Of the 24 categories in the annual Academy Awards lineup, the three short film categories always seem to be the most unknowable to those “civilian” Oscar-watchers. It’s harder to track them down, it’s harder to for them to gain traction or publicity, and it’s almost impossible to identify what they are unless it’s the token Pixar and/or Disney entry. For Oscar “outsiders,” the short categories are the ones most likely to break the prediction pool…or to be left out of the prediction pool altogether.
For me, however – and I think for many of my colleagues – the shorts are a seasonal highlight. There’s no more exciting day on the Oscar calendar than the day the screeners for the nominated shorts arrive. Each of them represent short bursts of artistic wonder, encapsulated expressions of a specific emotion. And nearly all of them are valuable in their own way (there are, of course, exceptions, Oscar-nominated status notwithstanding).
So now begins a three-part Projection: Oscar odyssey into the Oscar-nominated shorts, discussing the categories at large but also each individual film.
First up are the animated shorts, often the shortest and most digestible of the short film lot, both of which are true this year. They also have the potential to be the most lighthearted of the crop, but damn if that couldn’t be more false this year. This year’s animated shorts range from melancholy to absolutely dour, just a downer palooza. That’s not to say that a handful of them aren’t magnificent; to the contrary, there are a couple truly brilliant accomplishments in this group. But this is animation for grown-ups, for cineastes, for people who approach animation knowing there are possibilities beyond family-friendly happiness.
A rundown of the nominees, in alphabetical order:
Let’s start it off with the unequivocal best of the lot, a film that is gorgeously rendered and endlessly creative, and packs an overwhelming emotional wallop. It’s the work of Chilean filmmaker Gabriel Osorio Vargas, who formed Punkrobot Animation Studio in order to create his own art, the first product of which is this masterful piece. The titular bear is a lonely craftsman who creates painstaking dioramas and takes to the streets, ringing his bell for young cubs to give him a few pennies to watch his show. We are invited into his diorama, a dazzling display that tells an elegiac tale of separation and reconciliation. The joy and pain of Bear Story is in the unspoiled experience, so I will say no more. Oddly enough, it’s not as though the film pulls the rug out from under us – the story’s emotional palette is well-established from the very beginning. And yet, by the time the film closes – to the sound of one last lonely ringing of that bell – the audience’s collective heart drops. I can’t say I didn’t realize precisely where this story was going, and yet tears streamed during the closing credits.
And now for a pit stop at the unequivocal worst film of the category. Make no mistake, though: this is a beautifully animated film, roughly hand-drawn, a film that places each action in its own close-up. From an artistic perspective, it’s fascinating. Attempting to cull any narrative purpose or emotional catharsis from this display, however, is futile. Directed by three-time Oscar winner Richard Williams, the film depicts the initial rumblings of war between the Spartans and the Athenians. Six minutes of gruesome arrow-piercing close-ups later and the film ends, having made nothing more than a momentary impact of empty grotesquerie.
Sanjay’s Super Team
This year’s Pixar entry is something of an ironic entity on this year’s Oscar slate. With #OscarsSoWhite prevailing as the year’s resounding Academy Awards theme, here is a short film that not only centers on a person of color, but directly explores the issue of cultural representations in modern media. Sanjay is a young Indian boy who would rather watch superhero cartoons than meditate with his father. But when dad turns off the TV, Sanjay’s meditation session turns into an imaginary adventure in which the Hindu gods become the “Super Team,” thereby merging the boy’s cultural identity with the otherwise white-washed aesthetic of the media he consumes. Such a notion is powerful…more powerful, as it turns out, than the film itself, which is executed with great visual beauty but little in the way of thematic depth beyond that surface concept.
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
Behold the funniest of the animated short nominees, a quirky lark that eventually becomes sneakily emotional. Konstantin Bronzit’s film centers on two lifelong friends who share a dream of space exploration. They grow up to become cosmonauts, being subjected to a rigorous-yet-mundane daily grind of distinctly earthbound training exercises, a routine which runs counter to their whimsical childhood dreams of soaring through space. Alternating between random bursts of comedy and quiet, melancholic observations into humanity, We Can’t Live Without Cosmos is yet another film that looks wistfully on the human condition, charting the differences between the plans we conjure and the reality we’re presented.
World of Tomorrow
If Sanjay’s Super Team is the most identifiable nominee to the masses, World of Tomorrow is the most widely known in the cineastes. Don Hertzfeldt’s latest creation is a dryly funny, bizarrely sardonic, ultimately philosophical journey into a hypothetical future in which a young girl named Emily is visited by a time-traveling future version of herself, a clone of a clone of a clone. “Emily Prime,” as the clone dubs her, is gleefully ignorant of the grander implications being communicated by her successor, of a world swallowed by its own evolution. Advancements in technology lead to a deteriorating mental and emotional state in humans. Cloning maintains an individual’s existence, but the soul gradually erodes, iteration by iteration. The universe advances to the point that it becomes a psychic wasteland, one random part of a waning ether. And yet Emily Prime is filled only with love and wonder, a mere infant in terms of psychic development, yet imbued with only the purest of human elements. The juxtaposition of the beginning and the end is stark, and the only beauty in this futility are the connections we make and the memories we maintain.
In terms of The Win, it seems like a climate in which Sanjay’s Super Team would thrive. It presses directly on the hot button of the moment, and it’s been a while since Pixar walked away with a win in this category. If any film were to upset, however, it would be Bear Story, which is the gem of the group, superior in both narrative and design.
Collectively, this year’s Best Animated Short Film category is a fascinating exploration of the human condition, frequently touching on elements of memory and identity, how each can be fractured and reconciled (with the exception of Prologue, which is unfortunately empty). There are four admirable works, three successful ones, and two – Bear Story and World of Tomorrow – that are truly great, which amounts to quite a strong category from my perspective.