and it’s all done without a single word spoken. It doesn’t pale in comparison to its competitors, though it is overshadowed by them.

One nit to pick, though: There is no way the creation we see fits into the bear’s box. It bothered me the whole time. Even the Transformers can only compact themselves so much.

live without cosmos

The Worthy Also-Ran: We Can’t Live Without Cosmos

Another dialogue-free tale, and one with a newspaper comics-type animation. Animated shorts has proved to be a fascinating category providing for a wide variety not only of subject, but also of style and structure.

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos is a tale of two inseparable cosmonauts. They room together, train together, and support each other to the nth degree; a two-piece puzzle perfectly formed.

The relationship is ambiguous. It’s revealed they’ve known each other since childhood, but are they brothers? Friends? Lovers? It’s worth noting that animator Konstantin Bronzit is Russian. If it’s the last, this was an ingenious way of showing a relationship frowned on by his government.

Perhaps that’s a reach, but it’s certainly an interpretation that has warmed some hearts. Beyond that, Cosmos is the tale of two best friends training for the ultimate dream—space travel—and what happens when the inseparable are parted. It’s an ode to the surpassing power of love.

prologue short

Happy To Be Here: Prologue

After all these—four cleverly animated shorts that have each gone 12 rounds with your heart—Prologue feels like an afterthought. The latest short from Richard Williams is a hand-drawn short of a blade-and-bow, two-on-two battle-to-the-death set 2,400 years in the past.

Much like The Revenant (shots fired), it’s mostly an impressive display of technical skill. Full of brood, brutality, and impaled nether regions, the execution certainly wows; but after the complexity (and good-to-great execution) of the previous entries, Prologue rings hollow.

Here’s a trailer featuring all 2016 short films—both animated and live action:

Tyler Hanan
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