Early February is a special time for animation lovers as we get to screen the pre-Oscar’s Oscar Nominated Shorts – Animation program (sponsoredby ShortsHD). The program is screening in the US, Europe, and Africa, with online availability coming February 23rd. As the only program of shorts regularly released to commercial theaters for traditional weekly bookings that I know of, it is a unique program and a rare treat. It’s the movie-going experience I look forward to more than any other. And this year’s nominated films, in addition to presenting the usual variety of artistic styles, became progressively intriguing as a theme of complexly emotional male relationships emerged, linking all five films in a way a program like this rarely achieves. (Note: the program also features additional shorts that didn’t make the Oscars 2016 cut, but since these didn’t really fit the theme, I won’t be covering them. They do include a short by independent auteur Bill Plympton and one produced by the National Film Board of Canada, though, so there is good reason to go out and support this rare opportunity to view animated shorts at the theater!)
We begin with a Pixar production, “Sanjay’s SuperTeam,” a great example of what Pixar can do in short form animation. The story is imaginatively and emotionally complete, which their films sometimes have a hard time achieving. For me, they often have two films in one - one a children’s film and the other a more mature narrative with which the kid’s hijinks do not always mesh. But their shorts are usually more cohesive, and “Sanjay’s” is no exception. Colorful and fun, with an added plus of using mythological imagery that is not so mainstream, “Sanjay’s” blend of Eastern mythology with more common superhero tropes creates some rather spectacular results. At its core though, this is a tale of a son and a father coming together, bonding over what those different myths mean to them when they realize their interests are similar. With a really effective – and appropriate - combination of 2D animation and CG, this one actually brought a tear of satisfaction to my eye at the end.
The second short is a longer Don Hertzfeldt film, “World of Tomorrow.” Independent animation auteur Hertzfeldt’s usual modernly snarky humor combined with mature commentary on our culture is present again. His deceptively simple artistic style is really anything but, as the visuals surrounding the characters here swirl and pulse in beautiful rhythms. The story: a cloned woman travels back in time to visit her original, who is presently a very young girl. The girl provides the humor, delivering pithily child-appropriate commentary on her much older clone’s strange and sad pronouncements about her world. Hertzfeldt skewers our desires to live forever and suggests technology can damage our relationships by becoming more important to us than other people. Though at first “World of Tomorrow” seems not to fit my theme as an exploration of male emotion (it does lack any male character other than the clone of a brainless boy who lived and died as a museum exhibit who is the female clone’s husband after she had been in love with a moon rock, a gas pump, and a crazy monster…!) the lack of a strong male presence here began forming that theme for me. Were men (or anyone other than ourselves) needed in the future? Though not the main thread of the film, after screening the whole program, it certainly became an important question.
The third short is a film from Chile's Punkrobot Animation Studio, simply titled “BearStory” This is the type of animated short that deserves to be seen on big screens more often. Its visual style is beautiful rendered art in service of the narrative. Animation’s strength is its use of varied styles and this one, featuring the titlular bear, cleverly tells his life story through a street corner mechanical puppet theater. The tale is profoundly sad: circus workers kidnap the bear while his family watches and he is forced to become a sad performer. Because the circus worker’s look more like secret police, the emotional weight of being taken and caged resonates even more deeply. The mechanical toy style allows the tone to remain heartfelt and melancholic rather than become profoundly depressing. The father’s sadness at being separated from his wife and child stands out here. His need to tell his story about them is not the obvious male narrative we usually get onscreen. His sadness is palpable and the nostalgic wind-up toy animation conveys this masterfully.
The fourth short is by Russian animator Konstantin Bronzit titled “We Can’t LiveWithout Cosmos” and is an atypical male buddy film, this time about two cosmonauts in training. The art style approaches something of a New Yorker cartoon come to life, simple but masterly drawn, while the tone takes on a wondrously playful quality. The focus is on a true male friendship, filled with the joys and wonders of striving for a good, fun life over the typical bravado seen in many films. The two cosmonauts have been friends since they were children and approach their training with perfect seriousness – but never at the expense of enjoying the wonderful journey they are on. They help each other become the best and it is no surprise when they are both picked for the rocket launch, one to fly, one as the alternate. Though circumstances become tragic, and I found the path to the ending to have a small gap to getting there, the animated feeling the end produces is a satisfying expression of true brotherhood and camaraderie.
The final short serves to put earlier perspectives on male emotion into the spotlight by offering a stark contrast to them. It also allowed Hertzfeldt’s film into the discussion in my head. Three time Oscar winner Richard Williams returns here with a short titled “Prologue,” suggesting more to come? But I wonder if that is so, because as I ponder this one, perhaps in the end it tells us all we need to know. “Prologue” uses beautifully illustrated and detailed figures, somewhat reminding me of the fantasy art seen in places like “Heavy Metal” comics magazine. Here, four male warriors are in a simple tale, from pre-battle calm, through nervousness, and ending in hyper violence once the fight begins. There is gore and quick male nudity (which the program warns the audience about beforehand and which necessitates this Oscar nominee being shown at the end, after the other films not nominated are seen). Williams pulls no punches. This is war and death. However, the climax actually features a young girl who sees the bloody massacre. She runs to the comfort of an older woman’s arms. As the film ends, the elder woman’s face, weathered and worried, but strong and resolute, is shown in beautiful, hand drawn close ups. This is the result when men’s emotions turn violent and away from their family and friendships. And it’s not a story new to anyone.
All in all, a thoughtful program of Oscar nominations. It is always hard to say these are the five best Animated Shorts of 2015 due to limited viewing options. But as a cohesive group, I can heartily recommend you do get around to viewing these. Doing it before the Oscar’s show gives you a reason to watch it!