Unless one goes viral, shorts rarely get any mainstream attention. They also rarely wind up even shown to most audiences unless they are attached to another movie and usually that film is from Pixar. For a select few though, an Oscar nomination guarantees them a limited run and a chance to reach far more than those that aren’t nominated. Of the three presentations (of which documentary short is usually harder to track down), the animated short program is usually the more enjoyable one. It swings more comedic than the ultra-serious other categories and the difficulties of animation means they are usually better and leaner as well. It’s also the most varied with all the animation styles being a delight to someone like myself who loves the form but isn’t offered many legitimate options throughout the year as just about every mainstream animated movie is a mediocre to embarrassing kids or family movie.
With the best animated short (and at least the second best movie overall) of last year was ineligible for this year’s ceremony (it best be nominated in 2019), I don’t feel nearly as invested in who wins since it just feels like a race for second best. Still, here’s a breakdown of the five nominees and three others (who along with a series of intermission animations serve to pad an otherwise anemic run time) that was put together for this year’s theatrical package.
Dear Basketball – The only one of these films that I had seen before heading to the theater and it is easily the worst. Dear Basketball is merely mediocre animation played over a forgettable poem with a predictable score. It just happens that this is an all-star production with Disney legend Glen Keane heading up the project, accused of sexual assault (who was a rare person to suffer any consequences for it before the past year or so) shithead Kobe Bryant being the person responsible for the poem as well as narrating, and composing legend John Williams inexplicably dragged into this. The poem is maudlin and calculated and I was having none of it. Was my opinion of it affected by the fact that is was by and starring Kobe Bryant? Yep. Do I care? No, fuck Kobe.
Negative Space – With the only bad nominated short out of the way, let’s move on to the ones which will quite probably lose to it. Negative Space takes the typical spot for a more serious and sentimental (if still comparably light) in the program and it does its job fine. Telling of a man’s memories of his father and their shared experiences over the simple act of packing for business trips, it’s forgettable but mostly inoffensive. The puppets are ugly, but the Wes Anderson-like shots of the clothes laid out and being packed were far better done. It suffers many of the problems of Dear Basketball in that it is a bit overdone, but the quieter moments are nice.
Lou – Of Pixar’s two shorts this year, this was the one that was actually a short and not a repurposed failed TV pilot. It was attached to Cars 3 and as a result, I obviously hadn’t seen it to this point. As to be expected from a Pixar short, it was both nominated and very good. It’s rare (Lava being a glaring example) that the company doesn’t turn out good work in this department and it is both a great training ground for filmmakers and a delightful tradition. The story tells of a monster which maintains and does its best to return the toys to their rightful owners. It operates out of a school’s Lost and Found box and it’s a likable creature whose inherent flexibility in design (being made up of the lost items really lends itself to some fun movement and action. It’s short and sweet and satisfying all without any dialogue.
Garden Party – If you are talking about most impressive, this wins in a landslide. Throughout the entire thing I thought “if this is considered animation, then War for the Planet of the Apes is as well”, but nope, it just looks that great. The entire film is so photo realistic that the only thing that looked animated was the animals, and only because my brain knew that their behavior was impossible to direct. Following a bunch of frogs and toads in an abandoned house, it’s amusing but I like the way that it foregrounds their simple and mostly un-anthropomorphized adventures while letting the audience figure out the story of what went down in the house as it reveals more and more in the background. The pleasures here are simple, but they are charming and effective with the animation as the real star.
Revolting Rhymes (Part 1) – And now to what felt like the feature presentation. The longest by a considerable margin, it’s also sporting quite the British vocal cast including Dominic West (The Wire), Rob Brydon (The Trip), David Walliams (Little Britain), Tamsin Grieg (Green Wing, Black Books), Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones), and Gemma Chan (Humans) and adapting the titular book by Roald Dahl. I’m not going to claim that this skewed (and somewhat modernized) take on classic fairy tales is The Fantastic Mr. Fox, but it’s darn clever and fun. The first part feels complete on its own, the big cliffhanger was structured in a way that it would have made for a great ending and is framed as a story told by a wolf to a patron at a diner. I’ll admit that I was disappointing that one thing I was reading into the film was pretty much shot down by the finale of the short, but I am hardly shocked that a BBC adaptation of a 36-year-old kids book went this way.
The story intertwines five of the six poems in that book, in Part 1, the short readapts the tales of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, and The Three Little Pigs. The third of those gets a bit of the short end of the stick in this retelling but the clever ways that they redo the first two makes up for it. The story ages up Red (and makes for a better redone version than the nominated two decades ago Redux Riding and has her connected to Snow White and their relationship forms the backbone that the rest of it is built around (including the dwarves as jockeys, the wolves of the latter two stories as being nephews of the narrating wolf, the third pig as a greedy banker). The animation is visually interesting, and it seamlessly integrated the two worlds (one more classic, one more modern) together. It perfectly captures Dahl’s dark but not serious style that have allowed his works to age so well. It’s the only short of the set that really sticks in the head and feels like a full work.
And now, for the bonus shorts.
Revolting Rhymes (Part 2) – The second half of this story is not actually a part of the package, but I figured I should watch the second part and include it here since it is available on Netflix Instant. The story picks up right before the end of the last part and once again returns West’s wolf as the narrator/lead character and adds Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and Issac Hempstead Wright (Game of Thrones). It also adds Hansel and Gretel, The Frog Prince (or at least hints to both if not officially), Jack and the Beanstalk, and Cinderella to the redone fairy tales. The story feels more traditional and doesn’t integrate the stories nearly as well. It’s less creative and doesn’t go much beyond making one major twist to the fable.
It also, in increasing the screen time of the human characters, highlights the fact that the visual design of the humans is not nearly as good as that of animals (which even Pixar had trouble with for years). Then again, it could also be that visually they just aren’t nearly as interesting looking humans and too often it just defaults to the same grotesque character design for the villainous women. That Cindy looks uncannily like Snow White doesn’t help matters either. I enjoyed the ways it tied up the first episode’s story, but the rest of it just feels like filler and it is clear why the first one was highlighted.
Lost Property Office – Shortlisted but not chosen, the puppets here are much better done. It’s just a shame that the ending dodges the “too dark and serious” potential that the story had been hinting and instead goes for something tonally out of place that makes it feel like Oscar Short bait. I liked the lead character of the head of an unused Lost Property Office and it was an effective flip to Lou, it is just a shame they couldn’t stick the landing.
Weeds – The hell? Why was this included. Not even shortlisted, this short tries so desperately to be inspirational. It is the animated equivalent of the kitten poster saying, “Hang in There”. It’s stupid and we are never given a reason to actually care about the weed and its survival.
Achoo – Could they not get the rights to show Cradle, Fox and the Whale, In a Heartbeat, or Life Smartphone? You know, films that were actually shortlisted for an Oscar nomination. Granted I’ve already seen the first three of those (pretty good, visually appealing but not much to it, and fine but I guess yay for the message respectively), but they all feel far worthier of inclusion than this. It’s lesser Dreamworks stuff in look and feel with some not especially interesting animation.