There has been a depressing trend among the nominees for Best Animated Short Film, and it is only getting worse. I’ve been watching and reviewing them for ten years now, and recently there is a disincentive for animators who push the boundary of their medium. The winners do not have the most innovative animation, or even a thought-provoking story. Now it is all about which film can get you crying in the shortest amount of time. To that end, four of this year’s shorts are bittersweet family story with a sick or dying relatively, while the fifth is a bittersweet story of friend between a cat and a dog. Some of the shorts are more artful than others, but most land with the saccharine emotional power you might expect from a Hallmark card.
Dcera (Daughter) – directed by Daria Kashcheeva
When it comes to stop motion animation, there is an expectation that things move slowly. Animators prefer to showcase the meticulous detail in their characters and locations. Daughter eschews that, employing a faux documentary style that is unusual to this format. The story is about a woman visiting her father at his hospital bed, and stylized flashbacks from their life together. It looks like Kashcheeva carved her figures out of wood, so it’s all the more surprising when they spring into life, like when the daughter hurriedly descends a staircase and the camera struggles to follow her. Abrupt shifts in speed is where Daughter finds its meaning – the chaos of everyday life slows to a standstill in a hospital bed – and its stylized point of view compounds the feeling of loss.
Hair Love – directed by Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver
With limited narration from Issa Rae, this short has the arc you might except from Pixar (it was produced by Sony, one of their top competitors). It follows a little girl as she goes through her big hair day. She decides on how to style her massive afro, except she is struggling to do it herself. Her father attempts to step in, except he is ill-equipped to handle her hair with the required delicacy. Cherry and Toliver film these characters with wide, saucer-sized eyes, and the girl’s hair has impressive textural detail. Maximum poignancy is the goal here – it is rare to see an animated short about a young black girl and her family – and Cherry further drives that idea home with how we finally see the girl’s mother. Canny viewers will figure out the “twist” quickly, and I suspect most of you will find it manipulative, not heart-warming.
Kitbull – directed by Kathryn Hendrickson and Rosana Sullivan
This is the one about the dog and cat. Their bodies are an exercise in contrast: the dog is a pit bull, bulky and with beady eyes, while the cat is tiny, feral, and expressive. Hendrickson and Sullivan are ruthless in their desire to engage your feelings. The cat is a stray, fighting for scraps in the alley where it lives, while the dog is the victim of abusive owners. The best part about Kitbull is how it kept true to the nature of the animals. They are not anthropomorphized, and their unlikely friendship develops through fits and starts. That quality also leads somewhat to their undoing. If you’ve ever watched a viral video about a neglected dog or cat who finds a family, then you know exactly where this is going. Feast, the Oscar-winning short from a few years back, was also about a cute dog in a situation it did not fully understand. At least that one had the creativity to stay in the dog’s perspective, while Kitbull celebrates cuteness for its own sake.
Memorable – directed by Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre
Instead of a daughter and father, Memorable presents us with a husband and wife. The husband suffers from dementia or Alzheimer’s. He cannot remember himself, his age, or even what his wife looks like. There is a lot of dialogue in Memorable, most of focused on how the wife struggles to maintain a connection with the man she is losing. Instead of the hardened wood from Daughter, Memorable opts for clay that is easy to reshape and mold. This technique helps serve the themes, since the characters can shift their appearance in an instant to reflect the husband’s loss of memory and cognition. Collet and Le Corre ultimately eschew realism, since there is only one path left for the couple, so the final moments opt for surrealism. They’re not avoiding the grim realities of the situation, and instead suggest that fleeting joy is all this couple has left.
Sister – directed by Siqi Song
This one is a pure bait and switch. Song narrates the short, which admittedly has a style I haven’t seen before. It is about his family in China, and the characters are all made out of cotton. He talks about his little sister, exaggerating her size and power to represent what she meant to the family. During one nasty fit, for example, she gets bigger and bigger until she can barely fit in a bedroom, let alone her crib. Song handles this material with a sense of detachment, setting us up so he can pull the rug out. He wants to rearrange what we think about the family (given the title and the country of origin, you don’t need many guesses to figure out the “twist”). The effect is sort of like a cheap shot, but then again, its running time is so brief that it does not quite insult our intelligence. Instead, it only tests our patience.
And the winner is…
Do I have to pick one? It’s a toss-up between Daughter and Memorable. They’re both sad stories about eroding families, and have just enough artistry to avoid being maudlin.