Animation is never at the center of the Oscar season conversation, mainly because so few animated features come out each year. Much of the original, truly rewarding work exists in short form and barely gets noticed beyond film festival lineups — aside from the select few that make the cut at the Oscars. The five slots reserved for the best animated short film showcase a substantially different kind of creativity than the kind of work found in other categories. They share a penchant for capturing precise moments from life rather than tackling broader topics. This latest crop is particularly diverse, with a wide variety of styles and sensibilities that collectively offer an exciting contrast to the bigger titles in this year’s race.
One crucial exception: “Feast,” the Disney-produced short that many moviegoers saw last year paired with “Big Hero 6.” Directed by Patrick Osborne, the six-minute crowdpleaser involves the exploits of a gluttonous dog named Winston who enjoys a snack-filled life with his single male owner — until a woman enters into it and complicates the picture. Suddenly, Winston is faced with healthy-sized portions and dreadful health food. Then the couple’s relationship starts to fray, and it’s up to Winston to take charge. The slick 2D animation and rapid-fire shots of adorable canine behavior make “Feast” go down as easily as one might expect for a Disney-mandated product, but it suffers from comparison to the rest of this category simply because it sticks to such familiar beats.
“The Bigger Picture” offers the most extreme contrast to the safer entertainment offered by “Feast.” Daisy Jacobs and Chris Wilder’s scathing dark comedy revolves around a pair of feuding siblings coping with their dying mother while uncertain about whether to put her in a home. That narrative might sound familiar, and the filmmakers certainly cover a familiar set of incidents in the movie’s wrenching seven minutes, but the story unfolds with “life-size” cutouts that create an eerie sense of familiarity — it’s a story just inches removed from reality, rendering universal emotions with shades of gothic expressionism.
The British tale dwells in the bitterness dominating its warring protagonists’ lives with a visual motif that traps us in their dreary state. But at the same time, the exagerrated look foregrounds the absurdity of their extreme emotional duress, as if they’re stuck in a grand joke beyond their understanding, until they arrive at the morbid punchline awaiting us all. In short, “The Bigger Picture” offers a deep, compelling look at mortality in bite-sized form.
But it’s practically an epic compared to the charming two-minute “A Single Life,” from The Netherlands. Co-directed by Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins and Job Roggeveen, “A Single Life” comes and goes faster than it might take you to finish this article. But that’s also part of its sneaky appeal. The premise involves a woman who uncovers a vinyl single that skips to different periods of her life. The blocky 3D graphics make “A Single Life” the least visually distinct of this year’s nominees, but it offers the most focused look at a recurring theme — basically, the fragility of life itself. Like “The Bigger Picture,” the Norwegian short contains a witty perspective on life’s ups and downs, but renders them exclusively in pictorial terms, which boils its timeless theme down to its bare essence.
That’s sadly not the case for “Me and My Moulton,” a good-natured but fairly underwhelming Canadian-produced feature about a woman’s memories of a summer spent in Norway during the 1960’s. Director Torill Kove’s line drawings give the movie a delicate storybook quality that enhances the nostalgic mood in play, as the character recalls her family’s idiosyncratic behavior from a child’s perspective. A sharply written look at naiveté surrounded the complexities of the adult world, “Me and My Moulton” certainly reads well as a short story — but offers little justification for its animated format, particularly since its the muted style owes more to the voiceover than anything else. “Me and My Moulton” begs for literary accolades, but feels cinematically undercooked.
Ultimately, it all comes down to the American-produced “The Dam Keeper,” which consolidates many of the ingredients found in these other shorts but manages to deliver a far more exciting trajectory. Robert Kondo and Dice Tsusumi’s 18-minute futuristic fable follows a young pig who lives a solitary life operating a windmill that prevents noxious clouds from invading his small town. The rest of his community isn’t so appreciative: He spends the rest of his days dodging bullies at school and coping with other daily problems. One day, he finds sudden respite with the arrival of a beautiful, charming female classmate — literally, she’s a fox — but this also winds up leading him down sad corridors. Eventually fed up with lack of appreciation surrounding him from every direction, the pig resorts to an act of revenge that takes the story in a suddenly bleak direction before arriving at a cautiously redemptive finale.
Kondo and Tsusumi’s rich 2D style, marked by a sophisticated color palette and remarkable depth, suggests Miyazaki by way of “Calvin and Hobbes.” The directors consolidate numerous storytelling traditions into a compelling whole — by its end, “The Dam Keeper” has evolved into a coming-of-age science fiction fantasy with an ecological hook. It also captures the elements found in each of the other nominees: Like “The Bigger Picture,” it uses dark visuals and hints of gothic ingredients to tap into deep feelings of resentment and inexpressible frustration; like “Moulton,” it uses voiceover narration to explain the character’s internal hangups; the fleeting voiceover provides the only dialogue in an otherwise gripping drama that, like “A Single Life,” relies mainly on visuals to convey its plot; like “Feast,” it gives cute animals the opportunity to save the day.
In other words, there’s no doubting that “The Dam Keeper” achieves everything found elsewhere in the category while building on the other shorts’ individual strengths. It also features the most remarkable image of the bunch: our pig hero, clad in a gas mask as he looks out on a fragile society depend on his work for survival. In one way or another, everyone struggling with daily responsibilities can relate to his plight.
WHAT WILL WIN? “Feast” is the populist choice, but voters tend to go for more daring options in this category, honoring ambition rather than formula. But they rarely pick the most experimental options. That gives “The Dam Keeper” a slight edge.
The Oscar-nominated documentary shorts are available on iTunes and VOD and are also in theaters.