A couple years ago, the Academy went and changed the rules on how the animated shorts are nominated, opening the process to members of other branches, which may explain why the ballot is one of the most conventional in ages, including none of the experimental stop-motion, hand-painted, or 360-degree techniques seen in recent years. That doesn’t make it any less delightful to watch, however — if anything, this year’s animated noms will be easier for audiences to digest, balancing out the downright depressing batch of live-action shorts.
They could hardly do better than “Bao,” a breath of fresh air from Pixar, which has been lagging virtually every other animated studio when it comes to both gender and cultural representation. (2017’s “Coco” was its first non-white feature, while Hindu-themed “Sanjay’s Super Team” and the ultra-lame “Lava” diversified the shorts situation somewhat.) At any rate, Domee Shi has already been promoted to developing a feature on the strength of this adorable — and unexpected — morsel, in which a childless Chinese woman lovingly crafts a dumpling by hand, only to see it spring to life before her eyes. As a metaphor for (s)motherhood, it’s a brilliant example of what Pixar does best, grounding well-timed cartoon gags — including a twist that literally caused audiences to gasp in surprise — with well-earned emotional truths.
Irish director Louise Bagnall’s “Late Afternoon” is a lovely 10-minute offering crafted at Cartoon Saloon, the forward-looking, female-empowering studio behind 2017’s “The Breadwinner.” In similar fashion, “Late Afternoon” uses digital techniques to bring hand-drawn 2D images to life — in this case, sketches of an elderly woman with dementia who drifts away into the relatively colorful realm of half-forgotten memories. It’s not an especially original short (in fact, the woman’s detachable round head bears a rather alarming resemblance to Franck Dion’s “The Head Vanishes” from a couple years earlier), but it’s certainly effective, both in its deceptively simple style and the way it situates us in this poor woman’s p.o.v. Special mention to composer Colm Mac Con Iomaire for gently coaxing tears from his audience.
It’s anybody’s guess how David Fine and Alison Snowden’s “Animal Behaviour” snuck in, although the hand-drawn toon — which feels like one of those “Orson’s Farm” quickies from the Saturday-morning “Garfield and Friends” series, or a single-panel New Yorker cartoon stretched to 14 minutes — is funny enough to prove diverting. In it, a reformed pit bull moderates a group therapy session attended by a mix of different critters, ranging from a codependent leech to a gorilla with anger management issues. This seems a fine time to point out that the Academy could’ve chosen Mark Smith’s meticulously detailed “Two Balloons,” DreamWorks Animation’s visually stunning “Bilby,” Phil Brough’s deranged action-movie sendup “Fire in Cardboard City,” Nienke Deutz’s growing-up/growing-apart piece “Bloeistraat 11,” or Jonatan Schwenk’s wonderfully weird “Sog.” But they didn’t.
To their credit, they did pick Annecy winner “Weekends,” which is as personal a submission as they could’ve nominated. Trevor Jimenez crams all his memories of being raised a child of divorce into a tight 15 minutes, loosely sketching the tumult of a Canadian kid who’s constantly being shuttled back and forth between his parents’ houses. Structurally, it’s not as elegant or intuitive as so many other shorts, which find poetic ways to represent the passage of time, but it’s full of precisely the kind of lived-in detail and damage — where specifics resonate as universal — one expects from writers like Jonathan Franzen and Junot Díaz. I’ve seen “Weekends” thrice now, and some of it still confuses me, but I’m convinced it’s a work of art.
Rounding out the noms is Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas’ admirable but uneven “One Small Step,” which may as well be an audition piece for a job at Pixar, so closely does it emulate the studio’s more heart-tugging tendencies. While a girl named Luna dreams of becoming an astronaut, her Gepeto-like dad — a hard-working cobbler whom she takes for granted — sees to it that her shoes are in order. The title is a cute play on Neil Armstrong’s famous words, but the dialogue-free scenes don’t quite communicate all they’re trying to say, and the ending comes a little too easy. (To this day, no woman has walked on the moon.) Still, this CG short looks fantastic, with adorable character designs, soft edges, and a warm glow.
As always, ShortsTV rounds out the brief theatrical package with a couple of bonus shorts, neither of which posed much risk to the nominees of stealing their spot on the ballot. There’s Lizzie Zhang’s computer-animated “Wishing Box,” about a pirate who discovers the ultimate treasure chest, with a twist: only his monkey can make it work. “Ben Hur” director Timur Bekmambetov’s daughter Zhanna finds the kind of intuitive life-spanning metaphor wished for above with the CG tightrope-walk that is “Tweet-Tweet”; less clear is why this character (whose face is never shown) is accompanied by a sparrow for the entire journey. A nice touch: For the theatrical version, ShortsTV included the filmmakers’ candid reactions to their Oscar nominations over the end credits of each short.