CAPSULE REVIEWS: The 2019 Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Short
Call it a critic’s perk, but it is an absolute treat to be able to annually view and review many of the Academy Award nominees for the minor film categories. This year’s finalists for the Animated Short category are the best field in several years. They vary in emotional anchors and artistic styles, but sacrifice little in quality, effort, or impact. Locally here in Chicago, these selections are playing at the the Landmark Century Centre Cinema location in Lakeview. In a great deal, one ticket gets you all five shorts. Listed in a very close order of best to least (can’t even call any of these a “worst”), here are some capsule reviews for the five nominees, complete with highlighted life lessons.
LATE AFTERNOON— 5 STARS
It was tight at the top, but this kindly kneaded dough of traditional animation is a hair better over the shiny and showy CGI cousin behind it. Late Afternoon is a sweeping little nugget of feels from the people at Cartoon Saloon and the Irish Film Board. Mothers and daughters, get your tissues ready. This one is going to delight.
The short opens on an older woman voiced by award-winning Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan (The Others). We learn her name is Emily. She is sitting in her living room lit by the morning sun. The actions of her nearby caretaker Kate (animator and artist Niamh Moyles) give us the clue that the older woman suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease. Where her biscuit breaks off to sink into a cup of tea or when the pages of a book are flipped, Emily and a stream of imagery dive into colorful voids that develop before our eyes.
BEST LESSON: MEMORIES ARE ECHOES, WAVES, AND MERE CUPFULS OF A LIFETIME — The wondrous flows guiding the storytelling of Late Afternoon sheds let on the precious loves of the elderly. Their faculties may be slowed or degrading, but resonating moments still flourish. Memories may behave like reverberating echoes, disappearing waves, or single servings, but they ping back, wash over, and accumulate. More importantly, the right ones last.
The power of these revisited memories in Late Afternoon piece together the different stages of Emily’s life and the important people that made it beautiful. The ebbs and flows are wrapped by touching and perfect music from Colm Mac Con Iomaire. Written and directed by Louise Bagnall, a designer on late year’s Oscar-nominated animated feature The Breadwinner, this passionate retelling creates a captivating visual parade. The other nominees might be fanciful or bolder, but the beauty of this gem stands above the rest.
ONE SMALL STEP— 5 STARS
The 21st century school teacher writing this mini-review is a sucker for stories celebrating STEM and gender equality. As the title suggests (and if you’re triggered like I am already), you’re going to love this one to the moon and back. Those moms from Late Afternoon need to pass the tissues to the dads with daughters for One Small Step, a dreamy story of a girl who wants to be astronaut next to her quiet cheerleader father.
BEST LESSON: DADS ARE DREAM BUILDERS — We meet Luna, a Chinese-American girl, on her sixth birthday being gifted a pair of custom space boots made by her cobbler father. With their homemade space helmets and DIY cardboard solar system and spacecraft, the two play out her aspirations. Like any good dad, this man encourages his daughter in building up her aspirations in healthy ways. Where he goes a step further is putting in the time to support her when she’s not looking.
Free of dialogue but full of Steve Horner’s soaring music, One Small Step follows little Luna as she ages into the college girl on the cusp of graduating in her field of astrophysics. Her infectious youthful laugh ages into huffed adversity dealing with failure. Meanwhile, her graying father just keeps on building her up in his own quiet ways. Fostered from concept and directed by the team of Disney animation alums Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas, One Small Step is a visual knockout. Beyond the dazzle, it’s the serene sentiment and starry imagination that really stick.
WEEKENDS— 4 STARS
Divorce will always be a prickly topic. Films large or small that present that societal circumstance with grace can soften those thorns into some cathartic. Weekends, from writer/director/animator Trevor Jimenez, does just that. It touches on that touchy topic with the successful amount of empathy necessary to engage us into visiting this scenario with a willing heart.
The short follows a young boy who bounces between his mother during the weekdays and his father on the weekends. The two caretaking parents, her with Eric Satie chords on the piano and him with his Dire Straits cutting through cigarette smoke in the car, couldn’t be any different. However, they both love their shared son and the affection is reciprocated in return. Even with shared familial love, the tricky part for the caring and observant young boy in Weekends are the swings weathered between the different parenting approaches and tones.
BEST LESSON: THE DIVISION AND CONFUSION IN CHILDREN OF DIVORCE — At his mother’s place, the boy is a creator, painting his own bright room and being closely watched in an age-appropriate fashion. At his dad’s, he fends for himself and sleeps on a horse statue amid samurai paraphernalia. He absorbs both places in intense dreamscapes held dear by the parental anchors present. When that flow is challenged by new homes and new significant others for both parents, the confusion mounts worse.
Beyond the narrative back-and-forth, the visual presentation is a unique standout quality of Weekends. Jimenez, a frequent storyboard artist from Disney, keeps things purposefully exaggerated and rough. I believe that wisely matches the mentality of the young central character where things are larger than the same yet scribbled due to the confusing time period of transitions he is experiencing. The sketchy crudeness becomes a brilliant artistic medium for the story being told. Weekends was the awards season Annie Award winner for Best Animated Short and enters the Oscars as the odds-on favorite.
BAO— 4 STARS
This wouldn’t be a proper Best Animated Short field with the annual Pixar entry. Audiences of Incredibles 2 will remember Bao well from last summer. Warm and cuddly before minorly bizarre turns, they will likely remember being weirded out by the personification of food and the odd symbolism that comes with that. Nonetheless, writer/director Domee Shii’s little bun from a different kind of oven deserves a place in this race.
In class dialogue-free fashion from the House of the Bouncing Office Lamp, Bao dances through the lifespan of a virtual childhood of a Chinese-American household. The matriarch’s joy is in the kitchen where cooking is her solace. From that joy springs forth unique life taking the form of one her titular meat-filled buns. Composer Toby Chu’s score guides us through the fast-forwarded hugs and hurdles of the parent-child relationship that follows.
BEST LESSON: A MOTHER’S SMOTHERING LOVE — Notice that reads as “smothering” and not “protective.” Good intentions aside, we meet a mother in Bao that has a very difficult time letting go. She resists her boy growing up and despises the rushed-upon maturity, especially where her bao brings home a fiance. The overprotective need to be ready for the wandering independence of their children.
The pristine Pixar craft dominates every pixel. Bao is, by default quality alone, the most polished nominee of this year’s field. The care and consideration of the proverbial “Pixar Punch,” the name of the subjective metric of emotional destruction this website has coined and assigned to everything coming out of Emeryville, is solid, but not spectacular. The culture is the big appreciation here. Echoing Crazy Rich Asians, it is incredibly encouraging to see a large creative hub like Pixar make strides towards domestic inclusions of diversity. Bao is an excellent flagbearer for that with its story of traditional parents trying to grasp the Americanized present of their children.
ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR— 3 STARS
Easily the most offbeat and eccentric of the five Best Animated Short nominees this year, Animal Behaviour plays like a clever sitcom episode. It has quirk and character coming out of its ears. The rub is the characters at the psychiatrist office setting of choice are a collection of irascible animals instead of people. All the zingers have a little extra bite this way.
Projecting human-like behaviors, a mantis, a leech, a pig, and a cat are dumping their habitat’s worth of issues to the canine Dr. Clement (Ryan Beil). This circle knows each other well when a newcomer, an irritable ape named Victor (Taz Van Rassel), arrives and disrupts their comfort zones. The cranky simian emotionally and physically bowls over the compassionate and patient climate of the group.
BEST LESSON: GET ON WITH YOUR LIFE — As helpful as these circles of group therapy can be, there is a point where the reflection time spent on problems needs to end. Debates need to end and feet need to move everyone forward. When rants clash with fears, admonishment simmers and these intelligible beings revert to their instinctive animal behavior. No wonder why the good doc struggles to maintain control, even when saying all the right things.
Above all the other nominees, the voice work is key here and the ensemble plays off each other well. Beil as the straight-man and Van Rassel as the loose cannon lead the lively and liberating conversation. Leah Juel (Trollz), Andrea Libman (My Little Pony), and Toby Berner (TV character actor) contribute nicely to the wackiness.
All of this animated personification comes from the writing, directing, and animation team of Alison Snowden and David Fine, two developers of Shaun the Sheep. This the first theatrical short from the Canadian married pair since winning this very Oscar category 15 years ago for Bob’s Birthday. Hopefully what took these seasoned veterans so long wasn’t a case of the life lesson matching Animal Behaviour.