When I was young, there would always be a cartoon that was part of the program of going to the movies. (Of course, those were also the days when you always saw a double feature.) Those cartoons were always comical, often with cartoon characters we knew from TV cartoons. The art of making animated short films is developed greatly since those days, as is evident to the films nominated for Best Animated Short Film. These films vary greatly in terms of artistic style as well as in the kind of stories they tell and the messages the share. Many people may think of Animated Shorts as an unimportant category within the Oscars, but I’m really impressed with this year’s nominees. Give just a slight difference in how one weighs each film, any one of them could be a worthy winner.
Let’s start with the question of whether Kobe Bryant needs an Oscar to go with his five NBA championship rings and two Olympic gold medals. Dear Basketball (6 minutes) is an adaptation of his retirement announcement. It has been animated by Glen Keane (also nominated), who trained as a Disney animator. Add to that music by the incomparable John Williams. It is Bryant’s love letter to the sport that has been his life since he was six years old. As a wannabe jock, his love for playing a game resonated strongly with me. Too often athletes seem to make their performances all about their skill. In this film, Kobe focuses on the game that has given him a life of enjoyment. “I’ll always be that kid with a rolled-up sock, garbage can in the corner, five seconds on the clock, ball in my hand. 4, 3, 2, . . . 1.”
Suppose a mansion sits idle for some time, what kind of things could amphibians find there? Garden Party (8 minutes) from a French animation team follows toads and frogs through a house and yard that seems abandoned. Is this a post-apocalyptic world in which amphibians get to enjoy our leftovers? (Not exactly, but close.) The animation here is outstanding and beautiful. And there is great humor in watching these animals discovering the things we may think of as the good things in life. As we watch and wonder what happened to the people, we may also wonder about the age-old question of what is the value of things that are left behind.
Lou (7 minutes), directed by Dave Mullins, is no doubt the most widely seen of the nominees, because it played before Disney/Pixar’s Cars 3 this summer. When a playground bully steals various treasures from the other kids, the monster of the Lost and Found box takes notice. As the battle to rescue the things the bully has taken escalates, the monster learns the boy’s name and realizes that he has lost something special as well. That provides the leverage to change the boy so he learns that giving is far more blessed than receiving. (Seems like I read that in scripture.)
Negative Space (6 minutes) by Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata, shares a boy’s story of how his father taught him how to pack a suitcase. It seems the father was often traveling for business, but the boy seemed bonded with his father by being able to pack for him—and the appreciation of filling in space. There is a metaphorical element that becomes evident in the ending. How do we fill the spaces in our lives—and what spaces will remain unfilled?
The longest and most complex of the films is Revolting Rhymes (30 minutes) by Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer. It is based on Roald Dahl’s retelling for familiar fairy tales. In this version, a wolf meets a babysitter in a coffeeshop and tells her the sad stories of the demise of his nephews. We recognize the stories of Little Red Ridinghood, Snow White, and the three little pigs, but of course the wolf has a much different perspective. The reimagining of these stories is filled with Dahl’s somewhat twisted (and I mean that as a compliment) sense of humor. Because it has a longer running time than the other nominees, it is able to delve a bit deeper into characters and give us new insights into the familiar stories.
As I said, I could probably make a case for any of these films being a worthy winner of the Oscar, but I’m going to go with the one that touched me the most—Dear Basketball. For runner-up I’ll go with Lou as the one that carries the best message in an entertaining format.
The Oscar Nominated Shorts will be playing in select theaters worldwide beginning February 9.
Photos courtesy of Shorts.tv