REVIEW COLLECTION: The Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short Film
Over the last few years, my eyes have been opened to the world of short films. With every new discovery or program, my appreciation grows. I have found great enjoyment in their urgency, efficiency, and magnified effect. To be one of the final five Academy Award nominees in either the Live Action Short or Animated Short Film categories, the film has to be pretty dang good. This year, there’s not a bad apple in the bunch. For me, these are buried treasure for all to now see.
Here are my collected reviews for the Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short Film. Listed in order of rating and true to my website’s hook, each review includes a life lesson takeaway. A collected program of these films is available from various theater chains, including the Landmark Cinemas locations here in Chicago, starting on February 9th. In 90 minutes-and-change, you get five exceptional works for one ticket. Calling all Oscar completists!
Claymation is becoming an expensive and time-consuming lost art. The high-end folks at Laika and Aardman animations have found feature film success, but the little guys and independents still do right by the medium but with less resources. No matter the budget and scope, the brilliance and magic of these creations always resonate. There is artistry to be found in the crude handmade artistry, especially when applied to an affecting narrative. At its core, Negative Space follows a son reminiscing on the quirks of his father. Those quirks come out through the animation and the result is simply lovely.
The narrator, voiced by Albert Birney, talks about his father’s lessons centered on meticulous packing advice. As he remembers and describes in detail, the animation floats us through ideally packed suitcases to waves of imaginative clothes. Could Pixar do this flashier? Sure, but why when simple and mundane can still resonate when life’s imperfections mirror artistic ones. For this animation style, the set design and model work are excellent and keenly detailed. The editing polish from co-director Max Porter is notable as well for this tedious art form.
Written and directed by Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata, Negative Space is adapted from a Ron Koertge poem. The animated film reads its reflective tone quite well, especially when mixed with the thoughtful pondering music from composer Bram Meindersma, featuring Henrik Meierkord on cello. Negative Space is the kind of short film that sneaks up on you. You’re not wowed by the visuals at first, yet enamored with the story. When the labors of love peak and meet by the end, the fulfillment comes through for Negative Space. This animated short has a caressing punch that suits what it set out to lovingly portray. For this writer, it’s the best of the five nominees
BEST LESSON: TRAITS THAT BOND A FATHER AND SON-- If we are lucky enough to have our parents alive and in the picture into our adult years, we likely have half of a lifetime’s worth of memories to remember and enjoy. Oddly enough, the ones that probably stick the most are the qualities and quirks that are the weirdest and most unique. You remember the mantras, sayings, body language expressions, and core values that you probably found ludicrous as a kid then that feel every way apparent now when they reoccur. As silly as they might seem, those are the bonds we hold for life. Maybe it’s fixing a car or how to smoke a cigarette. For Negative Space, it’s folding a packing clothes to perfection. No matter what it is, there is love and beauty in those traits.
The immediate wow factor of Garden Party is the extremely photorealistic CGI animation. This animated short takes an exploratory gander into a decadent setting that is not what it seems. Our main subjects in this dialogue-less short film are curious and inquisitive frogs found in and around the lush mansion. The undetermined time is likely dawn or dusk and these amphibians are either just stepping out into their nocturnal haven or looking for a cozy spot to call it a night.
Written by Romain Montiel, our observed “communication,” if you will, is little more than noises and mild body language as they discover and poke around their surrounding. The devil is in the details of Garden Party, the more these frogs meander, the more clues we gain as to why there are no people around. This mansion has seen better days. Steadily through the different shots and moments, the camera pauses on clues and details to the calamity and, dare I say, violence that has occurred before these cute little toads and frogs arrived.
Garden Party is the sugar and spice entry of these Academy Award nominees. The sugar is the impressive designs and silly little foibles of the animals as they saunter this setting. The spice is the growing sting of the truth as to what really transpired before these scenes. Created by a team of six directors, the pacing and framing work highlights the impressive animated production design creations that zoom into the smaller world of a decadent exterior. Minimalistic in any telling audio cues, the sound work from Victor Caire is impeccable to build its haunting effect. The full revelation that is coming defines the term “payoff.” Enjoy the devious smile or dropped jaw that is coming.
BEST LESSON: NATURE RESIDES AROUND US AT ALL TIMES-- There is a world of teeming life in and around our own cohabiting with each us. More than that, it’s invisibly symbiotic. The crumbs on your kitchen floor, the leaves left over in your yard, and the dirt and dust in every nook and cranny are either home or the buffet table for living things smaller than us. Garden Party plays with that in a darkly comedic way. The frogs we watch don’t care about the existing or preexisting human status of where they are. They just like the pool and the sprinklers. They’re there for the food and sustenance. They don’t observe or notice whatever human loss led to the unoccupied space. They’re on “zero f--ks given” mode and it’s kind of hilarious.
Of these Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Short Film, Lou will be the least obscure and most well known with its Disney/Pixar label. For years, the pre-film animated shorts from the Emeryville, California creators are breeding grounds for future feature film captains and have been as charming and creative as their full-length classics. Lou follows suit within the Disney/Pixar brand that has cornered the market on sunny, safe, and sensitive.
Memorably featured before last summer’s sequel Cars 3, Lou is visual gem of dialogue-less storytelling and body language humor and heart written and directed by David Mullins. Pulsed by the orchestral music of Disney regular and Oscar nominee Christophe Beck (Frozen), there’s a bully on an elementary school playground that takes wicked glee in absconding with the prized recess possessions of his classmates. The brat needs to be taught a lesson and teaching source comes from an unexpected and magical place.
“Lou” is the enlivened creature composed of the odds-and-ends toys and clothing items found in the Lost-and-Found box by the playground door. Observing the bully, the pile of stuff had had enough and aims to give the brute a taste of his own medicine and, eventually, the encouragement and incentive to being a better person. The Pixar Imagination to create the non-scary monster of Lou is a slice of clever genius. As with any Pixar film, the technical merits are pristine and shined to a high gloss. Not a speck is unfinished or out of place.
It begs to be said, though, that if you’ve seen one Pixar short, you’ve kind of seen them all. Even with a great implied message on bullying, you know what to expect in terms of a safe tone supported by dazzling visual work. Lou is still better than 90% of other animated competition out there, but on the Pixar scale against its predecessors, it’s somewhere in the comfortable middle. The short is better than simple and, in the end, quite effective with its small dose of the signature "Pixar Punch" of emotionality.
BEST LESSON: BULLIES WERE LIKELY BULLIED THEMSELVES-- The comeuppance that comes for Lou’s antagonist arrives after the simple realization of how the kid got that way. Any child psychologist will tell you, that the wording of this lesson is a statistically-supported truth. They get that way after being victims first and there actions are reactions of lashing out and one-upmanship to make up for lost respect and dominance. The capability is there for even the worst bullies to learn from and make up for their mistakes with better examples and a chance at their own healing.
Revolting Rhymes is an animated treatment of the playful writing of Roald Dahl and artist Quentin Blake created by the two animation firms collaborating together, Magic Light Pictures in Berlin and Triggerfish Animation Studios in Cape Town. At just over 20 minutes, it is the longest Oscar nominee of the field this year. That depth is both a benefit and a hindrance to its effect. Length might make it the most complete, but it also makes it a bit of a chore.
This dry-witted and darkly comedic fairy tale was written and directed by the team of Jakob Shuh and Jan Lachauer, both previous Academy Award nominees in this field for The Gruffalo and Room for the Broom respectively. Revolting Rhymes is the first part of a TV short series that playfully mashes up storytelling revisions of classic fairy tales. The narrator and main player in this chapter is The Wolf, voiced with the unmistakable Professional Movie Villain low register of Dominic West (Chicago, 300, John Carter).
The cross canine scoffs at happily-ever-after stories and laments on his lost nephews, two young wolves that were told to stay in the woods and not encounter the human world. The Wolf is verbalizing his plight a homely human caretaker (Tasmin Grieg) waiting together in a diner on a rainy city night.What West’s character describes to the curious woman retells and mixes bits of Snow White, The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, and more.
A blond, depressed, and solitary Snow White (Gemma Chan) is grieving the death of her mother while her King (Rob Brydon) father is looking to remarry. She strikes up a friendship with a flower-selling Little Red Riding Hood (Rose Leslie) who modestly lives quite lower class under the miserly thumb of the piggy bank bank. Revolting Rhymes covers years of their friendship and contention and urge for revenge carried by the Wolf against them.
The filmmaking skill is top-notch between the casting, production design creations, and Ben Lockett’s semi-sinister and portending music. Cute on the outside with its excellent character designs and blackhearted on the inside with its satire, Revolting Rhymes is definitely not for innocent kiddos. This is decidedly adult fare and a fittingly creative nominee for the Oscar. If it wins, it will be because of its bigger scope and Oscar nomination experience from professionals.
BEST LESSON: WHEN GAMBLING IS A SIN OR NOT-- Risks are gambles and gambles are risk. That’s another way to say this simply. The measure of merit is the context. Risks and gambles can be for good or bad intentions. Provided you win, the good intentions are worthy risks and gambles. The evil victories get the sin label, especially those for the purpose of revenge, and rightfully so. Either way, there’s a quickened pulse of fun to be had with Revolting Rhymes.
The last of the five nominees is a love letter and thank you note from a great athlete back to his beloved sport. Recently retired Los Angeles Laker generational star Kobe Bryant executive produced and commissioned this artistic piece of celebration called Dear Basketball. The all-time great and future Hall-of-Famer spared no expense, calling on top talents to create this animated short film. Basketball fans especially will find value in this reciprocal tribute.
Narrated by the man himself, Dear Basketball is a mini-biography of Kobe from his upbringing and his accomplishments to lasting impact on his city and chosen game. His words describe the origins and roots of his heart, his work ethic, his pains, his challenges, and his fulfilled dreams. There is a first-person intimacy and reverence in Dear Basketball that cannot be denied, especially when it drops a quote like “There is power in understanding the journey of others to help create your own." It lays that lacquer on nice and thick.
Directed by Disney animation legend Glen Keane, the animated short employs fluid pencil sketch stylings that morph from one biographical moment to the next during Bryant’s narration. It is impressive work from animators Minkyu Lee and Bolhem Bouchiba and effects supervisor Philip Virgil. As a cherry on top in quite the coup of a get, film legend and fellow 2018 Oscar nominee John Williams composes the epic underscore. How would you like the composer of Star Wars to conduct your life story? That’s pretty stinking sweet.
The film is relatively short, almost too short maybe. With that in mind, it moves quickly to never ramble, belabor any single point, or overstay its welcome. Still, Bryant and his artistic partners could have stretched a little further than they did to offer and present more depth. In a way, this feels more like an extended self-endorsement commercial than a true tribute statement devoid of a toot-your-own horn agenda. If you know the player’s reputation in the image-emulating mold of Michael Jordan, that’s pure Kobe. He can afford to flaunt this ego and take on that challenge. He puts his game and his money where his mouth is.
BEST LESSON: AN ATHLETE’S LOVE FOR A SPORT-- Dear Basketball remains on the subject of what basketball meant to Kobe Bryant. He extols his love for the sport that gave him so much in return. Hints of look-at-me vanity aside, the man did come from humble beginnings and busted his but to be one of the game’s best players. For him to get there, he had to love the game. Love or hate Kobe Bryant, you have to tip your hat at his success and the gesture made by him through this short film.