The 89th Academy Awards Nominees: Best Animated Short Films - Reviewed

This year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Short Film were a less diverse crop of offerings, particularly compared with last year’s group, which represented at least four different countries and included at least as many different animation styles. The five films listed below are impressive in their own rights, but in many ways come up short; the intense conflicts and expressive brilliance  defining the best animated short films were not as well represented as they could have been, resulting in a somewhat more lackluster category for the 89th Academy Awards.

This is not, however, to suggest that these are terrible films – far from it. The Oscar winner for this year, Piper, in particular is a wonderful work and warrants its accolades, as do all of the films on this list for one reason or another.

These were the films chosen to represent the best of the best by the Academy this year, in alphabetical order.

Blind Vaysha – Canada, Theodore Ushev
A stunning offering from the National Film Board of Canada, this tale of a girl born with eyes that can see only the past and future swirls through the harsh lines of animation reminiscent of woodcarvings – quite fittingly, as Ushev’s primary inspiration for the film’s style came in the form of medieval drawing styles. Kottarashky’s beautiful Bulgarian music provides a warm backdrop set against the morphing sketches, weaving the sorrowful story of a girl who cannot live in the present and thus despairs at any hope of a life in which she can be truly happy.

Borrowed Time – USA, Andrew Coats, Lou Hamou-Lhadj
With its seven-minute running time and limited dialogue, Borrowed Time is a heart-wrenching punch to the gut. On a windswept Western plateau, a sheriff’s repressed memories of a terrible accident during his youth for which he blames himself come rushing back to haunt him as he surveys the skeletal remains of the scene. Standing at the edge of the cliff, both metaphorically and literally, he struggles to overcome his pervading grief and lifelong guilt. Artfully animated by Pixar artists, this CGI masterpiece wastes no time on glib exposition and hurtles us right into the bones of the story.

Pear Cider and Cigarettes – Canada / UK, Robert Valley
The story of director Robert Valley’s troubled friend Techno Stypes and his final days is a frank depiction of alcoholism, drug use, and razor-edged adrenaline addiction that could have been truly remarkable, had it chosen to open itself up to more empathy within its own narrative. It remains so hyper-focused on the character of “Techno” – reading almost like a bullet list of his mistakes and poor life choices – that it doesn’t explore too deeply the narrator’s feelings, and suffers as a result. Depictions of drugs and sex don’t make an animated film sophisticated – solid narratives and bold art direction do; Pear Cider and Cigarettes lacks the former as it plays too loosely with the latter. Its choppy, graphic-novel style animation might have worked brilliantly to its advantage with sharper storytelling, but here it manifests simply as jerky, and overwrought with repetition.

Pearl – USA, Patrick Osborne
There is a sentimentality to this film which is best expressed in its music – the song shared by its titular character and her unnamed father is key to understanding its themes of connectivity and dreaming big. Its characters, however, feel hollow and underdeveloped; even though the mostly visual narrative works on a certain level, there isn’t really much of a plot or a chance for us to form feelings for what happens to Pearl and her dad across their journey. The animation itself is almost too clean and smooth – in fact, it is the first VR-film to be nominated for an Academy Award – which makes even its best visual elements a distraction, when they should be an advantage.

Piper – USA, Alan Barillaro
Adorably starring a tiny fluffball sandpiper chick learning to forage for food for the first time, this Pixar short proves that, even in microcosm, the studio has a rich understanding of quality storytelling. Every emotion the ‘piper chick experiences, we also experience – from its floofy indignation at having to find its own food, to its terror at being nearly swept to sea when first separated from its mother. When, at last, the little chick overcomes its fears and bounds determinedly into the surf, its joy is palpable and real. A well-deserved Oscar win for a masterful, emotionally incisive short.

Average Score for All Five Films

-Dana Culling