The 2019 Oscar nominations will be announced on January 23, 2019. But the Academy has already narrowed down its candidates in many categories. For Best Animated Short Film, that list is down to 10. Of those 10 shortlisted short films, I have reviews for nine.
Age of Sail
In 1900, a lonely sailor (Ian McShane) sets himself adrift on his lowly sailboat, sharing the seas with huge ships. Having lost his crew and his claim to the sea, he sets out with a death wish. Then he rescues a young woman (Cathy Ang) who falls overboard from a nearby ship.
John Kahrs won an Oscar for Paperman and has worked on the animation departments of a number of Pixar features. The animation style here is much different from Pixar, and it is better for it. The distinct lines and hand-drawn feel of the character models mesh well with the repetitive rolling of the ocean.
This is most clearly realized in the film’s climax, which pulls you into the dramatic moment. The animation of the water comes alive, and a more dynamic struggle is introduced to match the more internal struggle of its central sailor. The only pitfall here is the song that plays over the action. It is lovely and soothing, but it doesn’t quite fit the tone of the scene itself. That it returns in the denouement is a lovely touch, though; I will give it that.
Pixar’s Bao played before Incredibles 2, and it was buzz-worthy at the time. Now, it is a clear front-runner for the Oscar prize. The animation is phenomenal. It is the Pixar house style but with more tangible textures. Like with Piper, the Pixar shorts have the right blend of constraints and freedoms where the creators (in this case, Domee Shi) can take the Pixar style and push it to the next level.
On a narrative level, Bao is a more emotionally-resonant experience than the movie it preceded. On a symbolic level, it raises some logistical questions. But it is a creative and original take on a common theme. And it looks great.
Bilby is cute, light, and ultimately goes too big too fast. Mostly appearing like an animation demo, the narrative is bare bones and rapid in a way that shows off the dynamic animation style and ignores a more substantial narrative thrust.
A rabbit just looking to hold onto his food, evading predators as he does so, stumbles on a puffy baby bird. Reluctantly, he gives up his stash of food in order to protect the chick. Again, narrative is not its strong suit. But the story of Bilby is cuddly enough to be a mainstream favorite.
The animation here is quite good. In particular, the textures on the rabbit and on the earthy terrain are a standout. It is a very Dreamworks style, mixed with some Disney’s Zootopia. But it doesn’t come off as cribbing from Disney or leaning on the Dreamworks brand as a crutch. It has its own visual energy to it that is commendable.
There isn’t a whole lot to Bird Karma, particularly by comparison. The lighting adds something to the second half of the 4-minute short, a vibrancy that is kind of infectious. But it is a simple fable of a film.
The best aspect of Bird Karma is its score, which is constantly thrumming and hits on the downbeat of every action. This keeps the energy moving, even when the narrative has little to offer. Perhaps the weakest on the shortlist, Bird Karma is nevertheless charming in its own way.
Late Afternoon is a gorgeous film, both visually and narratively. The hand drawn human figures in the short appear visually simple, but they are thrust into dynamic landscapes which are beautifully realized.
Telling the story of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, we see her relive memories as they hit her unexpectedly. She dives into them, and we literally dive into them with her. They play out, and then she is thrust back into her present, where she sits in a chair. There is fear and panic in these moments, and the jolt of the vibrant animation dropping away makes the viewer feel a similar thing. It is quite a powerful moment when the woman, jerked from a reminiscence, is startled by the sight of her own wrinkled, aged hand.
The climax of the film may be presented too much like a reveal (the trajectory of the narrative is not hard to suss out from the opening moments of the film), but that does not take away from the strengths of Late Afternoon.
Lost & Found
The stop-motion animated Lost & Found looks gorgeous. It depicts two animals made of knitted fabric, one a dinosaur and one a fox, and the textures of the models are captured wonderfully under the chosen lighting scheme.
Narratively, the short is somewhat dark, even if it does have a hopeful denouement. But the action is dynamic, save for a few shots that repeat themselves. It is a simple unfolding of action, less narratively ambitious as some of the other shorts up for consideration. All the same, there is a morbid charm to Lost & Found, similar in tone to the faux movie posters that can be found on the short’s website.
One Small Step
One Small Step is a father-daughter story, not one unlike the mother-son relationship in Bao. The trials and tribulations of raising a child from birth to adulthood are on full display, often shown in a manner in which we are familiar. The difference here is the centering of this relationship on the girl’s dream of space flight, which follows her all the way to college.
One Small Step might go too big on an emotional level for what it is depicting, ultimately making the arc of its character read more conventional. But that glorious first shot, seeing the rocket light up in the young girl’s eyes as her face opens up with awe and inspiration, is enough to justify her experience throughout the rest of the short.
Pepe le Morse (Grandpa Walrus)
Pepe le Morse is a tonally strange film. Set on the backdrop of a family grieving their deceased grandfather, it is a dark comedy. In this comedy there is an angry mother, indifferent children, and an inconsolable grandmother. And supernatural manifestations of the deceased.
The humor in the beginning of the short is effective, as it captures the surreal realization of loss in a comic light. A moment where ashes are spread on the beach completely undercuts a spiritual understanding of passing over without being flippant about the gravity of the situation.
Once we hit the midpoint, and the really surreal stuff starts happening, the short loses this human touch. The imagery is eye-catching, but it does not amplify our understanding of this family. The emotions come to a head in the end, but we are left at a distance, watching the grief without ever coming to know the grievers.
Yet another parent-child relationship film, Weekends depicts the changing households of a young boy whose divorced parents are trying to move on from their failed marriage. How the film nonverbally depicts the child’s emotional turbulence during these times is perhaps its strongest aspect. When the animation resorts to more nightmarish imagery, the visuals are adequately unsettling, but the emotional nuances are somewhat lost.
All the same, Weekends is a well-crafted short. The character designs portray wearied figures, making their world feel lived-in. The sound design is pointed and effective. It is a fairly immersive experience.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)