While this year’s batch of Oscar-nominated live-action and documentary shorts remain mainly fixed on political and social justice issues, the animated group offers a bit of a respite, leaning towards personal stories and unexpected narratives bolstered by inventive animated techniques. From a stop-motion film about suitcases to a photorealistic look at the lives of some very naughty frogs, there’s nary a shared theme or experience to be found here.
Of course, when it comes to animation, looking good or providing a compelling story isn’t enough — both pieces need to fit together seamlessly. That’s exactly what the category’s two best picks do, and then some.
“Negative Space,” France (5 minutes)
Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter’s darling stop-motion marvel crams a lot into a teeny package, just like the all-important suitcases it ostensibly chronicles. You read that correctly: “Negative Space” is sort of about suitcases and the art of packing, though it uses the conceit as an unexpected entry point into parental love, the lessons we teach our children, and even the grieving process. Combining all the freedom of stop-motion animation and a sneakily emotional story, it’s not just the best film in this year’s batch of animated shorts, it’s a prime example of the power of the medium at large. And, gosh, it’s cute.
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Firstly, however, it’s a deeply imaginative story that uses a whimsical design to introduce its audience to both its unnamed lead character and his mild obsession with packing suitcases, and packing them well. Packing lessons came straight from his father, and as the short unspools — little shirts and pants and scarves lapping across the screen, a great ocean of things to pack — “Negative Space” guides us through a young life irrevocably shaped by those lessons. It’s how this pair bonded, as silly as it may sound, and the film’s sensitive treatment of that bond goes miles to sell it. Some kids play sports with their dads, some kids pack with them. “Negative Space” makes the argument that both activities are equally valid, and it’s an off-kilter message that delivers.
Like the other frontrunner in this category (more on that one below), “Negative Space” initially obscures what it’s really about, before revealing its ultimate plotline — in the unique universe of “Negative Space,” what’s really being packed for — with a well-earned emotional shot to the system. Concluding on a quippy little joke that speaks to the film’s ability to marry the bizarre with the profound, it packs a punch that will prove hard to beat.
“Garden Party,” France (7 minutes)
The winner of prizes from such respected festivals as Clermont-Ferrand, SIGGRAPH, and SIGGRAPH Asia, this student film from an eye-popping six directors (though only two are eligible for the award) is as wily as “Negative Space,” though with a decidedly more wicked sense of humor. Initially, the film dazzles through its use of stunning photorealistic animation, introducing a cadre of frogs hopping and blurping their way around a swanky tropical mansion. Watching the various amphibians do all manner of froggy things would be engaging enough — they look so real — but as they slowly make their way further into the deeper reaches of a seemingly abandoned estate, the world of “Garden Party” expands vividly outward.
As the frogs move more firmly into the mansion, they begin to indulge in ill-advised behavior, from the chubby frog who eats everything the stocked kitchen has to offer to the more flirtatious frog eager to snag a mate. But while the frogs more than carry the narrative weight of the story, “Garden Party” starts by cleverly revealing more and more details beyond their antics. Why, exactly, is that stocked kitchen empty of humans? Why are there bullet holes peppering the glass doors of the bedroom? And just what is that massive security system hiding?
The pleasure of discovering what “Garden Party” is actually about is half the fun, but both its engaging surface story and the real lessons lurking eerily below them are equally entertaining. Give these wacky frogs a feature!
“LOU,” United States (7 minutes)
The seemingly inevitable Pixar entry in this year’s nominees is about as good-hearted as they come — still Pixar’s bread and butter, and looking every bit the shiny computer animated product of the lauded animation house — and is particularly palatable for its initial audience: kiddos checking out “Cars 3.” The short was the lead-in for the popular sequel’s theatrical release, and is now available on its home video release, where it can hopefully serve as a happy diversion after all those cars-centric adventures wear thin (should that ever happen). Set on an idyllic schoolyard, the short introduces a variety of happy elementary school students, before focusing in on a single, slightly sad young man. And then, of course, there’s that creature.
“LOU” (named for said creature, sort of) meanders a bit before getting to the thrust of its story, which offers a refreshingly different narrative for a Pixar kid that looks straight out of the mean bully playbook. Mostly dialogue-free, the short finds our unnamed anti-hero at the mercy of LOU, composed of the literal contents of a packed Lost and Found box and looking a bit like a wrinkled Elmo doll. LOU is haunting him (in a fun way!), pushing him towards a well-earned face-off with his own personal issues and lack of playground pals. The twist is toddler-sized but sweet, and the ultimate lesson of “LOU” is a valuable one, and one that deserves to be seen as more than just an amiable pre-show piece.
“Revolting Rhymes,” United Kingdom (29 minutes)
Inspired by Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, “Revolting Rhymes” is an intermittently amusing, modernized retelling of some classic fairy tales, mashed together into one unwieldy story. Initially shown as a two-part series by the BBC, only one episode is nominated this year, and Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer’s film feels quite lacking as a standlaone. Mostly, the cracks in its narrative — including a wraparound story that takes way too long to reveal its necessity — are exacerbated by screening it in such a truncated fashion. In short, where’s the rest of it? (That this one ends on a cliffhanger does no one any favors.)
There are, however, a few charming bits to find here, including the central relationship between Red Riding Hood (voiced by Rose Leslie) and Snow White (voiced by Gemma Chan) which binds the majority of its criss-crossing fairy tales, and a series of digs at pigs that rank above the more amusing takes on the animals to be found in childhood story lore. Quentin Blake’s original illustrations for Dahl’s book are rounded out for screen consumption, yet they maintain a lot of his appeal, while adding a greater sense of tactile realism (the Wolf, it must be said, looks just wonderful). Dahl’s originality and spark are mostly missing, though, and the short inches along to that unsatisfying end. Happily never after is more like it.
“Dear Basketball,” United States (6 minutes)
Essentially a commercial for the basketball star’s own legacy, this short written, produced and narrated by Kobe Bryant benefits enormously from the hand-drawn talents of director Glen Keane, but that’s about the only thing of value it has to offer. Adapted from a 2015 letter Bryant himself wrote to announce his retirement from basketball — and styled as a love letter to the sport, which is as creaky a conceit as it sounds — the film is strangely free of conflict, and even Bryant’s eventual mention of his plans to quit lands without any emotional weight.
The lesson of the film is thin: Bryant loved basketball, so then he played it, and it was great. Couched in an overly triumphant score that pops at the strangest of moments — no matter what you think of Bryant as a person, he’s certainly had plenty of professional victories to celebrate, though “Dear Basketball” never, ever gets into any details — all the better to make the short seem far bigger and more important than it is. Bryant’s career is certainly bigger than six minutes of the most boring highlight reel imaginable, but even he is unable to script anything with any resonance. Even fans of the basketball star will likely come away wondering where the meat of it all is. It’s not here. What’s the opposite of a slam dunk? It’s that.