Life's Too Short:The 90th Academy Awards Nominees for Best Animated / Live Action Short Films

Dana takes a look at the Oscar nominated animated and live action short films.

This year’s assortment of nominees for Best Animated Short Film, diverse in scope and style, all seem to deal with a common theme of loss, and how it can affect different characters either positively or negatively depending upon their circumstances. There is representation from both Disney and Pixar animators this year, and subjects run the gamut from the literary to the biographical, the backyard to the basketball court. While there will be no scores to accompany these thoughts on the short films, collectively they are an interesting mix of styles and subjects, well worth seeking out.

For the purposes of this article, they are listed in alphabetical order by title. 


Dear Basketball (Glen Keane / Kobe Bryant)

Written by Kobe Bryant as a love-letter to the sport that became his livelihood, 
Dear Basketball is intensely animated in thick lines and polished shading. The five-minute short celebrates Bryant’s life in the game, featuring music by John Williams and with Disney’s Glen Keane serving as director. Scenes of Bryant as a little boy playing with his father’s rolled-up socks are rendered simply, evolving as the man himself into highly-detailed, lovingly animated charcoaled sights of court glory. Because it is based on Bryant’s retirement announcement letter, there isn’t really any plot to speak of, and it comes off a bit too self-congratulatory in places. But the grace of the animation is truly beautiful, and whatever the viewer may think of Kobe Bryant the man, one cannot deny his talent for, or love of, basketball.

Garden Party (Victor Caire / Gabriel Grapperon)

Astonishing in its verisimilitude and attention to detail, Garden Party follows the wildlife inhabitants of an empty mansion in disarray as they discover the leftovers from its former human inhabitants. Loping and hopping about the huge, deserted house are frogs of all species, lavishing in the rich atmosphere as it swarms with insects and abandoned food (one bullfrog, in particular, discovers a love of macarons). The animals seem almost real, the settings are lush and alive with shape and shadow. Listed above are only two of the film’s six directors; their project for graduation from French CG animation school Ecole MoPA became this brilliant Oscar-nominated short.

LOU (Dave Mullins / Dana Murray)

Pixar’s entry into the Oscar nominations this year is charming and sweet, pitting a schoolyard bully against the spirit of the playground’s Lost and Found box. Various toys and clothing items left behind when the schoolchildren run indoors for class build a strange, incorporeal creature, proving that Pixar can literally make a sympathetic character out of anything. J.J. the bully’s character arc, within only a few short minutes of film, undergoes a major change and by the end, his encounter with the Lost and Found creature “Lou” has transformed his goals. A spirited little film, with an ending that brings genuine smiles. 

Negative Space (Max Porter / Ru Kuwahata)

At only five minutes, Negative Space is among the shortest films in the program this year, but it is also among the most poignant. In his memories, a man fondly remembers the way his father taught him the art of efficient suitcase packing as a way of bonding, even as he traveled constantly for work throughout the narrator’s youth. It ends on a fantastic, nihilistic moment that makes the entire film all the more satisfying in retrospect. Animated in stop-motion, it stylistically resembles the work of Claude Barras, and has similar heart – ‘Negative Space’ is a play on words as subtly sublime as its sentimentality.

Revolting Rhymes (Jakob Schuh / Jan Lachauer)

Animated in CGI with obvious reverence for the original Quentin Blake illustrations in the book of the same name by Roald Dahl, Revolting Rhymes turns traditional fairy tales on their heads and tells them from the perspective of the Big Bad Wolf in rhyming poetry. The short nominated for the Oscar is actually only the beginning; the book was animated in two parts for BBC One television in 2016, aired on PBS shortly thereafter in the United States. Delightfully subversive and just a tad wicked, as all of Dahl’s works are, Revolting Rhymes is full of whimsy and humor, with storybook character designs and world-building that’s just plain fun. 


Contrasting the animated offerings with the live-action ones gets more and more interesting each year, because while even the darkest of the animated shorts has an underlying air of sardonic humor, comedy doesn’t play so much a part in the live-action nominees. 

An unfortunate trend has developed recently with the Academy’s choices for Best Live Action Short Film – mostly devoid of laughs, its selected shorts all focus on current hot-button issues, and have a tendency to reek of Oscar-baiting. With the exception of one, Australia’s The Eleven O’ Clock, they are trip-wire stories, populated by characters who don’t so much represent individuals as they present stereotypes, and very obviously attempt to tug the heartstrings. It’s a tired tactic, and while these films all definitely reflect a lot of talent, it would be nice to see something more unique within the contenders for the statuette.

DeKalb Elementary (Reed Van Dyk)

An obligatory school shooter story, which the credits say is based on a true story. Very little actually happens, however, so the dramatic pauses and slower pacing of the film don’t end up adding up to much in the end. Which is unfortunate, because it could have spent its time asking some important questions or building suspense toward a shocking or surprising revelation, and instead focuses on the weird interactions between the awkward, “mentally instable” would-be attacker and the calm, gentle-voiced school receptionist who talks him down and brings in the law enforcement. Ultimately, it says very little with a lot of talking, and never quite answers any of the questions it does ask. 

The Eleven O’ Clock (Derin Seale / Josh Lawson)

The lone comedic entry into the Best Live Action Short Film category, and thus a breath of fresh air, The Eleven O’ Clock is almost what would happen if Monty Python’s Flying Circus met Abbot & Costello. A temporary secretary arrives for her morning assisting in a psychiatry office, alerting the doctor that his first patient of the day has grand delusions – that he, himself, is a psychiatrist. When the two men meet in the office, hilarity ensues as each tries to convince the other that he is the doctor, the other is the patient, and grapple over the office equipment, all while confusing the poor, baffled temp. Clever, quick, and thoroughly silly, it’s a welcome addition to the list of nominees.

My Nephew Emmett (Kevin Wilson, Jr.)

The story of Emmett Till’s 1955 murder in rural Mississippi is brought to life through the eyes of his uncle, Mose Wright (L. B. Williams) in this offering from recent NYU graduate Kevin Wilson, Jr. The tension throughout this film is palpable, as young Till is literally dragged from his bed in the middle of the night by white men with a gun and a vengeance. And even though the outcome is a foregone conclusion, it is no less heart-wrenching and infuriating to watch. Even the tensest scenes are paced to match the elderly Wright’s own rhythms, drawing out each beat of the terrifying confrontation between the black Wrights and the white Bryants in strangely subdued, yet thickly emotionally frantic scenes of  Till’s final moments with his family. 

The Silent Child (Chris Overton / Rachel Shenton)

Another well-intentioned film with stereotypical characters used to make a point, The Silent Child stars six-year-old Maisie Sly as Libby, a profoundly Deaf girl born into a hearing family. Her parents are, of course, too busy to deal with trying to communicate with her, shuttling their elder children to and fro and working high-demand jobs, and hire Joanne (Shenton) to try working with her. Joanne is proficient in British Sign Language and understands the struggles Libby will endure when she enters mainstream education, but Libby’s mother Sue (Rachel Fielding) is adamant that she learn to speak like everyone else in the family, ignoring her child’s very real needs. Subtitled for the hearing impaired, the film shows Libby begin to bloom and learn to talk via BSL. She begins to form a bond with Joanne, the first person to really try to get through to her. There are echoes of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller, of which the film seems keenly aware.

Watu Wote / All of Us (Katja Benrath / Tobias Rosen)

Another graduation project – this one from the Hamburg Media School in Germany – that focuses on a sensitive issue, Watu Wote depicts the Al-Shabaab extremist group’s Madera bus hijacking in 2015. Focusing on Jua (Adelyne Wairimu), a Catholic woman traveling from Kenya to visit her sick mother, with a hatred for Muslims after Islamic terrorists had killed her husband and children years before. Although she is not very courteous when one of the Muslim bus passengers, a teacher, tries to reach out to her, she is protected by the Muslim woman sitting next to her when the hijacking begins. Even as the Al-Shabaab militants are trying to weed out the Christians for cold-blooded murder, the Muslim passengers refuse to budge and give them up – even facing threats of violence and death themselves. There are some fantastic scenes, particularly when the teacher Jua encountered stands up to the leader of the terrorists, denouncing their practices of violence and eschewing their ways as a peaceful man whose faith is not based in such extremism. Through a disturbing situation, people unifying and protecting one another is a sign of hope.

Dana Culling