Netflix may be leading the pack in overall Oscar nominations this year, but the streamer is outnumbered in at least one category. Netflix’s singular nominee for Best Animated Short represents the category’s most classic contender in “Robin Robin,” a charming tale of difference told with cute fuzzy animals from beloved British animation house Aardman, the four-time Oscar-winning studio behind “Wallace and Gromit.”
While “Robin Robin” is the clear frontrunner this year, (aside from the studio’s name recognition, it also boasts the vocal stylings of Gillian Anderson and Richard E. Grant), the rest of the category is filled with experimental and challenging fare from around the world.
It may not make the race very interesting, but the viewing is another story.
Playing as if in a different world entirely, the other four contenders feature poignant meditations on love and romance, a whimsical character study of an eccentric artist and her sister’s obsession with taxidermy, and a shocking mini-horror about a secret police agent and her torture dog. Needless to say, you might want to leave the kids at home. Here’s a ranking of all five contenders.
Contrasting figures catch the eye in this tragicomic romance between a lumpy-faced boxer and a lanky ballerina. The 2D animation has a simplistic picture book quality, but the story is more nuanced than the funny images suggest. Hulking and knobby-nosed, boxer Evgeny lives a lonely existence training for his next round of taking hits to the face, which reads like a topographical map of past defeats. Waifish and precise, Ilya is similarly focused on her craft, spending her days rehearsing herself ragged for a lecherous director. When the odd couple collides, their lives of isolation makes it difficult to connect, though they are drawn to each other.
The eighth film from Russian animator Anton Dyakov, “Boxballet” plays with juxtaposition for its visual language. The suffocating grip of the director’s giant hands on Ilya’s tiny waist or Evgeny’s lumbering frame teetering on a tree branch as he reaches for a terrified cat, for instance. The characters remain sketches, and though their crudeness has a kind of charm, the emptiness of their interior lives leaves little to inspire.
4. “Robin Robin”
A family of mice adopt an abandoned robin (Bronte Carmichael) hatchling in this 30-minute musical, which features a few original songs breathily talk-sung by its A-list voice cast. The mice love to sneak into human houses (pronounced “who-mans”), which they teach their adopted sister by way of a jaunty tune “the rules of the sneak are these.” When she accidentally sabotages another mission with her un-mousely ways, Robin flits away from home in the night, where she encounters a terrifyingly fluffy cat (Gillian Anderson). In her panic, she meets a broken-winged magpie (Richard E. Grant) who lives in a spindly tree piled with shiny junk that he treasures.
The film was released as a Christmas special on Netflix, which explains Magpie’s fascination with the “magic wishing star” atop the neighbors’ Christmas tree. The story feels secondary to the enchanting imagery, which includes detailed miniature settings and fluffy wool figures that practically burst to life. After almost fifty years, Aardman has perfected its signature stop-motion animation style, and it’s a joy to live in the cozy world created here.
3. “Affairs of the Art”
Celebrated British animator Joanna Quinn continues her series on working class heroine Beryl, as she takes viewers on a whimsical tour of her eccentric extended family. Quinn’s dynamic pencil drawings dance across the screen, breathing life into the buxom bodies that contort into elegant shapes and improbable poses. The charcoal line drawings and milky pastels take on a vibrational quality that is matched by Beryl’s natural exuberance, as voiced by Menna Trussler’s warm Welsh brogue. But the visuals are just one enticing element of this continuing saga, as Quinn and her longtime producer/screenwriter Les Mills explore the lifelong pursuit of artmaking through Beryl’s everywoman eyes.
“Art! I’m obsessed,” she begins. “I’m drinking from the cup of creativity again.” Before modeling his tenth fall down the stairs towards her waiting sketchbook, Beryl’s husband twists his rotund figure around to ask if they’re doing Duchamp or Boccioni this time. Obsession runs in the family, she explains, just like her oddball sister Beverly, a bucktoothed ginger who was obsessed with bugs and rotting food as a child. The nerdy picture of young Bev plucking the wings off of flies doesn’t quite square with the image-obsessed Angeleno she turns into as a taxidermist to the stars. Such are the wild twists and turns this kooky duo cooks up, and Quinn’s whimsical drawings tie it all together.
2. “Bestia” (“Beast”)
Genre and animation collide with terrifying ends in this psychological horror from visionary Chilean director Hugo Covarrubias. Inspired by real events, the film follows a secret police agent and her German Shepherd dog in the military dictatorship of Chile. Their mundane routine soon gives way to something far more sinister, revealing that their daily bus ride leads to an innocuous house that is actually a torture chamber where the dog is employed. At night, she forces the dog into her bed as she is plagued by nightmares of beheading him in flowing green grass.
The puppet-like figures are perfectly cast in the stop-motion setting, her shiny porcelain face and beady little eyes project a menacing serenity. She takes on a forlorn human quality as she stares at herself naked in the mirror, confronting her lumpy cotton doll body and fleshy pink felt nipples, a jarring pop of color against the humdrum grey and white. The film explodes traditional animation subject matter, and the shocking imagery would be impossible to pull off in any other form. Covarrubias is the founder and director of the Maleza theater company, which blends theater with animated films, and that dramatic discipline ignites this unusual and jarring morality tale.
1. “The Windshield Wiper”
Instantly engaging from the first frame, this lyrical romance weaves musings on the nature of love over gorgeous scenes of missed and found connections. A mustached man in a purple blazer sits smoking in a crowded cafe, taking in a lively voiceover of real people musing on the elusive search for romance. “What is love?” they ask, and the screen cuts away to two corinthian columns crashing dramatically into one another, destroying themselves in the process. A moving pastiche of images resonates gorgeously from frame to frame — an array of sex ads decorating a phone booth, a girl falling from a skyscraper, a satellite hovering above the earth passing desperate text messages.
The film was painted, written, and directed by Spanish filmmaker Alberto Mielgo, who is far from a long shot. He won three Emmys for his episode of Netflix’s animated anthology series “Love, Death & Robots” called “The Witness.” He also has a Primetime Emmy for his work as production designer on Disney’s “Tron: Uprising.” He was also production designer on Sony’s Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” If an Oscar win moved the needle towards Mielgo getting a feature made, that would be a good outcome for everyone.
More than a simple collage film, a few repeating scenes return throughout the 14-minute short, offering little resolution but unfolding their mini dramas enticingly. Two swipe-happy strangers stand side by side in a grocery store, their tatted bodies not quite grazing each other, their faces glued to the screens in front of them. When they find each other’s profiles they take pause, match, and continue swiping, never to meet in real life. A homeless man with a shopping cart mumbles at a mannequin in the window of a luxury store advertising the new spring line. “I’m doing better,” he sputters. “Come home.”