If the Oscars have any real meaning (and let’s be honest, they mostly don’t outside of very rich, very famous people congratulating themselves), it’s that they bring to the masses films that we would otherwise overlook. The Oscars have long since brought to me lists of great films I might have never heard were they not given a very large spotlight. The awards ceremony also means these films will garner more money than they might normally which in turn means more award-caliber films will get made. This is especially true when it comes to non-mainstream genres like documentaries and short films.
This year’s nominees for best Animated Short Film are no exception. Having just watched them all I can honestly say this is an excellent group of films that I would otherwise have never seen. The five nominees, in the order I watched them in are:
Sanjay’s Super Team: With Pixar behind it and with it being shown in front of The Good Dinosaur, this is easily the film in this category most people have heard of and watched (although looking at the box office for The Good Dinosaur those numbers might not be as high as one might expect). The title cards note it is (mostly) based on a true story and centers on a recently immigrated Hindu family. Sanjay, the young boy is more interested in cartoons and superheroes than he is his father’s religion. That is until he imagines the old gods as superheroes and finds a connection he’d never felt before. The animation is standard Pixar (with some 1990s Playstation graphics thrown in) as is the story. Which is to say it’s very well made and filled with mirth and heart-string tugging, but it never quite moved me the way their best stuff does.
World of Tomorrow: It’s nice to see the Academy giving props to the outright weird. Animated with stick-figure drawings and psychedelic, even twitchy backgrounds, it tells a very strange and deeply effecting sci-fi story about four-year-old Emily, who is visited by her much-older cloned self from many years in the future. Old clone Emily takes the young one on a time-traveling journey through her (very long) life. It is filled with maddening isolation, absurdity, joy, and the horrible realization of the complete pointlessness of this life.
Juxtaposed with the clone’s deadpan delivery on the bleakness of her world is the clear-eyed joy that only comes from a child. World of Tomorrow is an imaginative, hilarious, and rather depressing little film that’s stuck inside my psyche for days since seeing it.
Bear Story: My favorite of the bunch. It is the tale of how a bear was taken from his family and forced into a life of servitude by a malevolent circus and his eventual escape. What makes it interesting is that the story is mostly told via a nickelodeon owned by the more realistically drawn bear. The animation inside this device unfolds diorama style as if rusty old piece of metal were turning around an old music box. It is gorgeously crafted and utterly heartbreaking. My four-year-old daughter cried through the whole thing and was inconsolable for a good 10 minutes afterwards.
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos: On a somewhat happier, if still melancholic note, this one tells the bittersweet story of two lifelong friends and their journey towards becoming cosmonauts. We see them through their training as they work hard and retain their childlike joy (in one scene they jump on their beds like schoolboys). It is a wonderful, wordless montage of them striving to reach their goal.
Eventually things turn bad and we watch the characters battle through depression and eventually regain their mojo. Though plainly animated and completely voiceless, it deftly handles a great many emotions and deeply considers such larger themes as aspiration, depression and friendship.
Prologue: This one should come with a parental warning. The shortest of the five films this one is done in a beautiful pencil-on-paper style and brutally depicts several Greco-style warriors (two of which are graphically nude) as they bloodily tear each other apart. Perhaps it’s saying something about the human condition and our need to wreak violence upon each other, but all I could think of was how I should be putting my hands over my daughter’s eyes.
Having very little experience with animated shorts outside of the ones they show before full-length features these days, I don’t know if I’m qualified to reach a verdict on which one of these five shorts is “best.” But I can say they are all very well crafted and each of them created a deep emotional response within me greater than I thought possible in such a short time.
The 2016 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Live Action, Animation, and Documentary) will be released in theatres on January 29th, giving you the opportunity to see the nominated films before the Oscar Awards ceremony on February 28th.