This year’s crop animated shorts nominees are (as always) an intriguing bunch. Some of them push the limit of the medium, both in terms of storytelling and the animation itself, while others are more traditional in their pay-off. The shorts this year are from all over the world, and what unites them is economical storytelling, and the time-honored tradition of creating a connection through silence. In any other year, this would be a competitive field, but one stand-out is short is worlds ahead of all the others.
Bear Story, directed by Gabriel Osorio Vargas and Pato Escala Pierart
On the surface, this short is the most appealing to children. It is about an anthropomorphized bear who makes clever toys for cute bear cubs. Look a little deeper, however, and there is a heartbreaking allegory about loss and the power of storytelling. The toy-making bear misses his family – there is a curious scene where he looks at an empty bedroom – but he saunters into the city as a street performer. His elaborate, mechanical toys tell the story of how he was taken from his home and made to perform as a circus animal. The animation is all CGI, but the short mainly traffics in modes that were popular a century ago, which gives Bear Story a timeless feel. The short could be a metaphor for everything from fascism to animal cruelty, and its final, poignant moments are about the chasm between hope and realism. It is undeniably effective, yet I cannot remember an animated short that was this depressing (or manipulative).
Prologue, directed by Richard Williams and Imogen Sutton
This is the short with the slimmest running time, but its escalating violence leaves quite an impression. Williams and Sutton use hand-drawn animation and the appearance of a continuous shot – sort of like Birdman, except doodles – to tell a creation myth from flora, to fauna, and eventually man. The effect is calming at first, full of clever transformations, and then the directors up the ante with a bizarre, incredibly violent battle between four nude male figures. The swordplay is about as intense and bloody as anything you might find in a Mel Gibson epic, and the deaths are genuinely gruesome. True to its name, Prologue feels incomplete, even if has moments of shocking power.
Sanjay’s Super Team, directed by Sanjay Patel and Nicole Paradis Grindle
This is the obligatory short from Pixar, and it would be an important cartoon even without this year’s controversy about the whitewashed Oscars. Based on the director’s own life, this short is about a small Indian boy who wants to watch a Power Rangers-style cartoon, except his stern father insists that the boy worships at a homemade shrine. The boy’s imagination runs wild, combining slam-bang cartoon action with Hindu gods as his heroes. Sanjay’s Super Team brims with imagination and vibrant colors, and in a time-honored Disney tradition, the boy’s disproportionately large face/eyes makes him incredibly super cute. There’s a warmth to the family dynamic here, as well as the clash between tradition and assimilation, so this short is more moving and personal than what we usually get from Pixar.
We Can’t Live without Cosmos, directed by Konstantin Bronzit
Male friendship is an uncommon topic in film, and Bronzit’s appealing short addresses it head-on. This is a science-fiction story about two young men who do everything together. They live in a remote, snow-capped space station and they train to work as cosmonauts. There is reason these two were paired off – one is the back-up of the other – and the second cosmonaut is inconsolable after disaster strikes. Bronzit’s storytelling is effective: he creates a series of rhythms, whether it’s a repeated behavior or actual percussion, and finds depth whenever the rhythm breaks. The animation is deliberately crude, sort of like Nickelodeon cartoons from the nineties, so this short’s inevitable conclusion cuts that much deeper. While this short lacks the innovation of many others, it also has an image so primal and moving that it lingers in my memory far more than the others.
World of Tomorrow, directed by Don Hertzfeldt
World of Tomorrow is one the best films of 2015, full stop. Hertzfeldt, who was previously nominated for Best Animated Short for Rejected, packs in more ideas, humor, and emotion in 15 minutes than most feature-length science fiction films. The short is about Emily, a little girl who gets an unlikely visitor: a clone of herself from the future. Future Emily tells the little girl all about her life, how the world has changed, and even robot poetry. Hertzfeldt does not shy away from the absurd, including non-sequitur gags that are funnier than anything else in this year’s slate. But World of Tomorrow is moving, too, albeit in a strange, oblique way. Future Emily speaks with a robotic cadence, as if her humanity is lost, and still there is melancholy there that’s amplified by little Emily’s childish goofiness. The animation is also beautiful: while the two Emilys are stick figures, Hertzfeldt’s background are colorful and have an array of different textures. I’ve seen World of Tomorrow several times now (it’s streaming on Netflix), and each viewing makes me laugh and gives me something new to think about.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO…
World of Tomorrow! Shocking, right? This is best animated short I’ve seen since I’ve started reviewing them several years ago, and the only since Paperman that has truly captured my imagination. That being said, World of Tomorrow may not win the Oscar. It’s incredibly weird, for one thing, and the voters traditionally go with the most moving of the bunch (Bear Story, in this case). If Hertzfeldt goes home empty-handed, he should take comfort in knowing that film fans will be talking about his short for years to come, if not decades.