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 nominees are usually form all over, but this year they’re concentrated in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. What makes this crop interesting is that they include one of the best nominees in recent years, and one of the most terrible.
Dear Basketball – directed by Glen Keane
Dear Basketball is the worst film at this year’s Academy Awards (length notwithstanding). It exists only to indulge the vanity of Kobe Bryant, who co-wrote the short with Keane. Bryant narrates, too, talking about his love for the game. His affection may be sincere, but in this context, his “love” is a thinly veiled opportunity to talk about himself. The technical aspect do not fare well, either: the score, by none other than John Williams, veers into unintentional self-parody. The animation is evocative enough, with Bryant’s body shifting between him as a boy and an adult, but this nakedly puerile self-indulgence is not a good look for anyone.
Garden Party – directed by Gabriel Grapperon, Florian Babikian, Victor Caire, Vincent Bayoux, Théophile Dufresne, and Lucas Navarro
This group of animators are known as Illogic Collective, and based on Garden Party, I hope they soon get the money for a feature-length film. Garden Party takes place in the backyard of an anonymous mansion, and Scarface has clearly inspired its ugly décor. There are no people at this party, only frogs and toads. The animation here is stunning: it is practically photo-realistic, and still has just enough otherworldly detail so you know it’s a cartoon. The frogs are not cute in the Disney sense. They behave like frogs, occasionally finding themselves in a slapstick scenario, as we learn strange details about why this villa is completely abandoned. If this short has little in terms of plot, it is outstanding in terms of craft, and its flashes of wicked humor only add to the delight.
Lou – directed by Dave Mullins
The obligatory short from Disney/Pixar is a fable about the importance of sharing. It takes place on a school playground, with each kid claiming a different toy. They’re overseen by a strange creature, one that’s anthropomorphized by what’s left in the lost and found bin. The creature wants to encourage play, so he decides to teach the playground bully an important lesson. Lou has the gentle humor and moralizing that longtime Pixar fans can expect, with the added bonus that the creature looks like a Yip Yip alien.
Negative Space – directed by Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata
In the typical entry-level creative writing course, you will hear plenty of stories about coping with a dead relative. Negative Space continues in that tradition, since it is about a young man’s bittersweet relationship with his father. They form a bond over an unlikely alliance: how best to pack a suitcase. Both the narrator and his father are particular about it, striving for an ideal use of packing space. The short uses packing as an opportunity to explore different textures, with stop-motion animation that mixes found objects with traditional forms. Warm, funny, and never too maudlin, Negative Space nearly transcends its creative workshop trappings.
Revolting Rhymes – directed by Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer
This is the longest short, by a significant stretch. While the other four nominees are less than ten minutes, this one is nearly half an hour. Thankfully, it has enough attitude and wit to justify the runtime. Revolting Rhymes is an adaptation of a Roald Dahl book, and accurately reflects his misanthropy. Set in the mid-twentieth century, the story is a riff on classic fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, the Wolves, and the Magic Mirror are all important characters. But instead of the standard story, Dahl imagines a Cold War between wolves and people, with both sides biding their time to strike. Dominic West plays one of the wolves, and his narration captures this playful, macabre tone perfectly. The animation is whimsical, too, with the characters slightly uglier than what you might find in a typical Pixar short. Like Dahl’s best adaptations, Revolting Rhymes is best for kids with a sense of humor, or adults who have not forgotten theirs.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO…
This year is a split between “should win” and “will win.” Garden Party should win: the animation is incredible, it tells an interesting story, but its storytelling is remote and ends with a disturbing sight gag. I think that Negative Space will win: it is impressive in terms of craft, and the voters tend to gravitate toward the short with the biggest emotional punch (e.g. Bear Story’s win from two years ago). Let’s just hope that Garden Party and its creators soon get the attention they deserve.