'Oscar Nominated Shorts 2020: Animation': Film Review

Sony Pictures Animation
Even the most conventional-looking entries here have charms.

Endearing films about difficult subjects predominate in the Academy's animation-short nominees.

Despite including a predictably high percentage of studio product (two out of five), this year's batch of films competing for the animated short Oscar are more adventurous than usual in terms of technique and style, appearing to employ yarn, clay and papier-mache in addition to the usual pixels and ink. As a theatrical program, it may test the patience of young viewers, but is a breezy treat for grown-up animation buffs.

Those two studio shorts, coincidentally or not, have a similar look, with bright-colored images that could easily have been yanked from a popular kids' picture book. Rosana Sullivan's Kitbull is the more familiar of the two — the most lightweight of the bunch, however cute it is. A giant-eyed street cat, who makes her home in an abandoned lot, sees her territory threatened by the arrival of a new pit bull. But the dog is much less menacing than most of its breed — and upon seeing it abused by its owner, the mouse-sized feline helps the pair escape.

Sony Pictures Animation and Matthew A. Cherry's Hair Love is just as sweetly wholesome, but few viewers will guess where it's going. At first it seems a purely physical gag: An adorable girl and her out-of-his-depth dad struggle to make her unruly hair — about as big as the rest of her body — conform to one of the combed-and-braided styles she's found instructions for online. Given Dad's own complicated 'do, you'd think he knows where to get some help; but family bonding's the obvious point here, and things work out quite nicely.

Daria Kashcheeva's Daughter (Dcera) takes a much sadder view of father-daughter relationships, but is too artistically fascinating to be a downer. A standout in Ron Diamond's recent Animation Show of Shows anthology, it's also arguably the most technically impressive short here. Kashcheeva's delicate-looking puppets move through scenes whose complicated photography recalls the work of the Brothers Quay: The camera moves continuously as the figures do, the focal plane shifts to excellent effect, and hand-painted faces bring chunky dolls to (sad, resentful) life.

The puppets in Bruno Collet's Memorable are even more densely textured, though the way they move might make you guess they exist entirely in the digital world. Not so: It's a combination of new and old tech that animates the main character, a painter suffering from dementia, and the loved ones who help keep his daily life on track. The old man's artistic education colors his reading of the world: his therapist looks slightly like a Giacometti sculpture; dinner guests have warped, Francis Bacon faces; he himself cycles through a couple of Van Gogh self-portraits. Poignantly, the person he has the hardest time seeing is the wife who never leaves his side.

Poignant in ways that shouldn't be explained here, Siqi Song's Sister also uses unique physical puppets, this time made of wool. Almost entirely monochrome, with rare pink accents for the title character, it's a Chinese boy's memoir about a new addition to his family — a troublemaker who inspires love despite the havoc she wreaks on his life, rendered with fantastical exaggeration. A topical element may draw attention, but the short is well worth watching for its visual design alone.

Distributor: ShortsTV
Directors: Rosana Sullivan, Matthew A. Cherry, Daria Kashcheeva, Bruno Collet, Siqi Song

Jan. 31, 3:25 p.m. A previous version of this story misstated which studio was behind Hair Love. THR regrets the error.