This year’s Academy Awards shorts programs have been released on limited platforms, and these categories reflect an accomplished set of work from a cross-section of styles, nationalities, and subject matters as diverse as the Academy itself as an organization increasingly aspires to be.
The animated short nominees tend to represent the most varied nominees per year in terms of aesthetics, at least, more than any other Oscar category — this year’s slate is another good year of that cross-section of talent that includes the corporate giants (Disney and Netflix being represented this year) as well as scrappy underdogs they come across (an early example being Aardman Studios, makers of the Wallace & Gromit series and current Animated Feature nominee A Shaun the Sheep the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon).
Here are the nominees, in alphabetical order:
Burrow, the Pixar animated short currently available on Disney+ directed by Madeline Sharafian, is a cute and watchable 6-minute children’s book-like tale of a rabbit who burrows a maze around her friends and neighbors to avoid asking for their help in setting up her new living space. While one can certainly relate to the premise of the film and can’t deny the technical skill in the production (as always from the Pixar team), compared to the other nominees it is undoubtedly quaint by comparison.
Burrow is in the classic vein of Pixar shorts that are widely seen by being featured in previews of high-profile wide releases, as Burrow would have been to the Animated Feature Oscar-frontrunner Soul, about cute animals that lose to slightly more aesthetically complicated animated works with deeper themes (with the exception of exceptional work like Paperman). This time, that loss of exposure makes it more of an underdog than it otherwise would’ve been.
Genius Loci, more than any other nominee in this category, seems to represent the part of this branch which prefers a more impressionistic and abstract genre of animated storytelling. The film follows a young girl in a French immigrant household, who steps outside of herself represented through a combination of styles from watercolor to ink paint to illustrate a poetic dreamlike journey through her psyche at that moment. If you’re willing to follow along, its exploration of identity and mental health can be beautifully enriching to the soul.
Director Adrien Merigeau won a special deal with FX Networks to develop an animated program with them, which promises we get to see even more from this promising filmmaker. Even if this over 16-minute film, easily the longest — and most demanding — of the nominees can’t win at the end of the day, the exposure this film can receive from this recognition is emblematic of how important these short film categories can be in cultivating talent that can enrich the film culture.
If Anything Happens I Love You, by directors Will McCormack and Michael Govier, seems to have filled the void of the highest-profile nominee in this category with the help of distribution by Netflix and the lack of theatrical exposure of its closest Disney competitor. The film explores, at times quite starkly, the emotional trauma and pain that reverberates through families of victims of gun violence long after the news vans drive away.
It seems dramatically heavier than typical winners in this category, and some viewers may think the film gets a touch too heavy-handed in recounting the event of the central couple’s daughter’s violent end. But as the renewed relevance in the news of the topic during voting peaks, and with the exposure and promotional power of Netflix, it’s hard to bet against this winning out at the end of the day.
Opera is an audaciously ambitious breakthrough from director Erick Oh, who previously worked on the spinoff of a previous nominee called Pig: The Dam Keeper Poems. Opera portrays a hierarchical structure of humanity ordered by class, like Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer in an Aztec temple as told by Hieronymus Bosch (among other ostentatious painters) as a never-ending Sisyphus-like struggle.
It’s no wonder a work this ambitious, accomplished, and complex would make the lineup among mostly other animators and short filmmakers most eager to devote time to vote in this lineup. But for most who will only view the film once, and perhaps begrudgingly, it’ll likely be too overwhelming for the average voter or viewer to take everything in all at once. Regardless, Erick Oh is clearly a rising talent.
Yes-People is another international entry by Icelandic filmmaker Gísli Darri Halldórsson. The film follows the rhythm of a community’s mundane existence as they ultimately connect together by the (actual) climax from a couple who happens to be among every other character’s neighbors. It has a quirky Scandinavian sense of dry humor, not unlike a Roy Andersson film drawn like a Far Side comic.
This nomination may represent a specific segment of this branch’s sense of humor, which I happen to appreciate. But it is, clearly, a specific segment, and just highlights part of what I love about this branch’s creative ability to give the talents behind a film like this some recognition in an always crowded field of long-listers.
The rest of the program grouped together included other shortlisted options such as Kapaemahu, a gorgeous Oceanic fantasy, The Snail and the Whale, a handsomely-mounted (if quite long) UK storybook translation voiced by British talent headed by the beloved Sally Hawkins, and To: Gerard, a perfectly cute if predictable tale of an older mailman but aspiring magician who passes on the inspiration he felt as a child to another child who catches his infectious love of magic.
One missing long-listed option includes Out, on Disney+, which features a gay man’s parents who surprise him as he moves in with a partner they don’t know about just as he switches places with his dog. It’s silly, touching, and it was predicted to make it in at least for the social value of a Disney short recognizing a gay narrative (in spite of how silly the premise might have been).
Some grumps would argue that the Academy rid themselves of the short categories altogether, but there’s a reason voters insist on keeping these categories standing. They can be an irreplaceable repository of future talent to be bred and encouraged, in spite of the complaints of some audiences who find the categories extemporaneous through a long telecast. But much more than encouragement, they deserve to be seen, and this lineup is a fine example of the riches you can dive into in the world of short filmmaking as highlighted by the Academy.