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 the world, and this year is no different. What makes this crop interesting, but ultimately somewhat tedious, is their thematic similarities. More than any other recent year, these shorts are full of slight family dramas.
Animal Behavior – directed by Alison Snowden and David Fine
This short film is the closest thing to an actual cartoon. It is meant for laughs, and the anthropomorphized characters have exaggerated features. Animal Behavior follows a group of animals in a group therapy session: a pit bull leads a bird, a cat, a leech, and a pig as they talk about their feelings. A gorilla interrupts the session, and his antics cause everyone to devolve into their primal natures. There is a Zootopia streak to this short, but also a bit of the comic strip The Far Side. These characters are funny because they’re neurotic and they cannot help themselves. But more importantly, they are funny because the directors go to great pains to show off their exaggerated, comically large butts.
Bao – directed by Domee Shi and Becky Neiman-Cobb
This is the first film whose main subject is parents and children. This is the obligatory Pixar short, and it’s a weird one. It follows a woman who makes some dumplings, and one comes to life. She treats the adorable baby bao as her child, and the film follows the pair as they go through typical growing pains. This is Pixar, so of course it looks great and the cumulative effect is heartwarming/funny. What makes this short so strange to me, however, is the lead character. When I first saw it, I thought the middle aged woman was a teenage boy (she has a boyish haircut and her body shape struck me as that of a chunky adolescent). That changes the dynamics of the entire short – in a good way, I think – but then I found out my interpretation was wrong. Either way, the baby dumpling is cute as hell.
Late Afternoon – directed by Louise Bagnall and Nuria González Blanco
This is the second film whose main subject is parents and children. It involves an old woman, and a younger caregiver who brings her tea. Canny viewers will be able to spot the “twist” within seconds (it took me less than twenty). On the plus side, Late Afternoon has a wistful, impressionistic animation style that is pleasant to look at it. There are some lovely metaphors here about how the connection between sensation and memory.
One Small Step – directed by Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas
This is the third film whose main subject is parents and children. In terms of scope and emotional heft, it is remarkably similar to Bao. It involves a father and his little girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut. It jumps around in time, with the girl’s reliance on her father constantly fluctuating. The animation style is CGI that’s made to look hand-drawn, which is evocative but all too common, so the interesting thing of One Small Step is that the characters are Chinese. By the time the film reaches its conclusion, it practically functions like government propaganda (in a good way).
Weekends – directed by Trevor Jimenez
This is the fourth film whose main subject is parents and children. This one involves a boy with divorced parents. They share custody, and their parenting style are completely different: the mother wants to preserve order and rules, while the father treats the boy as if he’s his younger best friends. Some of the imagery is startling – there is scene where the boy watches a Videodrome-like movie with his father, so we’re treated to some body horror – so the tension of the short is how these different sets of rules inadvertently cause the boy to hurt his parents. Weekends is also the most personal of the animated shorts, so the jerky, hand-drawn imagery helps emphasizes that.
And the Oscar goes to…
Animal Behavior, I guess? As you can probably figure out, the other four nominees kind of cancel each other out. Many of these shorts are nice – too nice – so this crop does not leave a strong impression. Assuming the Oscars survive this scandal-plagued season, there’s always next year.