If you’ve been following the Oscar-nominated animated shorts for the past few years, it will come as no surprise that this year’s crop of candidates includes some cute hand-drawn critters, edgy stop-motion entries from across the pond, and stories with enough pathos to tug at the hearts of old and young Academy members alike. What will surprise you this year is how emotionally moving the 2020 crop is. Don’t be surprised if you shed tears as you watch all five entries. Plus, each is brimming with a consciousness regarding the times we live in, keenly aware of the statements about our society that they’re making.
Additionally, this may be the most adult-skewed selection of any animated entries in Oscar shorts history. How so? Consider the topics at play in the final five: dogfighting, hair loss due to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, a dying parent, and abortion. Cartoons have never merely been kid’s stuff, but this group is emphatically far from it.
The groundbreaking Pixar Studios has been fielding an entry almost every year in this category, and once again, they deliver a superb competitor. Eschewing the shiny, computer-generated style that characterizes their feature work, the nine-minute Kitbull has a hand-drawn, 2D-cel animation look to it. Its story concerns a scrappy, feral cat living in a junked box whose world is threatened with the arrival of a pit bull. At first, it seems like it’s going to be a turf war between the black cat with ginormous eyes and the pit bull four times its size. Soon into the narrative, however, it’s revealed that the dog is less pet and more pugilist. His owner is using him in dog fights, and one night he’s thrown out of the house, beaten, bleeding and exhausted from a battle he clearly lost.
This changes the dynamic as the cat now feels sorry for its yard mate. The kitty starts to bond with the dog via playing with a bottle cap and they become friends. But the longevity of the cat’s playmate comes into question considering his vocation. Kitbull is a poignant story, albeit one that director Rosana Sullivan never overplays. The pathos is never laid on too thick, nor are the animals reduced to Tom and Jerry-style caricatures. Instead, Sullivan plays up the natural characteristics of the beasts and their interplay. The short is clever and affecting, one deftly told without an ounce of excess in length or dramatics.
In many ways, the strongest of this year’s lot is this 12-minute one directed by French animators Bruno Collet and Jean-Francois Le Corre. Memorable concerns an aging couple with the husband is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
His wife is also his caretaker and she’s tough, yet compassionate, in managing his fading mind. And because he’s an artist, no matter how compromised his POV is, what he sees is done through his painterly eye. Even as his unreliable mind plays tricks on him, there’s an artistry in everything he envisions.
The colors of her portrait show up on his wife’s body as the artist discusses his day with her. A cellphone starts to melt before his eyes like running acrylics. Late in the short, as his brain is short-circuiting, his wife’s appearance becomes little more than a virtual outline, as if she’s invisible, albeit with splotches of color. Such images are both chilling and lovely, as is the entire film itself. Its stop-motion style gives it an appropriately old school feel too, matching the nostalgic aesthetics of this exceedingly memorable tale.
Like Memorable, this 15-minute Czech production employs character-design that has a distinctively odd look to it. The characters in director Daria Kascheeva’s Daughter have a smudgy, crusty, paper mâché quality and they’re almost beautiful in their homeliness. The cinematography is shot with lots of shadows and a gray color palette too, giving the film an all the more dour feeling. That’s especially appropriate though given that its storyline concerns a daughter standing vigil over her father’s death bed in a cold hospital. As she waits for him to die, her mind is plagued by painful memories with him.
Flashbacks reveal a tempestuous relationship. When she was a child, her dad dismissed her desire to save an injured bird. Another memory reveals his refusal to buy her a mask during a local festival. And when she sulks about it on the train ride home, he abandons her at the station. During such moments, Kascheeva’s use of sound design and blunt edits tend to come off a bit too heavy-handed. Much better are the subtle eye movements she instills in her character’s expressions as they stare at each other, unsure of what to say. It’s the darkest of this year’s animated shorts, creating a bleak world that may make the viewers as uncomfortable as the characters are with each other in the story.
Another family member is front and center in Siqi Song’s Sister. The eight-minute short chronicles a young boy’s memory of his sibling from her birth through her days as a toddler. His tempestuous relationship with her started right from her time in the crib. She cried a lot and had a penchant for grabbing his toys and putting them in her mouth. Still, as he grows up with her, he learns to love her.
It’s all told with just the right amount of wry wariness by the Japanese narrator. (The film has English subtitles, as does Memorable.) And even though the siblings continue to fight over remote controls and other family issues, their bond is admirably affectionate.
Then the film turns from humorous to searing with a rug pull of a revelation that changes the context of everything that’s gone before. The twist is a strong political statement too, one that would seem more at home in the live-action category. What helps it from becoming too strident is Song’s way of shooting her story. Her framing is funny, as are her whimsical-looking, fuzzy characters. Such attributes soften her blunter edges. No matter though, its politics may render this one as the most talked-about short this season as patrons leave the theater.
The shortest of this year’s list is a mere seven minutes, and it’s easily the most accessible too. Hair Love, directed by Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver, follows an African-American father trying to help his young daughter style her hair into a hot trend the little girl found online. He’s clearly out of his depths, as is she, but together they work to achieve her special ‘do.
Cherry and Toliver mix both the realistic and the fantastical in their telling. The characters are not caricature-types, but rather, recognizable human beings that would be at home in a live-action setting. Still, the hair becomes a monstrous beast batting at the two combatants in a fantasy sequence. Additionally, the family cat is one of those droll kitties in the mode of the Pink Panther, coolly commenting on all the steps of the haircare process with his expressive facial features. The realism prevails ultimately though as the reason for such labor is revealed to be a special hospital visit. Those scenes won’t leave a dry eye in the house.
Any of the shorts could win this year, but Hair Love probably stands the best shot due to it being the sunniest of the bunch, despite the hospital. No matter though, the Academy has done well in choosing its entries for 2020. The bench is deep too as the showcase features the five runners-up as well. In the second-tier of contenders, The Bird and the Whale stands out the most and could have easily made the top five.
Year in and year out, the Oscar voters get criticized for failing to nominate worthy candidates in a multitude of categories, but the animated shorts aren’t one of them. For many seasons now, the Academy has picked remarkable shorts as their nominees, proving that the animators’ branch may very well be the sharpest of the lot. The selections this year are more than proof of that, they stand as some of the best films of the year too.