The nominees for Best Animated Short can be adventurous, even daring. At best, they push the limits of the medium, or they tell a heartwarming story in a truncated time period. The shorts this year are from all over the world, and while they are different from each other, this year’s crop is not as strong as previous years. It’s a competitive race this year, but only insofar that none of them are extraordinary, or rise above all the others.
Blind Vaysha – directed by Theodore Ushev
This short looks like a picture book that’s been brought to life. It’s an appropriate choice, since Theodore Ushev’s Blind Vaysha adapts a short story by Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov. The titular Vaysha is not blind, exactly. Caroline Dhavernas plays the narrator, who explains how Vaysha can only see the past out of her left eye, and the future out of her right. If she were to look directly at you, she would simultaneously see a child and a withering old body. Dhavernas narrates with a mix of compassion and sadness – Vaysha can never really see the present – and her conundrum creates a paradox for us. Blind Vaysha’s narrative technique is bold: the narrator directly addresses his audience, asking us what we think. The imagery is muted, yet vibrant, with a swirl of constantly moving colors that only add to the irony that Vaysha herself could never witness something so bizarrely beautiful.
Borrowed Time – directed by Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj
Borrowed Time may be independently made, but Coats and Hamou-Lhadj are both artists at Pixar. Their craft and attention to detail is up to the Pixar standard. They open with a lithe old man, a sheriff in the Old West, who stares with grief on the edge of a cliff. There are flashback to the sheriff’s past, including a sudden carriage chase that ends in heartbreak. The action is confidently-mounted, with perfect little details like the sheriff’s stubble or the crumbling rock. Another Pixar departure is that Borrowed Time deals with adult themes, including suicide, and it’s ultimately harrowing – in spite of its length.
Pear Cider and Cigarettes – directed by Robert Valley
Robert Valley’s short is the longest of the nominees, and also the weakest. It runs into a common irony found in memoir: the narrator assumes his audience will be as interested in his personal story as he is. That might have been the case, at least if Pear Cider and Cigarettes were about twenty minutes shorter. Valley tells the story of Techno, his hard-living best friend. Techno was a charismatic alcoholic, the sort of guy who folks were eager to forgive, until they couldn’t. The short follows Robert and Techno’s friendship, from childish legal trouble to a protracted stay in China where Techno waits for a liver transplant. Aside from the mild irritation of hearing “techno” repeated over and over again, Pear Cider and Cigarettes returns to the same imagery, themes, and observations. The short’s novelty is subversive in an adolescent way: there is profanity, drug use, and sex. Valley delivers his voiceover flatly, like a noir hero, and the impressionistic animation – with limited color and sharp lines – reflects the edge he gives the material. Ultimately there is little insight into Techno’s mind, save his desire for booze, so Valley squanders his memorial.
Pearl – directed by Patrick Osborne
Like Feast, the Best Animated Short winner from a couple years ago, Pearl tells a lot from a limited perspective. Instead of an eye-level view of an adorable Boston terrier, Osborne steals his perspective on the interior of a car. He follows a father and daughter as they share life on the road: he’s a street musician, one who provides a nice life for his kid, and even teaches her how to play guitar. In the span of just a few minutes, Osborne speeds forward in time, showing how the girl grows into a popular musician – one who has a frayed relationship with her father. Pearl repeats the same bittersweet pop song, and the boxy animation serves the material by abstracting the figures and backgrounds until they’re strangely compelling. One important note: Pearl is an interactive animated short, so you can watch it with the 360 degrees of freedom on YouTube. This drastically changes the ambition and craft of the short, as well as its message. On YouTube, anyway, the cumulative feeling is like a long trip: comforting, slightly tiresome, and ultimately nostalgic.
Piper – directed by Alan Barillaro
This is the annual Pixar short, and its appeal is a no-brainer. It tells the story of a cute baby sandpiper, a bird who relies on coastal waves to bring its food. A parent instructs the sandpiper on how to gather food, to its chagrin, and the short is about its journey toward independence. Piper has zero dialogue, relying only on the exquisite detail of its creatures/environment, plus the cute sounds they make. More importantly, it’s just long enough so it does not overstay its welcome. Adults and kids alike will watching this and go “aww” repeatedly (in a good way).
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO…
Piper, I guess? The Pixar short always has an advantage over the others, and Barillaro imbues his economical short so it brims with emotion. I might Pearl an edge if the Academy could watch it in the intended full 360 degree view, since it looks more generic otherwise. In this particular category, the conventional wisdom is that the saddest short will win. They’re all sad, to some degree or another, but none of them are so overwhelming that they’ll inspire a river of tears. When the conventional wisdom fails, at least in this category, it’s best to go with what’s cutest.