Presenting brief reviews of the five films nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, ranked from my favorite to least-favorite. And while the ranking took me no effort at all, I should say that this is an unusually strong slate, give or take the one obvious clinker – as good as this category has been in quite some time, and certainly the strongest of all 23 categories at the Academy Awards.
Genius Loci (Adrien Mérigeau, France)
I knew I was in good hands during the opening credits, when Alan Holly’s name showed up as a creative collaborator; his 2013 Coda is one of my favorite short animated films of the 2010s (I have not seen the 2009 Old Fangs, which he co-directed with Genius Loci‘s Adrien Mérigeau; that clearly needs to change and soon), and it hardly seemed possible that anything he was involved with in any reasonable capacity would be entirely awful. I was not prepared, even so, for just how fucking good Genius Loci would turn out to be: better than Coda, just for a start, packing its 16 minutes as densely full of ideas about life and humanity, and about how animation can depict life and humanity, as any film has used 16 consecutive minutes since the first World of Tomorrow in 2015 (which is actually 17 minutes, but I’m counting it).
It’s an abstract, purposefully difficult film, even just at the level of sussing out the plot, but what we have at a minimum is that Reine (Nadia Moussa) has been tasked with babysitting by her sister Mouna (Jina Djemba). Either after, or instead of, or even just as a mental exercise in the middle of minding her nephew, Reine wanders through the streets of the city, losing herself to the scale of the place, and only coming together once, when she happens to run into an ex-girlfriend, Rosie (Georgia Cusack), in some rundown place currently being used as a bohemian hang-out.
The bulk of Genius Loci (a phrase that’s close enough to “spirit of the place” that we can use it as our way in) consists of Reine being overwhelmed by pretty much all the ways a city can overwhelm you. It is, variously, about the great promise of urban living as a way for people from different walks of life to find their commonalities; about how a lost soul can carve out a little patch of the world and say “this is mine”; about the desperate loneliness we feel when we lose love in a world that seems increasingly good at forcing us into atomised bubbles; about the unspoken ethnic tensions in modern Europe; about the terrifying thrill of being alone in a city and feeling the full blast of being aware that you are a tiny piece of something larger than the individual human.
To get at all of this, the film uses a gorgeous, deviously slippery aesthetic style. For want of any better way to describe it, I might call it a kind of “heightened minimalism”, at least sometimes. Often, it will appear simply that Mérigeau and his team have approximately slashed at a space with water colors and given it definition only though the application of a few lines – maybe a concrete, no-two-ways-about-it door way, with some curves and triangles approximating the rest of the room. Sometimes we get less – sometimes Reine’s face, as we watch her in close-up, seems to decoalesce into nothing but the basic shapes of eyes and lips (the film makes a hell of a lot out of using strong diamond shapes to represent eyes in lots of different ways), that then float apart and into space. The instability of form is very important to Genius Loci, which literally breaks Reine apart and moves her through other people to reassemble herself; or which overlays a human face with a horse face in a thoroughly successful bid to trouble our ability to confidently distinguish those two animals; or which morphs one pair of eyes into a different person’s eyes as a means of establishing intimacy, whether present or past.
It’s a daunting 16 minutes, in other words, and on just one viewing, I’m not at all prepared to do more than just kind of sketch out what the hell it’s working with, and even then I have provided nothing like an exhaustive list. But I will say that this is absolutely what movies, and animated movies in particular, can do: distort reality, break it down, reassemble it, and in so doing constantly re-evaluate how we, as humans exist in the real world. I am absolutely awestruck by what Mérigeau (formerly of Cartoon Saloon, just to cement that all of my favorites are here in one place) has achieved here, and I eagerly look forward to many visits with Genius Loci in the future to continue digging into its hallucinatory vision of the urban environment as a dreamscape, a place where we can both find and lose ourselves, wonderfully and horribly and violently.
Opera (Erick Oh, USA/South Korea)
The first thing to do is to very clearly describe what we have in front of us, because while I think what Oh has achieved is undoubtedly a masterpiece, I also don’t know that it’s a masterpiece as a short film. There is, to begin with, a pyramid: as the film starts, a priest-like figure at the top of the pyramid shifts a large balance marked with suns and moons, kicking off the start of a “day”. And then, in at least a couple dozen cells located in the body of the pyramid, we simply see… activity. In a sense, and not to do the film’s PR for it, we see all of human history, in fact, agriculture and religious worship and fucking and fishing and dancing and simply milling about in a crowded town square. To go beyond that would be to start to spoil things, if indeed Opera can be spoiled. What is not a spoiler, I think, is that this ends up being a big huge cycle that loops around, presumably forever, and the mere fact that it is a perpetual loop is itself a sign of the film’s cynical view of the progress of human history.
Now, Opera, the Oscar-nominated short film, watches this for about eight minutes – a full loop and then at most a fifth of the next one, I’d say – and starts close at the top of the pyramid, then slowly tracks down, while also zooming back, until we see most of the pyramid, then it tracks up and zooms in. It’s a striking and lovely way to see both individual parts of the pyramid, and also the great teeming mess of humanity, more like an anthill really, represented by the complete pyramid. What Opera is when it’s not being a short film, however, is the entire pyramid, animated in an indulgent 8K, projected in a gallery; I am not sure, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, if it has yet been shown in any gallery in the world in this writing, but I know that it is going to be, and that is absolutely the way you want to watch it, taking in the whole thing as one massive machine, with each cell bleeding into the next, which bleeds into the next, and then maybe spending one cycle just focused on a single corner, seeing every tiny detail that happens there, and then the next cycle looking at a different corner, or maybe following the path of one tiny human figure navigating the great chain.
The point being, Opera is pretty great even in this form, and the animation by Erick Oh and his team is extraordinarily beautiful in its design, with textured figures and spaces that feel like something out of Brueghels or the like, even in the tiny little window we get to watch it through. It’s not by any means free of clichés about the cycles of human history, nor even in using the pyramid shape as a way of structuring how human existence is forced into hierarchies from the top down, but it’s a powerful embodiment of the clichés. Still and all, not once in those eight minutes, not once I figured out what was going on (which didn’t take very long), did I think “this experience is just as good as seeing it in a proper exhibition space would be”. Because it’s just not. And I look forward to the 60 or 75 minutes I’ll spend in front of the projected version if, God willing, it and I are ever in the same city in the future. But this is clearly just a taste of something much bigger.
Burrow (Madeline Sharafian, USA)
The slightest of the nominees, and not by any little margin. But it’s also so golly-gosh-danged cute that it’s awfully hard to take that too very seriously as a complaint. This is the eighth film in Pixar Animation Studio’s “SparkShorts” program, where the company gives some money and animation resources to new artists who have a good pitch for stories a little outside the studio’s norm; in this case, a modest, not-entirely-coherent metaphor for young adulthood, in particular staking a claim to one’s own living space for the first time. Our protagonist for the breezy six minutes of the short is a bunny who has a perfect idea for how to trick out her new burrow (a jacuzzi/discotheque seems to be crucial to the plan), but every time she starts to dig, she ends up getting mixed up with some of the other underground animals who’ve dug their homes in the same hillside. Eventually, she freaks out at the lack of space and only belatedly realises that these other critters aren’t the problem, they’re a community.
The more time you spend trying to figure out exactly what the metaphor is doing, the more laborious it all feels. So don’t spend too much time on the metaphor. Really, it works perfectly fine as a deliriously pleasant, sweet little comic cartoon that’s working in a purely 2-D aesthetic that Pixar has barely ever touched (there is, if I counted correctly, exactly one shot that uses depth in any way whatsoever). The animals are all big, simple line drawings, unbelievably appealing cartoon figures with massive, expressive faces that display straightforward emotions in a fun way; they move with the bounce of proper cartoon animals, not the elegant fluidity of Pixar’s more familiar 3-D figures. They’re adorable – that’s the only word for it, other than “cute”, which I already used. I am accustomed to wanting more emotional punch from this studios’s works, both shorts and features, but sort of the whole point of the SparksShorts are that we’re going to get something else, and this is at least very charming.
If Anything Happens I Love You (Will McCormack & Michael Govier, USA)
Half of the official plot synopses online give away the twist, but I’ll be oblique, anyways. And I will then say, regarding that twist, “hm, I don’t know how I feel about that”. The movie makes a big, greedy grab at some almost indescribably deep and horrible emotions, and I really don’t think it earns that grab across its otherwise very solid 12 minutes, not least because it has already been playing about with other deep and horrible emotions, and somehow combining them all into one single narrative body ends up cheapening things on both sides.
Still, when it’s working, it’s working extremely damn well to create a desperately sad little domestic drama about a married couple so utterly gutted by the loss of their daughter that they have basically lost all the will to live, their entire emotional lives manifesting in the form of jagged dark silhouettes that having raging pantomime fights while the two of them simply sit and stare vacantly. Eventually, the memory? ghost? of their daughter, a much smaller silhouette, starts to curl around them, guiding them back towards some kind of living.
This is all captured in some marvelously spare digital animation, evoking (mostly successfully) carefully shaded pencil sketches of the characters moving around great empty fields of white nothingness. It’s the beautiful kind of austerity, where every texture seems more important because of how few of them are, and while the smoothness of the animation software distracts from the emotional rawness imparted by the scrawled images and monochrome at times, the general feeling of the film gets through loud and clear. All that negative space, in particular, is terrific at creating the feeling of painful loneliness that’s only filled by screaming fights and unfocused anger.
So no question, it’s not a film to watch because you’re in the mood for a cartoon. And I think it is most unquestionably manipulative for all of its 12 minutes: sometimes it is effectively manipulative, sometimes it is gross and crude in its manipulations. But, hey, it’s a tear-jerker. Can’t blame it for trying to do its job.
Yes-People AKA Já-Fólkið (Gísli Darri Halldórsson¸ Iceland)
From time to time – given my avocation, it happily does not happen very often – one comes across a movie so profoundly empty that it’s kind of tough to come up with even a single thing to say about it. But here I am, and my pledge to you is that I will muscle through writing a couple of paragraphs about Yes-People anyway.
The film stands out among the nominees for the wrong reason: it is the only one of the five films made with fully-rendered three-dimensional CGI, the mode that has largely become synonymous with “feature animation” in the U.S. This isn’t in and of itself bad, except that Yes-People isn’t very good CGI, and I have said many times and will say it many more that while you can get away with bad animation in almost any other medium by claiming “stylisation!”, that’s just not an option here. If it looks shiny and badly textured (though covered with a light mist of fake film grain), and feels too evenly-illuminated, it just looks like a cheap student film, full stop.
That’s me having a bug up my ass, of course. The bigger problem with Yes-People is that it has simply no story worth talking about. Six people live across three apartments in the same building, and they go through a tedious day, each of them silently grinding through their lives in their own different ways. The only word any of them ever say is “Yes” (or “Já”, rather), and this is inflected in different ways to make it clear what they’re talking about. At the end of eight minutes of this, have we learned anything about life, or the anomie of apartment dwelling, or social isolation, or Iceland, or the awkwardness of old people next door having loud sex, or whatever. And the roly-poly cartoon goofiness of the character design jars with the light morbidity of the humor in ways that I don’t think are at all productive.