The Best Animated Short Oscar category continues to be full of surprises and delights, filled with creative people pushing the boundaries of animation and also innovating with traditional methods.
Like the Live Action category, this section celebrates independence in filmmaking. As new technologies become more affordable and accessible, audiences are treated with fresh new voices. This year’s crop includes a long-time animation team member given the green-light to tell his own story, an underground animation legend going digital for the first time, and several films drawing heavily from the history of their respective nations. (links to clips, trailers, or full film provided where possible.)
Sanjay’s Super Team
(clip)A semi-autobiographical tale from Pixar animator Sanjay Patel, Sanjay’s Super Team takes a trip into the imagination of a young Indian boy who begins to think of Hindu gods as a superhero team after being forced into meditation by his father. It’s a sweet short with an exciting score and bright and colorful animation reminiscent of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack. I’m very glad that Sanjay’s Super Team exists, because it’s a look into a culture that’s often ignored in Western cinema and virtually non-existent in children’s media. But ultimately I don’t know that I understand the message it is trying to get across. Religion should make more attempt to appeal to youth? Young people will understand their parents’ ideals in their own way? Maybe it’s just a simple story about a father/son bonding moment that I’m reading too much into, but Sanjay’s metaphor seems a little muddled to me. (7/10) 7 minutes, USA, Writer/Director: Sanjay Patel
World of Tomorrow
Like most of animator Don Hertzfeldt’s works, this one gets better on repeat viewings. It’s sweet and complex, and more than a little sad, but mostly comes out with child-like optimism. That’s because a good chunk of it is literally audio footage of a child playing. Hertzfeldt recorded and edited clips of his four-year-old niece Winona Mae playing and drawing in order to create the character of Emily Prime, a little girl who is transported into the future by Emily (Julia Pott), a grown-up version of her own clone three generations removed. Emily’s emotionally-disconnected tour of the future is bleak, but delivered with Hertzfeldt’s signature absurdism. It’s a film of profound sadness, but as Emily herself puts it, “I am proud of my sadness, because it means I am more alive.” World of Tomorrow is a beautiful and inventive piece of work that stands far and away above the rest of the films in this category. (10/10) 17 minutes, USA, Writer/Director: Don Hertzfeldt
(trailer) Part political allegory, part tech demonstration, Bear Story backs an intriguing premise with visual mastercraft. It features an elderly bear who tells the audience his life story through intricate mechanical puppets we see him building. In a reference to the reign of the Chilean military dictator Pinochet, the elderly bear explains how he was separated from his wife and son and conscripted to work in the circus. It’s a great concept and the 3D animation is beautifully rendered, but even at 11 minutes, the runtime still outlasts the novelty of the central conceit. (8/10) 11 minutes, Chile, Director: Gabriel Osoria Vargas, Writer: Vargas/Daniel Castro
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
(full film) Like World of Tomorrow, the Russian short We Can’t Live Without Cosmos draws its strength from a place of love so overwhelming that it can present itself as overwhelmingly sad but still maintain whimsy. We Can’t Live Without Cosmos is the tale of two astronaut-trainees and best friends (brothers? lovers? The actual nature of their relationship is left ambiguous) know only by their flight numbers: 1203 and 1204. After helping each other through training and sharing nights of childlike exuberance, 1203 finally is launched into orbit while 1204 waits proudly as a reserve astronaut. When something goes wrong and contact is lost with 1203, 1204 doesn’t handle it well. With simple but detailed illustration that feels like it comes from a children’s book, We Can’t Live Without Cosmos is a moving tribute to the ideals of exploration and human connection. All of the excitement about the unknown that made The Martian so much fun to watch is present here, but Cosmos tempers it with a dash of bittersweetness that leaves the viewer in a state of pleasant longing. It’s a very human short, and that’s what makes it work. (9/10) 16 minutes, Russia, Writer/Director: Konstantin Bronzit
I have no idea why this is here. When placed at the end of a series of shorts that are all driven by heart, Prologue feels out of place, essentially like a tech demonstration. A traditionally-animated series of sketches depicting a bloody battle between two Athenian and Spartan soldiers which is witnessed by a young girl, and…. and that’s it. The animation is realistic and gorgeous, but without any story, the extraordinarily graphic depictions of violence seem to serve no purpose but to fulfill the animator’s bloodlust. (Question: Is this the first Oscar-nominated film in which a man is stabbed in the taint?) The title Prologue would infer that these six minutes are leading up to something bigger and grander in the future. However, given director Richard Williams’ famous perfectionism and history of taking on ludicrously grandiose projects, I’m guessing this was only released as a short because otherwise none off it would ever see the light of day. (4/10) UK, 6 minutes, Writer/Director: Richard Williams
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