If you still believe that the cartoon world is one filled with childish glee and escapism, wait till you check out this year’s crop of Oscar animated short films. They are all wonderfully done, with exceptional artistry and compelling storytelling, but make no mistake – these five are a serious lot. Even the funniest one is about a self-sabotaging gaggle of psychiatric patients, albeit troubled individuals from the animal kingdom. The rewards are many in these five finalists for Academy gold; just don’t expect anything resembling the zany kids’ fare you’re likely to find on places like Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon.
ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR (Canada)
The funniest of the lot is this short taking place during a group therapy session. (It’s also my personal favorite.) ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR is directed by the Canadian Oscar-winning duo of Alison Snowden and David Fine. They won the animated short Oscar in 1993 for BOB’S BIRTHDAY, and they very well could take the top prize this year too. Their 2019 effort not only is superbly done, but it stands out as the only genuinely hilarious one amongst the finalists. Taking place in a doctor’s office during a group psychotherapy session, ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR spoofs both head-shrinking and the animal kingdom.
Dr. Leonard Clement (voiced by Ryan Beil) is a seemingly cool and collected therapist in the Bob Newhart mold, but his patience will be tested by his patients who are anything but ready to calmly share their peccadilloes with the pack. He may have written a book entitled “How to Tame Your Inner Pit Bull,” as evidenced by the poster of it on his wall, but he won’t be able to keep his manic group down for long. The jittery bunch consists of Lorraine the leech (Leah Juel), Todd the pig (Toby Berner), Cheryl the mantis (Andrea Libman), Jeffrey the bird (James Kirk), Victor the ape (Taz VanRassel), and Linda the cat (writer/director Snowden pulling triple duty as a voice-over talent).
These critters are one extremely insecure lot, especially Victor, the newcomer to the group. He’s exactly the rough and tumble macho dork you’d fully expect a big ape blundering into a therapy session for the first time to be. Victor is so painfully unaware of his size and brusque attitude that at one point, he blithely sits on Lorraine’s chair…with the little leech still in it. The rest of the animals play up their classic traits as well, and while such tropes may play as a bit cliché, it remains hysterical in how the animators mine the funny. Watching the self-absorbed feline Linda licker her butt because she never feels clean is an especially hilarious moment.
What makes all of this fantastic is the way the animal instincts are interpreted through human frailty. Mantis Cheryl is a single mother who frets that no one will want to date her because she has 1000 children. The good doctor attempts to establish empathy with his patients by sharing his story of being addiction to sniffing other dogs’ butts, and as he confesses, he sounds like every recovering addict you’ve ever heard blather on to Dr. Phil. Just as delicious are the small details that go on in the background by characters who aren’t speaking in the foreground. Their reactions to others are so rich, they require seeing this one a second time. Not a bad idea, actually, given that this film is only 14 minutes long.
BAO (United States)
If you saw Disney/Pixar’s INCREDIBLES 2, then you saw the short that preceded it entitled BAO. (The fact that so many people saw this one makes it the odds-on favorite as all Academy members vote on the final ballot and the more eyeballs the better for any nominee.) The story concerns a Chinese mom who suffers from “empty nest syndrome” but gets a new chance at motherhood when one of the dumplings she’s making magically comes to life. The food stuff anthropomorphically begins to exhibit human traits, specifically those of a lively, fun-loving boy and soon, “he” becomes Mom’s constant companion.
She takes it to the market and the park. She feeds it, dotes on it…as if it were an actual child. Soon though, the dumpling starts growing up, and soon demonstrates independence that starts the whole empty nesting cycle all over again. Director Domee Shi’s tale is a loving and bittersweet essay about parenthood, shot with a similar intimacy and pathos as one would find in UP or WALL-E. What makes this one special as well is the fact that the main character is a Chinese woman, something all too rare on any screen, let alone in the world of animation.
WEEKENDS (United States)
The 16-minute animated short WEEKENDS, done by filmmaker Trevor Jimenez, is another story that focuses on the relationship between parent and child. Only this one concerns divorced parents and how they interact with their young son after their marriage ends. The pain that the child feels as he’s shuffled off to his father for weekends is predictably painful. So is the gulf between the two ex’s as the animation shows them barely able to stand within 20-feet of each other. (A ginormous tree-bush in the front yard symbolizes that huge void between them.) Dad tries to bond with the boy with a substitute “mom” when his new girlfriend joins in the mix, but it further alienates the boy who realizes he’s not his father’s top priority.
The harshest part of the drama comes when the boy returns to his mother. She has a penchant for abusive men and her son’s reaction to her male suitors is as sour as the unattractive men. The boy envisions them as deformed monsters, prone to stumpy heads that birthday candles and other props grow out of. The hand-drawn animation here sly mocks these bad men, but never goes too far in caricaturing their viciousness. This is a 2D cartoon that is as cold and stark a work as many a European arthouse film, all showcased with austere images and an almost wordless soundtrack. It’s a haunting tale, as stories of divorce so often are.
LATE AFTERNOON (Ireland)
In this melancholy 10-minute work, written and directed by Louise Bagnall, an elderly woman named Emily suffers from Alzheimer’s and spends her life drifting in and out of reality. As she loses her grip, various moments in her modern existence trigger cherished memories she holds onto from her past. In her mind she relives them and it adds some loveliness to her lonely life in her home. The hand-drawn animation brilliantly showcases Emily’s seamless movement between the two worlds with one image blending into another.
And while Emily doesn’t say a great deal in the short, her voice characterization is notable for two reasons. First, because Bagnall delivers the voice of the young Emily, and two, because the older Emily is voiced by the estimable Fionnula Flanagan. She is one of those great actresses who never quite had the superstar career she should have, despite working constantly over the last five decades. Her extraordinary talent graced everything from ABC-TV’s RICH MAN, POOR MAN in 1976 for which she won an Emmy, to her star turn in 1985’s JAMES JOYCE’S WOMEN. Now, at 77, Flanagan lends her lilting Irish voice to the few but crucial lines here, and it makes the piece all the more moving.
ONE SMALL STEP (Chinese-American)
The sleeper among them, and the one that could easily steal the Oscar from the more obvious contenders, is the delightful tale of a young Chinese girl named Luna who’s obsessed with being an astronaut. Her widowed father tries to ensure that her dream comes true but it’s not easy for the stoic man. He can’t quite grasp her love of pretend but manages to do his best to adorn her room with star mobiles and play “rocket ship” with her. He looks genuinely out of sorts donning a space helmet made from an old cardboard box, but the loving dad tries. And as she grows older, the moods of a pre-teen become completely lost on him. Still, he perseveres.
The eight-minute short covers a lot of ground in the chronicling of both their lives, and as directed by co-directors Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas, it manages to be both adorable and heartbreaking. They wrote the script too, along with screenwriter Shaofu Zhang, and their story deftly juxtaposes big laughs against big goose bumps against big tears.
The artistry on display in these animated shorts, and in most years, is truly special. This year’s crop utilizes all kinds of animation techniques that paint pictures that speak volumes. These are major, sophisticated accomplishments, and hardly “kid stuff.”
(The animated shorts, and the live action shorts debut in theaters this Friday, February 8.)