Last year's Oscar marathon was a mess for me. I didn't get to watch nearly as much as I wanted to and was struggling to keep up all month. Part of what made last year a disaster was how I didn't get a chance to see any of the nominated shorts. Luckily, not only has this year been by-far my most successful Oscar marathon, I was able to watch both the Animated and Live Action shorts. Here's my thoughts on the animated shorts, all of which are pretty good this year.
Some times it feels like Pixar and Disney are single-handedly keeping the animated short as a concept alive in the public's mind. While Pixar's superior 2017 film, “Coco,” was hassled theatrically with that awful “Olaf” thing, their far less important 2017 release, “Cars 3,” was proceeded by the very cute “Lou.” Set on a grade school playground, the short's titular character is an entity made up of the items left in the school lost-and-found bin. Lou delights in spreading lost toys and goods back to their owners. That's when he spies a schoolyard bully stealing the items away from the kids. Lou decides to teach him a lesson.
“Lou” shows a mastery of tone, despite only being a seven minute long short. It begins as a whimsical bit of slapstick. Lou is an interesting character, his form constantly shifting as the objects he's made of move around. This leads to amusing sights, like his slinky and jump-rope arms shooting through a net. Or the bully tripping over the marbles Lou spills over the ground. Yet the mad-cap humor soon segues into something more touching. Lou realizes the a stuffed puppy in his position used to belong to the bully. That the kid was himself bullied when he was younger. Soon enough, the child learns the joys of giving, in ways both cute and sweet. “Lou” is funny and touching in the Pixar tradition. [8/10]
Aside from Pixar's "Lou," "Dear Basketballl" is the nominated Animated Short to get the most attention this year. Probably because of its association with a popular athlete. The film is a love letter to the sport of basketball written and narrated by Kobe Bryant in his retiring year. Bryant's personal anecdotes, of being a kid and dunking his dad's rolled-up socks into a trash can, are charming. (Kobe as a kid is depicted in a vaguely Disney-esque, super cutesy fashion.) The way he waxes nostalgically on the purpose the sport gave him, as a poor child growing up, is nice.
Legendary Disney animator Glen Keane directs the film and he provides a sketchy, loose, mostly black-and-white art style that is likable and eye-catching. The musical score, from no one less than John Williams, is big and emotional and maybe pushes a bit too hard. It's easy to read "Dear Basketball" as an ego trip from Bryant, the athlete paying homage to his own success, especially once he starts to talk about how his mind and spirit wanted to keep going but his body wouldn't let him. And maybe it is. However, the short is nice to look and summons some genuine emotion, which is pretty good for something that's only six minutes long. [7/10]
"Negative Space" comes from French filmmakers Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter. It details a father and son relationship. The two would bond over packing luggage, the father teaching the boy to fold everything in a specific way. This is depicted via some slightly surreal flights of fancy, such as the teeth of a zipper becoming a road and the zipper pull becoming a car. Or, my favorite part of the film, the boy getting washed away into an ocean composed entirely of clothing, with socks as coral, belts as eels, watches as crabs, and underwear as jelly fish.
The short is primarily about how, more often than not, we relate to our loved ones through the little things. Though the act of packing a suitcase is simple enough, something that doesn't mean much to most, it meant a lot to this boy and his father. From the past tense the narrator uses, it's easy to guess the ending. That doesn't stop it from giving meaning and context to the rest of the short. The animation style, computer generated but meant to invoke stop motion, is quirky and home spun, the characters looking a bit like they've been knitted. It suits a short that is funny and whimsical but ultimately rooted in a need to understand and work through loss. [8/10]
Narratively, "Garden Party" is pretty simple. It's set in a fancy house that is strangely empty for reasons that will soon be revealed. In the absence of people, the home has become occupied by new residents: Frogs. Though light on story, "Garden Party" features a lot of personality. The little froggy protagonists occupy themselves in various amusing ways. Like chasing a bug across a parked sports car, trying to get the last bit of food out of a jar, or pursuing a mate in an opulent bed. The way the short slowly but gently reveals the nature of its setting is really well done. Small details appear in the foreground and background that let you know what happened to the home's very famous former resident.
Animation wise, "Garden Party" is even more impressive. The detail is incredible, as the frogs and their surroundings look almost photo-realistic. However, there's just enough of a cartoon edge, allowing for a little more expression in the amphibians' faces. This allows for some likable character designs, like the bloated toad in the kitchen or the small pink frog leaping around. Though "Garden Party" may not be much more then a simple, somewhat morbid joke, it's beautifully brought to life, with fantastic animation and an impressive attention to detail. [8/10]
Revolting Rhymes: Part 1
“Revolting Rhymes: Part 1” sticks out a bit among this year's animated short nominees. It's the first half of a two part, hour long special based on poems by Roald Dahl. Both halves aired on British television in 2016, so I'm not sure why it was under consideration by the Academy in 2017. The special weaves together subversive, comedic variations on three classic fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and the Three Little Pigs. These tellings re-imagine Red Riding Hood as a ruthless wolf slayer, the seven dwarves as gambling-addicted jockeys, and the Third Pig as a banker, among other differences. The stories are told, in rhyming verse, by a talking wolf to a curious older woman in a dinner.
I'm not sure why the Academy singled out part one of “Revolting Rhymes,” instead of the whole thing. The total run time of both parts is an hour, which still qualifies it for the short category I believe. Either way, it's pretty charming. The animation is cute, the CGI characters having a lot of quirky appeal. Some of the riffs on the familiar tales, which include Snow White's step mother eating a heart and Little Red Riding Hood making the wolf skin's into her new jackets, are nicely morbid. The verse, well read by Dominic West, is catchy and amusing. The short's comedic energy is a bit manic and takes some getting used to. It's cute and funny enough that I had to watch the second half immediately afterwards. It's odd that half of a year old television special got nominated but it's still pretty good. [7/10]