Once upon a time, the short film was everywhere. Cinemas preceded every new film with a brief and humorous cartoon from the minds at Warner Bros. or Walt Disney Studios. For much of the 20th century, in fact, the theater offered patrons a veritable variety show of short films (both live-action and animated), newsreels, and musical performances in addition to the feature presentation.
As a longtime fan of animation, I’ve always marveled at the amount of thought and ingenuity these creators of old put into a seven-minute Looney Tunes or Tom and Jerry. But the era of Chuck Jones and Fred Quimby is long over. Nowadays, most theaters offer little more than a string of previews before each film. With the exception of large-scale studios like Disney and Pixar (who package a little film to premiere with each of their productions), short-form animation no longer gets the love it deserves.
That’s why I’m so thankful for the “Best Animated Short Film” category that pops up at each year’s Academy Awards. Yes, like most folks, I don’t put much stock in the opinions of the Oscars, finding many of their feature-length favorites dull and pretentious. But setting time for a few Short Subject categories (one each for Animated, Live-Action, and Documentary) is a wonderful way to keep the public’s attention on a fading artform – and to perhaps make viewers aware of a below-the-radar masterpiece.
This year, I’ve decided to help the case of these short films by shining a spotlight on the five Best Animated Short Subject nominees, and disclosing my own personal thoughts on each. Some are better than others, but all represent a form of artistry that deserves to be maintained, even in our increasingly commercialized world.
And so, alphabetically:
Having never been much of a sports enthusiast, I’m probably not the target audience for Dear Basketball. Nevertheless, the emotional heft which backs this five-minute short will likely resonate with anyone who has experienced the mixture of pain and liberation that comes with the process of moving on from something you love.
Kobe Bryant’s personal monologue frames his ode to the sport, which brought him fame and fortune for twenty years. The short’s visual narrative parallels young Kobe’s slam-dunk fantasies with the older Bryant’s realization of those dreams. The rough, sketchy pen lines convey the raw emotion that has connected Bryant with his passion for so many years, and the unfinished quality of the animation subtly reminds us that, while his career may be drawing to a close, the sport he embodies – and the love he attaches to it – is nowhere near over.
We tend to glorify our athletes (as we do most celebrities) to the point of dehumanization. Dear Basketball is a loving reminder that sports personalities are just as human as the rest of us, and are just as prone to change, provocation, and reflection.
Garden Party is the weakest of the five nominees, though it’s not entirely without merit. Chief among them in this dialogue-free film is its mix of CG characters and realistic settings. The frogs and toads are skillfully rendered, and the film mines a few flecks of good silent comedy from their odd yet not exaggerated behaviors.
Unfortunately, there’s not much else to the film, which focuses on the amphibians’ exploration of a lavish mansion following a presumably equally lavish party. Even at just seven minutes, the short feels padded, as though attempting to stretch out the monotony of its story.
Much of the power in Garden Party hinges on the Big Reveal at its conclusion. While the reveal is certainly unexpected, it fails to connect to any larger theme, and feels more like a last-ditch attempt to imbue the short with relevance. Sadly, there’s very little relevance to be found in the film, which fades from memory not long after the closing credits.
Lou is my favorite film in the nomination pool, and the one with the greatest chance of taking home the prize. Produced by Pixar (and premiering in theaters alongside Cars 3), this six-minute short has just the perfect mix of recognition and emotional resonance to connect with voters.
The story sounds ludicrous on the surface – the contents of a Lost & Found bin come to life and face off against a playground bully – but Lou quickly proves to be one of the most inspired films in Pixar’s short-film canon. There are echoes of Toy Story in its narrative (playthings gaining sentience), but the story pivots smartly away from any copycatting, instead delivering an unexpectedly heartfelt conclusion.
Pixar has won the Oscar for this category four times in the past (most recently with last year’s Piper), and there’s no reason to suspect they won’t do so again. Lou is a poignant reminder that the studio can craft short films just as well as they can long ones.
There’s something indelibly charming about Negative Space, a stop-motion film produced in France. While the film feels unsatisfyingly short (five minutes long, and ending rather abruptly), it tells a sweet little story about father-son relationships, all built around the concept of suitcase-packing.
The animation (particularly during the instructive “packing” sequence) is fun to watch, and gives the story a more grounded, physical quality than some of the other nominees. It’s no trailblazer, but it’s still enjoyable enough to watch.
Revolting Rhymes is by far the longest of the nominees, clocking in at about 29 minutes. It’s actually the first half of a two-part TV special, the entirety of which runs just under an hour. (The Academy limits short-film submissions to 40 minutes, which presumably explains the split.) And the first segment of this BBC-produced cartoon is the stronger of the two halves, though it’s not without its flaws.
Adapted from Roald Dahl’s 1982 book, Revolting Rhymes interweaves a handful of classic children’s stories – Snow White, the Three Little Pigs, Red Riding Hood – but with dark and disturbing new twists. The special is amusing and charmingly animated, with delightful narration by Dominic West (leading an all-British cast). But don’t get too comfortable – despite the built-in satirical charm, the special is too harsh and violent for very young children. (Red Riding Hood, for instance, carries a gun, and repeatedly kills other characters offscreen.)
Dahl’s books are quite often cruel, exploring a dark side of childhood unplumbed by most writers. But his twisted realities work better on the page (accompanied by Quentin Blake’s equally crude and sketchy illustrations) than in a brightly-colored and polished animated special. Despite the obvious care put into the adaptation (by Jakob Schuh, previously nominated in this category for 2009’s The Gruffalo), It’s difficult to determine precisely what demographic this special means to target.
As stated above, Lou is the likely winner in this category, although Dear Basketball may yet pull an upset. Those two shorts – and, at times, the three which compete with it – represent the strength and artistry to be found in the miniscule medium. Hopefully, curious viewers find the time to give these little films their due. Long live the short form.