Tuesday, June 4, 2019

We Like Short Shorts (The Academy’s Nominees for Best Animated Short)

Long airline flights can introduce you to the unexpected. Flying to New York City last month, I discovered via  my seatback videoscreen the five Oscar-nominated short animated films of 2018. Animated shorts—those that are not attached to a Pixar blockbuster—are generally overlooked by the moviegoing public. That’s a shame, because the best of them are clever and artful, doing a lot with a little. While cruising at 30,000 feet, and waiting for the snack mix to arrive,  I discovered what I had been missing at my local cineplex.

Here are a few things I learned from the class of 2018: Despite the advent of computer-generated animation, hand-drawn cartooning is not dead. Canada is the home of some very creative animators. Asian motifs and connections often prevail. The relationship between parent and child is a popular subject for animated shorts, as is the whole notion of the passage of time. And though several of these films are voiced by actors, a cartoon can convey a good deal without saying a word.

In alphabetical order, the first film up is Canada’s “Animal Behaviour,” a deliriously wacky hand-drawn saga set in a therapy session. The shrink is a dog, and the patients are all members of the animal kingdom, like a pig with an eating disorder and a praying mantis who understandably has relationship issues. Things move along predictably until a gorilla lumbers in, at which point chaos erupts.

Next comes “Bao,” a Chinese-Canadian entry with Pixar connections. Silently showing an amiable little woman who (yes, really!) adopts one of her homemade dumplings as a baby, then watches it evolve into the teen years and young manhood, this film has much to say about the joys and heartbreak of being a mom.. I saw “Bao” as a prelude to Disney and Pixar’s Incredibles 2. For me this eight-minute masterpiece was far better and certainly far more touching than the highly-touted feature film. Though I doubt Pixar’s target kid-audience would grasp the point, their parents certainly should . No wonder “Bao” took home the statuette on Oscar night.

Probably my least favorite of the films was “Late Afternoon,” a lovely-to-look-at story of an elderly lady moving back and forth through her memories as she’s served cookies and tea. Predictable? I should say so. Lugubrious? That too.

Almost as touching  as “Bao” is “One Small Step,” about a Chinese American girl who yearns to become an astronaut and walk on the moon. Helping her along her path is her father, a humble shoemaker, who keeps her appropriately shod as she grows, matures, and moves toward the faraway surface of her dreams. The use of shoes as a motif works beautifully in giving new meaning to Neil Armstrong’s famous words. At the ending, you may shed a tear or two. I did, anyway.

Finally, there’s another poignant and aesthetically challenging Canadian film, “Weekends,” about a young Toronto boy shuttling between the very different homes of his divorced mom and dad.  This film draws on the boy’s perspective, at times showing the parents’ new love interests in a  grotesquely surrealistic light. Once again the animation is hand-drawn; once again no words are spoken out loud, so that we’re forced to supply our own subtext for the story. But “Weekends” is by no means  completely silent (as I first thought because my headset plug had detached from its socket.) The film is scored to the evocative strains of Gymnopédies, No. 1 by Erik Satie. At fifteen minutes in length, “Weekends” eventually outwears its welcome, but its artistry still lingered as I moved through the clouds.

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