'Oscar Nominated Short Films 2017: Animation': Film Review
An epic 'toon memoir caps a program of animated cuties and curiosities.
This year's theatrical program of animated shorts breaks up the action with a big onscreen disclaimer midway through: Though five films are nominated, one is naughty enough that programmers have moved it to the end of the show, slotting three non-animated shorts ahead of it so parents will get their money's worth if they take their kids home before the adult stuff begins.
Setting aside what that says about the scarcity of really provocative stuff on the Academy's radar, animation-wise (this is the same group who hasn't yet given Don Hertzfeldt an award), this year's lineup is a likeable enough group, in which the expected contenders (why hello there, Pixar) sit alongside unknowns whose styles are just varied enough to avoid monotony.
Of the non-nominees rounding this package to feature length, the standouts are the silly but good-looking sci-fi Asteria, in which the universe's first interplanetary war is interrupted by the hobbies of a hitherto-unknown alien species; and Once Upon a Line, a dialogue-free film using stylishly pared-back pen-and-ink style illustrations to watch a conformist's life being upended by romance. The latter film, by Alicja Jasina, was shortlisted for the noms and really should have made the final cut.
It's impossible to resent the inclusion of a film like Pixar's Piper, directed by Alan Barillaro, which pairs photorealistic settings and adorable character design to depict a newborn bird's attempts to fend for himself as the grownups find food on a waveswept beach. Shown this summer before screenings of Finding Dory, it merits rewatching much more than that moving but very familiar sequel.
Among the other bite-size shorts are Borrowed Time, an Old West-set exercise in mood whose plot doesn't quite satisfy; Pearl, Patrick Osborne's sentimental observation of a father/daughter relationship from the point of view of the family car (and the music played in it); and Blind Vaysha, an odd folk tale in which a girl's life with cursed eyesight — one eye sees visions of the past, while the other peers into the future — is envisioned in the style of German expressionist woodcuts.
Then there's Pear Cider and Cigarettes, the aforementioned naughty film, which at 35 minutes is also four times the length of any other nominee. Apparently drawn directly from writer/director Robert Valley's life, it tells of his friendship with a hard-living character named Techno, who winds up stuck in a Chinese hospital awaiting a liver transplant. Covering decades of up-and-down friendship in a hard-boiled but persuasive style, the pic pairs gravelly voiceover with luridly colored frames recalling some indie comic books. Though very tied to the specifics of Valley's larger-than-life subject, the bittersweet featurette depicts a sort of character many older viewers will recognize: the kid who could be in charge and out of control simultaneously, who did what others feared until life caught up with him. If the Academy has ever nominated something like this, it has been a long time. An alcoholic metalhead may not stand a chance against a fluffy, slapstick-prone sandpiper, but even a nomination would surely astonish Techno and his friends.