Last year I discovered the wonderful world of Oscar shorts when, for the first time, I checked out the full lineup of nominated documentary and animated shorts. This year, I took things a step further and have now watched all ten animated shorts that made Oscar’s recently-announced shortlist.
Watching all ten shorts in a concentrated period illuminated some common themes (which will probably become clear) but also how much animation can vary. From the glossiest, most vibrant Pixar productions to some frankly, well, weird low-fi experiments, animation can encompass a lot.
Now, after just espousing how there’s room for everything in animation, I’m going to pit these vastly different shorts against each other. It’s worth noting that I enjoyed all 10 shorts (and they’re all better than last year’s WINNER in this category, the Kobe Bryant-produced Dear Basketball). But because this is how my brain works, below is how I rank them in terms of my own enjoyment. (Predictions for what I think will actually get nominated come at the end of the post.)
At the time of publishing, all 10 shorts are currently available online through YouTube or Vimeo. Click each film title to watch.
Telling the story of the unlikely friendship between an Australian bilby and a tiny (adorable) bird, Bilby feels like Dreamworks’ answer to the antic-filled shorts that used to be a staple of the Pixar canon. It’s very cute and features a stand-out montage (the two friends narrowly avoiding the various threats that nature poses), but ultimately feels a bit too light to be truly memorable.
Age of Sail is one of the few Animated Short contenders with some star power behind it, since it stars Ian McShane as a grizzled sailor whose search for solitude at sea is interrupted when he has to rescue a girl who has fallen overboard from a nearby passenger ship. It’s directed by John Kahrs, who is a previous winner in this category for 2012’s Paperman. But while the illustration-style animation is used to great effect during a bravura shipwreck sequence, the film’s character-based storytelling it too simplistic to fully carry it for its 12-minute run.
At just 4:45 minutes long, Bird Karma is the shortest of the bunch by a fairly wide margin. And the brief runtime suits the simplicity of this morality tale about a greedy bird. The traditional animation style is used to colourful and creative effect, though it doesn’t necessarily push the limits of the medium.
This is the first of several shorts on the list that seem to take inspiration from the emotional tug of the opening of Up. It tells the years-long tale of a serious-minded girl who pursues her dream of becoming an astronaut, sometimes to the detriment to her family relationships. Animated by TAIKO Studios, One Small Step has an extremely vibrant, warm style. The story is a bit predictable, but that doesn’t lessen its emotional impact.
Another tearjerker, Late Afternoon follows Emily, an elderly woman whose memory is becoming increasingly fragmented as a result of Alzheimer’s. With vibrant, almost child-like animation, it does a great job of portraying the disjointed, impressionistic format Emily’s memories have assumed. It’s not subtle with the sentimentality of its storytelling, but it’s effective nonetheless.
Coming from the veteran animation team of Alison Snowden and David Fine (winners in this category for 1994’s Bob’s Birthday), this comedic short portrays what might happen if a variety of animal species came together for group therapy. It takes a more traditional storytelling approach than some of the other shortlist picks, relying on spirited vocal performances and sharp writing. The result is an engaging and funny romp that comes across as quite unique among the nominees.
Maybe the most adorable AND the saddest of a pretty uniformly adorable and sad bunch of films, I really loved the knitted stop-motion animation used in Lost & Found. (Apparently this is its own subgenre, which is news to me.) It’s part romance and part thriller, showing a daring rescue mission involving a fox and a dinosaur. It certainly pulls on the heartstrings (heart-yarn?) and the stop-motion animation is done with jaw-dropping precision. It’s a testament to the strength of these shorts that this only made it to #4 on my list.
Likely the frontrunner to win this category, Bao would be a worthy champ. Domee Shi has crafted a layered look at maternal love wrapped in a rich animation style that shows Pixar is continuing to innovate. Heartfelt and more complicated than it originally appears.
The top two films on the list landed where they are because, to me, they represent an extra little step of creativity and innovation. Weekends feels like a tone poem. It follows a young child of divorce as he splits his time between a neurotic mother living in the country and his “cool” dad who lives in downtown Toronto. Clocking in at 15:17, it’s the longest of the bunch and earns each second with its artistry and subtle emotion. Quietly beautiful, sad, and strange all at once, Weekends is perhaps the most significant artistic achievement of the bunch.
Taking the top spot for me by just a hair is Grandpa Walrus, from French animator Lucrece Andreae. It follows a family mourning the recent death of their family’s eccentric patriarch. Their visit to a favourite seaside spot of brings out a lot of simmering emotions, to say the least. With macabre touches and a unique hand-drawn animation style, Andeae has crafted something that feels deeply personal yet universal in its themes of family tensions and loss. It’s off-beat enough that it’ll probably be an underdog in this category, but it really worked for me.
So which five from the shortlist will ultimately get nominated for an Oscar? If I had to guess, I’d put my money on Bao, Late Afternoon, Weekends, Lost & Found, and One Small Step.
Nominations are announced January 22.