The Movie Sleuth's resident animation specialist, Dana Culling, weighs in on the Oscar nominated animated shorts.
In many ways, animation can tell the stories which live action actors – and budgets – are unable to tell. It can go as far inward, outward, toward the infinite or infinitesimal in scope as the human imagination allows, all with the intentions of those who create with palette, computer or clay. It is limited only by our own capacities to explore our own realities, and create according to our imaginations.
Stylistically diverse, with narratives spanning from the viciousness of an ancient battlefield to the barren future of mankind, this year’s Oscar nominees for best animated short film are a testament to the genre’s abundant perspicacity. While feature-length animation has decidedly taken a turn for the mundane in many respects in recent years, short films continue to be fertile ground for artists who seek to define more than market share and post-millennial buzzwords.
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These five films represent among the very best in the year’s short animation, each deserving of its nomination in its own unique way:
Sanjay’s Super Team (USA)
Director: Sanjay Patel
From the storytellers at Disney-Pixar comes this seven-minute CGI romp through the imagination of a young first-generation Indian boy, as he attempts to connect to his father’s private Hindu ritual during his Saturday morning superhero cartoons. Through the genuine heart of the studio’s best stylistic traditions, it has a good chance at winning the Oscar; its influences are broadly both Western and Eastern, marrying the graces of Indian art with the flashy, sleek artistic styles of television animation and Pixar’s own brand of computer-generated family films. It tells its story without dialogue in a colorful internal world, wherein young Sanjay learns that the cultures of his heritage and of the country in which he is being raised can come together in surprising, and beautiful, ways.
World of Tomorrow (USA)
Director: Don Hertzfeldt
Hertzfeldt is known for a sense of nihilism throughout his simple stick-figure films, and, indeed, his World of Tomorrow delivers a bleak view of futurism wherein human beings have given up much of their corporeal existences to attempt finding meaning in the realms of the purely esoteric, digital, or psychological – and, in such a world, still manage to find very little of it. Protagonist
Emily is a distantly-related clone of “Emily Prime”, a young child brought into this aimless future by her emotionally crippled and empty adult counterpart. Through Hertzfeldt’s dour humor and simple – yet deeply profound – art style, the cautionary tale speaks volumes to our modern obsession with the lives we live on screens.
Historia de un Oso / Bear Story (Chile)
Director: Gabriel Osorio Vargas
Animated gorgeously in an amalgamation of steampunk and arthouse pathos, this 2014 Chilean animated tale is a thematic odyssey both personal and global in scale. An elderly bear spins his life story as a circus animal, forced from his home into a life of juggling on bicycles in the big top by faceless drones with whipping sticks, and spends his life trying to get back to the family from whom he was torn and, upon returning to his home town, is unsure of what he will find. The metaphor is heartbreakingly real, even as the animated figures playing out the anecdote are made of clockwork and viewed through a theatrical guise. With nuance and elegance, Vargas brings to life the very spirit of perseverance and the lessons left by history. While the Academy’s clear Pixar favoritism may make Sanjay’s Super Team a shoe-in for the statuette, it is this quietly indomitable fable which may actually deserve to win.
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos (Russia)
Director: Konstantin Bronzit
As the most traditionally animated of the Oscar-nominated shorts this year, Bronzit’s film begins almost as a buddy comedy set in the intensity of astronaut training, as two lifelong friends begin work side-by-side to achieve their shared dream of traveling to space. A mix of humor and sadness imbue the short with warmth and heart, as fantasies and childhood whims take the form of reality and all of its harsh truths. In its final moments, it takes on an almost confounding sense both of loss and of hope – and yet retains the very sparks of wonder and humanity which formed the bond between its two main characters.
Director: Richard Williams
Animated in pencil hyper-realism by Williams himself, the brief Spartan-Athenian conflict between four men wielding spears and arrows is a visual feast – and a harrowing lesson in the futility of war. Striking at the heart of human brutality, Williams spent years crafting the incredible detail in this film. Contrasting the serene peace of nature with the sudden appearance of men intent on violence and destruction, Prologue is brief and terrifyingly real. A little girl, stumbling upon a field of corpses, carries with her the mortal horror contained within the arbitrary instances of carnage that make up the drama of human combat. Williams wastes little time on exposition, and that seems to be precisely the point – in its guttural death rattle, the film echoes every century’s fallen soldiers and the vacuum of abstract politics which killed each one.
Predictions: Sanjay’s Super Team, with its family-friendly culmination and familiar Pixar warmth, will likely take the award home. Prologue is far more striking, visually – but its imagery may be too disturbing to endear it to as many. Historia de un Oso has both the sentimentality and perfect storytelling and visually gorgeous animation – it isn’t likely to win out over Pixar, but there is hope.