Review: Oscar Nominated Short Films (Animated)

Hello everyone! Awards season is upon us, and when I’m not writing about singing cowboys, I’m catching up with some of the films you may have missed, particularly the ones nominated for Oscars. The short films have been available to rent or buy online (or go see them at your local independent theater, especially if you’re fully immune!) so I’m publishing some guides to which films you should see and which you should skip. Today I’ll start with the animated shorts, on Wednesday I’ll write about the live-action shorts, and on Friday I’ll write about the documentary shorts.

In each short film category, the Academy narrowed down a shortlist of ten candidates. I wrote about the other five films on the shortlist today, but I may not have time to do so for the other categories.

(If you’re wondering why I’m not writing about singing cowboys today, I had a piano string explode right before singing cowboy writing time, so good thing I already had this written up. Availability of short films is of course subject to change between now and the Oscars, which will be on Sunday, April 25.

The Nominated Films

Burrow
Written and directed by Madeline Sharafian
USA (silent), 6 minutes
Available on Disney+

This short film is part of the Pixar SparkShorts program, which allows Pixar animators to realize their ideas through lower-budget animated shorts that release on Youtube and Disney+. Burrow was intended to premiere theatrically with Soul, and I can see why, as it’s a charming silent film about a rabbit trying to build their own place to live. Scored to Mozart music and featuring some good plot turns and jokes (the rabbit’s ideal home includes a “bathroom/disco?”), it’s a fun family-friendly adventure. Apparently, the short was nominated for an Ursa Major Award, which are “given in the field of furry fandom works and are the main awards in the field of anthropomorphism,” but I promise that they keep it rated G.
Rating: 7/10

Genius Loci
Directed by Adrien Merigeau, written by Adrien Merigeau and Nicolas Pleskof
French, 16 minutes
Only available as part of the shorts package

A young woman named Reine, feeling overwhelmed, leaves her apartment and goes for a walk. That’s pretty much the plot of Genius Loci, but Reine’s journey is beautifully animated and brilliantly portrayed. While what she sees is very mundane, but she visualizes it in vibrant colors and geometric shapes. There’s an abstract quality to the animation, as backgrounds are sparse, and what’s in the foreground looks hand-painted and moves at an intentionally slow frame rate. The use of transformation in the film is even more creative: a woman spills her papers, and Reine visualizes the papers blowing in the wind, effortlessly transforming into two dogs running on the street, and then transforming back to papers. The climax doesn’t hit as hard as it could, given that Reine is still a bit of an empty character, but the closing line is lovely. I could have stayed in this animated world for a while longer.
Rating: 8/10

If Anything Happens I Love You
Written and directed by Will McCormack and Michael Govier
USA, 12m
Available on Netflix

This short makes a big mistake. It’s still good, but it makes a huge mistake. It opens with two parents, eating in silence; above them, their shadows are screaming at each other. It soon becomes clear that they are grieving the death of their daughter, and they begin to remember the lives that they had together before her death. The use of shadows to represent both past and future actions is very clever, and the way that the parents’ current actions are mirrored by the paths of their shadows is also creative and well-animated. Unfortunately, this short runs into the problem of working backwards to a “reveal” that shows how their daughter died. (You can easily see the inciting incident in the plot summary, which further outlines how the film shouldn’t treat it as a mystery.) I don’t necessarily think it’s tasteless, and the PG rating keeps everything implied instead of shown, but it feels like it was engineered to make people cry, and instead just comes across like a dark bummer. The material where the parents confront their loss is so good that I’m not sure we needed a further emotional gut punch behind the curtain.
Rating: 6/10

Opera
Directed by Erick Oh
South Korea, 8m
Only available as part of the shorts package

What if the real opera… was society? Honestly this short rules so hard. More of an art installation than an actual narrative, it’s a single, unbroken panning shot down a pyramid, with little stick figures doing looping actions in tiny rooms. In one tiny room, they eat; in another, they pray; in another, they have surprisingly graphic stick figure sex. Ultimately, the camera pans to the bottom of the pyramid and a story begins to take shape; this just means that you have five things to look at instead of twenty. What the short is actually trying to say, although it is broad and simplistic, can be easily gleaned from just a cursory glance at its many, many worlds. There are a ton of details I missed, so I’m looking forward to watching it again.
Rating: 9/10

Yes-People
Written and directed by Gísli Darri Halldórsson
Iceland, 9m
Can be rented or purchased for $2.49 here

This is the only CGI short film, but continues the trend of quasi-silent films (Genius Loci is the only one with proper dialogue). The comedy short film depicts a series of people in an apartment building: two couples and a mother-son pair. As the day progresses, the only thing they can say is “Yes.” The son falls asleep in class and when woken up he says “Yes?” One of the men eats a cookie and it’s so good that he says “Yes.” I guess I can commend this for sketching out six characters in under nine minutes, but the conceit is just poor, and it’s not executed at all in a satisfying way. The humor is all unfunny and either feels padded (someone plays the clarinet badly for way too much time, and the only punchline is his teacher saying “Yes?” afterwards) or too mean-spirited (jokes about oblivious husbands and housewives who hate their lives should be retired forever). On top of that, there’s an overreliance on sex and fart jokes and an ending that doesn’t mean anything. You can just skip this one.
Rating: 4/10

The Shortlist

The total runtime of the Oscar-nominated shorts is under an hour, so the rental package (or the theatrical presentation) also includes some of the films from the shortlist. A few weeks before the Oscar nominations, ten films were selected from the shortlist: here are my reviews of the other five.

Kapaemahu
Directed by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson, Daniel Sousa; Written by Wong-Kalu, Hamer, and Wilson
USA (Niihau Hawaiian), 9m
Available for free on the official website; also part of the shorts package

A mix of history and myth, this short tells the story of the healing stones of Kapaemahu, a national artifact preserved on Waikiki Beach. It’s a basic retelling of a Hawaiian myth, but there are transgender themes incorporated through the depiction of the mythological mahu healers (the three writers frequently collaborate on films that concern LGBTQ+ issues, and Wong-Kalu, who also narrates, is a famous transgender non-binary Native Hawaiian). The animation is serviceable at best, but I learned something new about Hawaii and overall enjoyed watching the film.
Rating: 7/10

Out
Written and directed by Stephen Clay Hunter
USA, 10m
Available on Disney+

I don’t mean to insult Burrow, because it’s good, but the Academy definitely picked the lesser Pixar short to nominate. This lovely, funny film claims that it is “based on a true story,” and it features a young gay man who is about to move in with his boyfriend and is afraid to tell his parents that he’s moving in with someone else. Of course there’s a happy ending, but it feels totally earned and genuine. The true-story basis quickly goes out the window with a supernatural twist, which contributes some fun slapstick- hopefully Pixar can put this one in theaters once they reopen up more. I would have said that it should have been programmed in front of Soul instead of Burrow, but it feels weirdly derivative of Soul with its twist, although that’s not to the film’s detriment. (Also, it canonically takes place in the Toy Story universe!)
Rating: 9/10

The Snail and the Whale
Directed by Max Lang and Daniel Snaddon; Written by Max Lang and Suzanne Lang
UK, 26m
Available on the BBC website (UK only) and Prime Video (UK only); also part of the shorts package

This short film, the longest of the bunch, is part of a recurring series of adaptations of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler books (most famous for The Gruffalo) that are made for the BBC. I’m pretty sure the text is copied and pasted directly from the book, as the dialogue is all spoken in a sing-song rhyme. The Snail (Sally Hawkins), the Whale (Rob Brydon) go on an adventure around the world with the help of the narrator (the late Diana Rigg, who gets the most lines). The cartoony animation is cute, and I really like the climax, but the short could definitely be tightened up a bit (it feels like it’s stretching to fill a half-hour TV spot), or they could expand it with more dialogue from the snail and the whale themselves. Departing from the text would allow them to quicken the pace or expand the characters; both choices would be better.
Rating: 6/10

To: Gerard
Written and directed by Taylor Meacham
US, 8m
Available for free on Peacock; also part of the shorts package

I love close-up magic and pneumatic tubes, and this short has a lot of both. This is a DreamWorks Animation short about a mailroom worker who bonds with a girl over their love of closeup magic. There’s not a lot to it, but what’s on the screen is really sweet and charming. Buying into the emotional payoff requires a little suspension of disbelief, but I’m not made of stone, so I’m fine with that. (Also, everyone should watch the Hulu special In and Of Itself. It’s a one man show, but it revolves around close-up magic, so it slaps.)
Rating: 8/10

Traces
Written and directed by Hugo Frassetto and Sophie Tavert Macian; story by Macian
Belgium; 13m
Available for free but unsubtitled on Vimeo


Unfortunately, I can’t rate this one because the dialogue is unsubtitled. However, I had a good enough grip of what was happening that I can confidently say it’s at least pretty good. Mostly silent, with only a minute or two of dialogue, this is a simple story of cave-people that looks like it has been made out of animated cave paintings. After a superb opening credits sequence, in which a hand makes traces on the screen that are then used to kill a buffalo, the story kicks in. I’m not sure how I would feel if I could understand the dialogue, but it looks great, and I wish the story was as meta as the opening sequence.

Official Ranking
Opera
Out
Genius Loci
To: Gerard
Burrow
Kapaemahu
If Anything Happens I Love You
The Snail and the Whale
Yes-People

Slot Tracers in between Genius Loci and To: Gerard purely based off the strength of the opening.