Film Review: The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2016: Animation

Each of this year’s Oscar-nominated animated shorts has something distinctive to offer, but two stand out from the pack.
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This year’s quintet of Oscar-nominated animated short films is a distinguished group, with two in particular standing out as this writer’s favorites. As usual, there’s a Pixar short in the mix, but despite its novel status as a very personal film from an Indian-American animator, it’s likely to be eclipsed by one of the stronger contenders.

The film I’ll be rooting for is World of Tomorrow by Don Hertzfeldt, an acclaimed and wholly original artist who was previously nominated for his 2000 short, Rejected. Hertzfeldt, who takes sole creative credit on his films, uses a primitive stick-figure style set against often dazzling abstract backgrounds—a style that’s especially suited to his sci-fi story of a little girl who encounters her future third-generation adult clone from 227 years in the future. “Emily Prime” has the voice of Hertzfeldt’s four-year-old niece Winona Mae, recorded while she was at play, and her disarming innocence makes an incongruous, darkly amusing contrast to the dry, bleak pronouncements of her clone (young British animator and illustrator Julia Pott). Clone Emily transports the guileless girl into her future “Outernet” world of disembodied consciousness, a world of scientific wonders that have all turned out to be horribly dysfunctional. (As one black-comic example, Emily’s grandfather’s memories have been stored in a cube, and the message he sends back is an anguished “Oh God, Oh God, Oh my God.”) In this dire future, a meteor is headed toward Earth, and those of limited means who opt for “discount time travel” invariably flame out and appear as meteor showers (to the delight of Emily Prime, naturally). Hertzfeldt’s film is a tart blend of savage dystopian satire and the utter sweetness of his little niece. And despite its overall pessimism, it does have something of an uplifting message. As Clone Emily tells Emily Prime, “Do not lose time on daily trivialities… Live well and live broadly. Now is the envy of all the dead.”

Another very strong and distinctive entry is Bear Story, the poignant tale of a lonely bear who takes to the streets each day with a mechanical diorama that recounts the tragedies of his life and the happy ending that never occurred. In the story-within-the-story, he’s separated from his wife and child and kidnapped by a traveling circus. Eventually he escapes and reunites with his family, but it’s clear from the photo he carries with him that the reunion is his own wish fulfillment. Director Gabriel Osorio says his film’s gentle melancholy was inspired by the exile of his grandfather during the 1973 coup d’etat in Chile. The charming and meticulously detailed animation—that diorama is quite the wonder—looks like stop-motion animation, but amazingly, most everything we see is digital.

Striking design is also the hallmark of We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, from Russian writer-director Konstantin Bronzit. It’s the story of childhood friends who train together for the space program, their close camaraderie becoming key to their ultimate selection as lead astronaut and backup. The scenes of their physical training and endurance tests are especially stylish and crisply edited. The film keeps itself grounded in realism until a fateful moment spurs a change in tone and a flight into the fantastical.

Arguably the most traditionally artistic of the five Oscar-nominated shorts is Prologue, entirely hand-drawn by veteran British animator Richard Williams, winner of more than 250 international awards and the animation director of the hit Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In one masterly continuous shot, it depicts a battle to the death of two pairs of fighters in the Spartan-Athenian wars some 2,400 years ago—all witnessed by a young girl. Williams has been working on the six-minute short in between other projects for many years, and the nomination for this labor of love is well-earned.

Pixar’s entry, Sanjay’s Super Team, is not one of their best theatrical shorts, but its origins could be an advantage in this Oscar season focused on the lack of diverse voices. Director Sanjay Patel tells the semi-autobiographical story of a first-generation Indian boy who’s enamored by Western cartoon superheroes and dismissive of his devout father’s Hindu traditions. While grudgingly joining his dad’s prayer ritual, young Sanjay finds himself transported to an imaginary world where he’s threatened by a multi-headed monster. But coming to his rescue are the gods Vishnu, Durga and Hanuman. Patel’s film is as well-crafted as any Pixar short, with especially dazzling use of color, but its brief seven-minute screen time doesn’t allow Western viewers much chance to get acquainted with those iconic Hindu gods—Indian audiences will more easily cue into the visual shorthand.

Never rule out the powerful Pixar, but I’ll be delighted if the outrageous and unique Don Hertzfeldt, with his decidedly low-tech stick figures, takes home his first Oscar.