'Oscar Nominated Shorts 2019: Animation': Film Review

One Small Step Still - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Taiko Studios
The Academy plays it safe with family themes and bittersweet farewells.

From unknown artists to the ever-present Disney, Oscar's latest nominees for Animated Short.

A safer collection of films than some of the (already pretty predictable) groups seen in recent years, the 2019 nominees for Best Animated Short display plenty of talent but (with one exception) tell very similar stories of familial love and time-passing melancholy.

The show starts, inevitably, with Disney/Pixar, whose Bao (written and directed by Domee Shi) was paired theatrically with last year's Incredibles 2. However jarring its fairy-tale imagery of cannibalism may be (a woman imagines a dumpling she has made becomes a living son, and she swallows him whole when he tries to leave her), this is a familiar narrative, whose critique of parental possessiveness and overprotection is more cloying than most Pixar productions are allowed to be.

Another parent/child tale, Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas' One Small Step, also indulges in sentiment (and, incidentally, also revolves around Asian-American families), but is much less squishy about it. The duo's gorgeous, clean-line drawing style and color work suit both scenes of childhood fantasy and young-adult achievement. Letting this "small step" into space be for a woman instead of a man is just timely icing on the cake.

Stepis one of the nominees that will already be familiar to fans of curator Ron Diamond's annual Animation Show of Shows. Another is Trevor Jimenez's melancholy Weekends, a tale of childhood spent bouncing between two recently divorced parents. The handmade flavor of the visuals suits material one presumes is drawn from personal experience, with highly specific details (like dad's collection of samurai art and mom's plans for a new career) balanced against a dialogue-free format that ensures universal accessibility.

This being the cartoon world, animals are more likely to speak than human beings. (Three of the five nominees have no dialogue.) In Alison Snowden and David Fine's Animal Behaviour, we start with a fairly ordinary gag — replacing the patients in a shrink's group-therapy session with animals — that recalls Aardman's Creature Comforts by way of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. But after the filmmakers work through some low-hanging comedic fruit (butt-sniffing and -licking; the amorous woes of a praying mantis who can't stop eating her sex partners), the movie gets entertainingly chaotic. A big ape with no love for introspection finds himself ranting about supermarket express lines, then triggers some primal behavior that his therapist (a very housebroken dog) thought he had gotten past long ago.

Of the two non-nominated titles that round out this theatrical program, Zhanna Bekmambetova's Tweet Tweet combines visual delight with easy allegory in exactly the way the Academy loves. It could easily have replaced some of the nominees above, and stood a chance of winning. Of the actual nominees, though, the most deserving entry is Late Afternoon, an Irish film by Louise Bagnall. This gentle film watches as a young woman tends to an elderly one, making it a cousin of sorts to the live-action Oscar aspirant Marguerite; but while both films concern treasured memories and intergenerational empathy, Afternoon's story is sadly more universal, as its elder character suffers from dementia. Bagnall imaginatively enters the old woman's mind, transitioning to more stylized drawing and almost synaesthetic colors as we see the memories she's reliving; waves carry her backward and forward through time, sometimes happily and sometimes not. It's a half-hopeful depiction of a fate that awaits many of us — but one whose mix of warmth and tears lacks the button-pushing quality found in many animated shorts that have contended for Oscars over the years.

Distributor: ShortsTV
Directors: Domee Shi, Louise Bagnall, Alison Snowden & David Fine, Trevor Jimenez, Andrew Chesworth & Bobby Pontillas, Wenli Zhang & Nan Li, Zhanna Bekmambetova