Compared to the flashier categories vying for attention in Oscar season, the nominees for Best Animated Short Film are usually a peculiar bunch, and very unpredictable. Featuring a range of lengths, styles, and sensibilities, these nominees tend to generate traction on the festival circuit, but otherwise maintain lower profiles until the big night. They’re also subject to a number of whimsical factors: Few people actually thought that the glorified Kobe Bryant commercial “Dear Basketball” deserved to win last year, but Bryant’s celebrity sealed the deal; in other years, wackier entries like “Logorama” or more personal efforts like “The Moon and the Sun” provide a welcome contrast to the more conventional features that win throughout the evening. And usually, if a Pixar short gets into the mix, it leads the race.
That seems to be the case this year, but while the animation studio’s “Bao” is certainly deserving of its frontrunner status, it also points to a recurring theme throughout the category. While this year’s nominees feature a range of visual styles and storytelling from around the world, almost all of them center on sad childhoods and parent-child hardships. These themes are echoed in the feature-length Best Animated Feature category with “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “Incredibles 2,” but take on more adventurous, pliable formats in this ever-unusual category.
One of three shorts directed by a Canadian in the category, “Animal Behaviour” brings directors David Fine and Alison Snowden back to a category they won 25 years ago with “Bob’s Birthday.” While that film dealt with a midlife crisis, “Animal Behaviour” revolves around an anthropomorphized group therapy session. The dopey cartoon has the zany entertainment value of a New Yorker cartoon that overstays its welcome, with the vignette finding a psychiatrist dog overseeing a dysfunctional conversation between a leech, a mantis, a pig, a bird, and a cat at his office. It’s just an average exchange of neuroses until an ape shows up and throws a tantrum, forcing the dog to reveal his own primal instincts. The line-drawings have a kooky quality that fits the premise, and there’s an underlying appeal to the short’s recurring translation of each species’ behavior into psychological duress (the mantis always kills her mates during sex, the cat can’t stop bathing herself, etc.), but “Animal Behaviour” can’t muster much depth beyond jokes that write themselves.
One of several tearjerkers in this year’s somber category (and the this Chinese-American co-production by former Disney animators Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas tracks the tender, wordless experiences of a young girl named Luna who dreams of going to the moon. While her father, a shoe repairman, encourages her interests, Luna faces a series of hardships and disappointments in pursuing her dream. The drama takes more than one downbeat turn, but Luna’s otherworldly aspirations unfold with inspired imagery that include gleaming, starry visions and her own wide-eyed expressions as she envisions her trip beyond the planet. These ethereal moments are contrasted with the drab backdrops of her father’s garage-based workshop and the recurring motif of their dinner table, where Luna grows up with her eye on the prize. The short doesn’t go anywhere particularly surprising, which limits the overall emotional impact of its rousing finale. But as an encapsulation of the appeal that space travel has across multiple ages and life experiences, this concise bittersweet journey is hard to dislike.
Irish animator Louise Bagnall’s wondrous short revolves around an elderly woman sorting through her old memories and attempting to make sense of the present as it slips away from her. While a more traditional live-action version of this premise might fall into the typical patterns of a mopey death drama, Bagnall instead using the animation medium to create a dazzling representation of conflicting memories and timelines with shape-shifting colors and settings, all of which come together in the big-hearted finale. “Late Afternoon” offers no grand revelations or complex insights into its aging character’s condition, but it succeeds at capturing her internal quest for clarity. The watercolor visuals bear a strong resemblance to the fantastical projects associated with Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, the company behind previous feature-length Oscar nominees “The Secret of Kells,” “Song of the Sea,” and last year’s “The Breadwinner.” But unlike those more extensive efforts, “Late Afternoon” eschews complex storytelling to clarify the murky process of sorting through memory banks, and finding catharsis from the challenge in the warmth of companionship.
The strangest entry in this category is also one of the most compelling ones: Like “One Small Step,” Canadian animator Trevor Jimenez has crafted a soulful look at one child making sense of the world, and a father who can only do so much. But this one cuts much deeper, with the absorbing, silent story of a kid who bounces between two divorced parents — his boring life with his mom, and his peculiar visits with his nomadic father. There’s levity to some of the father-son bonding moments, including an early bit involving playtime with samurai swords, but over time the boy begins to absorb more of the emotional duress at work in the adult world beyond his grasp. The short’s complex visual style blends the darkness of late-night TV viewings with the neon-colors that bounce off the walls as father and son bond after hours, and it builds to an extraordinary, surreal climax as the child confronts a world much larger than the insular challenges of the broken marriage surrounding his two homes. Though it’s less plot-driven than pure mood piece, “Weekends” delivers a tantalizing snapshot of what it means to live through divorce from the inside out.
Anyone who saw “Incredibles 2” in theaters was likely weeping by the time the opening credits rolled, thanks to “Bao,” which played before it. Director Domshee Shi has already made history as the first woman to direct a Pixar short, but there’s a good chance she’ll be the first woman to win an Oscar for one, too. This elegant and innovative tale, in which a Chinese mother imagines her dumpling coming to life and growing into adulthood, manages to slide comedy and heartbreak — not to mention a savvy metaphor for the pains of cultural assimilation — into a slick eight-minute package. The conceit of a living dumpling provides plenty of shrewd animated slapstick, but once Shi establishes that baseline of absurdity, she molds it into a foundation for genuine pathos as she builds to a powerful climax. Without a single line of dialogue, “Bao” evokes a key aspect of the immigrant experience in America with a shrewd ability to empathize with two conflicting generations at once. That alone makes it the most timely entry in this category, but it deserves to win the top prize for more than just social relevance. “Bao” is a brilliant snapshot of what the animated short format can do entirely on its own terms.
The 2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films are now playing at New York’s IFC Center and will be in select theaters on February 8, with an OnDemand release to follow on February 19. Find out where you can see them right here.