Of the three short film categories at the 90th Academy Awards, Best Animated Short is on average the weakest. Now, that “on average” is doing a lot of work – four of the five are quite good, it’s only the last and longest that really fucks things up for the whole slate. Here, at any rate, are my thoughts on each of the nominees, ranked from my favorite to my least.
Negative Space (Max Porter & Ru Kuwahata, France.)
The shortest of the nominees is a marvelous little parable of father-son relations, told though some beautiful, playfully handicrafted stop-motion animation. Sam’s father is never at home, owing to an endless chain of business trips, but he bonds with the boy the best way he can: by teaching Sam all about the correct way to pack a suitcase.
The bulk of the film’s five minutes are spent in visualisations of this basic scenario. The delightful opening finds little puppet-scale clothes marching and rolling through space, neatly tucking themselves into the corners of Sam’s suitcase, in one of the most attractive pieces of stop-motion animation I’ve seen in a very long time. From here, the aesthetic itself becomes an embodiment of the fussy precision that is Sam’s only inheritance from his absent dad. The film starts bending time and space in modest, little ways, creating a flow between moments and places that beautifully places us in Sam’s head without ever making a bit, obnoxious deal about it.
The result is a swift moving portrayal of one young man’s inarticulate feeling of loneliness giving way to a kind of demented obsession, handled with such a delicate whimsical, comic tone in the pacing and the visuals. The latter suggests a world of papier-mâché dolls (and I suppose it’s possible that’s just what they are) with amusingly neurotic personalities, and it lends the film a lightness of tone that cuts against the sadness of the material right until the end, an abrupt sucker punch of confused melancholia.
* * * * *
Dear Basketball (Glen Keane, USA)
It is, admittedly, a little difficult to separate out the film as a work of craft from the source that inspired it: in 2015, Kobe Bryant of the L.A. Lakers wrote a poem addressed to the living spirit of the game of basketball, thanking it for all the good it had brought into his life, and regretfully telling it that the time had come for him to retire from the game. Somewhere along the line, Bryant met up with former Disney animator turned animation tech experimenter Glen Keane, and composer John Williams, and the two legends put together an atmospheric embodiment of the poem.
As a text, “Dear Basketball” is corny, saccharine, and more than a little bit goofy, but if it wasn’t for its failures as a piece of rhetoric, it would easily be my favorite film on this list. Williams’s score, shameless as it is, is my favorite of his three 2017 projects, in part because of how comfortably it leans into his characteristic strengths: weeping, Romantic strings and all. But the star of the show here, beyond question, is Keane’s impeccable character animation, using state of the art drafting software to create amazing, three-dimensional pencil sketches – “pencil” sketches, anyway – paying close attention the fine gradations of shading and detail on the animated Bryant’s skin. Keane also morphs his character smoothly from a soft, cartoony child to a highly realistic adult and back, in both cases relying extensively on the skills of his medium-defining career to create tremendously engaging, vivid characters with just a few brief movements. It’s the best exercise in traditional Disney-style character animation in years, which is worth suffering through some mildly awful content, I think.
* * * * *
Garden Party (Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Victor Caire, Théophile Dufresne, Gabriel Grapperon, Lucas Navarro, France)
There’s not point in pretending this is something that it’s not: we have here a thesis project made by a group of students at MoPA, a 3-D animation school and studio in Arles. It is, mind you, an incredibly good thesis project, one already recognised at SIGGRAPH (the major international conference for CG animation) for the quality of its photorealistic locations and surfaces.
The plot it a little snip of nothing at all: frogs and toads meander their way into a seemingly abandoned house, exploring the spaces, devouring whatever food seems appropriate, and enjoying the grand outdoor pool on the grounds. It all culminates in a dubious morbid joke, but again, we have in front of us a student film – a crudely-assembled quasi-narrative is part of the territory.
The real star of the show is the technique, and that’s beyond reproach, in all but one respect. One of the main toads, the big one, has some oddly-rigged flesh, that seems more like it’s wearing baggy sweatpants made out of amphibian skin. It’s a small error, but a frankly horrifying one, as the film goes further on and on. Other than that one little thing, though, this is world-class work: the minute shifts in lighting are perfectly executed, and the animators have done a superb job of giving the animals recognisable expressions without forcing them to be in any regard anthropomorphic. Possesses little intrinsic interest as a film, but as an exercise, I was enraptured.
* * * * *
Lou (Dave Mullins, USA)
The first time I saw it – it screened in front of Cars 3 in theaters – I was ready to declare this one of the least interesting shorts Pixar Animation Studios had ever produced, maybe only ahead of Lava. And I’m not even sure that I want to talk that sentiment back too far, but this at least is true: the title character, a collection of toys and clothes in a battered wooden “Lost & Found” box, is an altogether triumph of design. Piecing together humanoid elements from completely inhuman objects, and finding ways to give the being an instantly-readable expressive face, that took some doing, and it makes Lou a worth successor to the great Pixar non-humans of old: Luxo Jr., Red the unicycle, and so on.
That all being said the story also feels somewhat recycled, and not nearly to the same great effect: it’s a mild anti-bullying fable that is, to nobody’s surprised, specifically calculated to make you get all teary-eyed at the power of childhood toys to trigger strong memories. Nothing is particularly objectionable about that, but this studio has gone here before, many times, and to better effect. It also doesn’t help that, for all that Lou is an incredible achievement of design, the bully feels like Spot from The Good Dinosaur got fat. Adorable and likable and all that, but I don’t see that it entrenches itself as one of the studio’s classics.
* * * * *
Revolting Rhymes, Part One (Jan Lachauer, Jakob Schuh, Bin-Han To, UK)
The Academy’s love affair with Magic Light Pictures started in 2010 with The Gruffalo, a harmless little bit of fluff that was mostly undone by being: 1) way too shitting long, and 2) assembled out of gross-looking CGI. In the intervening years, my relationship with the studio has soured from “oh, well, that was nice” to “burn the motherfuckers to the ground”, as they perpetually fail to change any aspect of their storytelling approach.
And so we come to Revolting Rhymes, a two-part television special – only the first part was nominated for the Oscar – that takes the macabre humor of one of Roald Dahl’s lesser-known works (and , in truth, one of his lesser works, period, though it’s hard to blame the book for being not much else but a stretching exercise). It’s the old thing where some traditional fairy tales s are revised using nasty-minded humor – Snow White, Red Riding Hood, and the Three Little Pigs, specifically – and whereas Dahl’s poems kept the original stories separate, writer-directors Lachauer & Schuh mix them all up, requiring the invention of several obviously-not-Dahl couplets to paper over the gaps.
That’s enough to kill much of the charm of the material; the rest is embalmed under some heartstoppingly ugly character design. One cannot blame the studio for trying: the story takes place in two time periods, and the “past” is rendered in the slick, vinyl-like textures that Magic Light has perfected over the years, while the “present” is at least marginally more detailed. It’s more a thing where you can see what they were going for than that they got there.
Anyway, the animals are mostly okay, and the pigs in particular have some fun facial animation, but the humans, Red Riding Hood and Snow White, are dreadful. Especially Snow White, whose hair appears to have been cut from a shower curtain and glued atop her bald head..
Add in the usual exhausting running time – 29 minutes, none of them conducted with any particular urgency – and the stale jokes added to the Dahl originals, which have had all the life stripped away, and the result is a wholly unpleasurable experience. There’s enough intentionality and talent here that I can’t just write the whole thing off, but I deeply wish these animators would think about using their talent on literally anything else other than these dismal marketing efforts.