Film Review: 2017 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Animation

The 2017 Oscar nominees in the animated-short category are mostly somber, which makes the charming Pixar entry 'Piper' all the more welcome.
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This year’s quintet of Oscar-nominated animated short films is a generally more downbeat collection—not exactly an antidote for these stressful times. A woman with a bizarre eye affliction, a sheriff haunted by a horrible accident, a onetime golden boy drinking himself to death. With those three tales in the mix, let’s hope Shorts HD fills out their theatrical program with a few light, fun non-nominees.

Fortunately, the program does include Piper, the likely frontrunner from Pixar that got massive exposure as the curtain-raiser for last year’s second-highest grossing film, Finding Dory (which was shut out of the animated-feature Oscar race). This charmer centers on a young sandpiper and her very tentative first venture to the shoreline to forage for food. Her traumatic encounter with a huge wave (which has a darkly funny comic payoff) is a major setback, but the little bird eventually rises to the challenge and becomes something of a pioneer. The photorealism of the birds and the setting is uncanny, with just enough character expression to remind you that, yes, this is a cartoon. Alan Barillaro’s six-minute short is an endearing delight and deserves this year’s Oscar.

Also on the lighter side is Pearl, the six-minute account of a father-daughter relationship through the years, all told within the confines of the car (named Pearl) that takes them on various cross-country adventures. Watching it, I thought of the 2014 Oscar-winning short Feast, which tells a similar time-spanning story from the vantage point of a dog. And sure enough, the two films boast the same director, Patrick Osborne. The new short is equally ingenious in depicting vivid moments in time while never leaving that cherished automobile. Along with their mutual fondness for their second-home-on-wheels, father and daughter also share a love of music that solidifies their bond and leads to bigger things.

There’s another version of Pearl Oscar voters won’t see: The short was originally produced as a 360-degree virtual-reality video for Google’s “Spotlight Stories” series. Osborne created the theatrical version by watching the VR footage on a mobile phone and essentially “directing” the shots with his head movements.

Osborne’s Feast won the Oscar for Disney, and there’s another short in the race with a Disney connection: Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj, co-directors of Borrowed Time, are both Pixar veterans. They first met and collaborated while students at New York University, and now they’ve created an artful short that is especially notable for showing how far CG human facial expression has come since the days of “the uncanny valley.” It’s the story of a grizzled sheriff who has returned to the scene of a terrible childhood accident which claimed the life of…well, we don’t want to spoil a seven-minute short. Coats and Hamou-Lhadj’s handling of the tragic event is as tense and gripping as a live-action version would be, and there’s an overriding sense of melancholy and regret that makes this anything but a kids’ cartoon. A big plus is the score by Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain composer Gustavo Santaolalla.

A frequent Oscar contender, the National Film Board of Canada is represented here by Blind Vaysha, adapted by Bulgarian director Theodore Ushev from a short story by his friend Georgi Gospodinov. It’s a metaphorical tale of a girl who is born with one green eye and one brown eye—not such a terrible fate, one would think, except the brown eye is only capable of seeing the past, and the green eye only witnesses the future. Sometimes the difference is between that day’s sunrise and sunset; at more alarming times, one eye sees the primordial ooze and the other the coming apocalypse. “This story is a hopeless story,” the narrator laments, “because we cannot find anything in this world capable of uniting these two views.” The fantasy concept is intriguing, but the overall mood is bleak; the cursed Vaysha is meant to symbolize people caught between timid longing for an idealized past and fear of what the future will bring. The lesson, of course, is: Enjoy the present. What surely secured the eight-minute short its Oscar nod is its distinctive technique: a recreation of early-20th-century linocut block printing and abstract medieval drawings. And here’s a trend alert: The short is also available in a virtual-reality version.

By far the longest short of the five is the 35-minute Pear Cider and Cigarettes, which I believe is Piper’s closest competitor. Written and directed by Vancouver graphic artist Robert Valley (known for his work on the Gorillaz music-videos and Disney’s “Tron: Uprising”), it’s an autobiographical account of his relationship with his childhood buddy Techno Stypes, a dazzling athlete who lived recklessly, was injured in a car accident at 17, and became a raging alcoholic. Valley himself supplies the world-weary narration about his charismatic but exhausting friend and his excursion to China to prevent Techno from drinking himself to death before he can get a liver transplant. It’s certainly not the most cheerful subject matter, but Valley gives it a stylized hipster feel, and the visuals are sleek and graphically striking (and done in PhotoShop!). And many of us can relate to the experience of having a larger-than-life friend who both fascinates and exasperates us to the point of nervous collapse. Pear Cider isn’t quite a tribute to Techno, but this account of a wild, out-of-control life is compelling. And the short seems to have the belated blessing of the Stypes family. “I was aware of the fact that this is a little painful for them,” Valley told IndieWire, “but the fact that there’s an Oscar nomination was OK after sitting around with them at Christmas.”

Click here for cast and crew information.