Ah, the Animated Shorts category at the Oscars. It's that category where you recognize one of the nominees as that little bit that opened the latest Pixar movie, but the award comes and goes from the ceremony with little fanfare. Yet there's always interesting fare among the rest of the nominees—they are nominees, after all—so let's take a look at this year's competition.
Dear Basketball (dir. Glen Keane and Kobe Bryant)
If it weren't for Disney's overbearing presence, I'd probably tag Dear Basketball as a sure winner based purely on name recognition. This short is a love letter from basketball player Kobe Bryant to the sport he loves, providing voiceover to images of a young Kobe fantasizing and eventually realizing his destiny as one of the greats. It's a sentimental narrative, scored by John Williams of all people, and the sketchy, sometimes childlike art style of the animation is charming as all get out. I'll admit that I'm not the target audience for this one, but it's not hard to imagine young athletes tearing up a little bit.
Garden Party (dir. Victor Caire and Gabriel Grapperon)
This is probably my personal favorite of the shorts, as it's an exercise in perspective that exhibits the talents of the animators without overstaying its welcome. Shot from the eye level of various frogs and toads, the gorgeous CGI landscape at first appears to be some sort of abandoned ruin, populated with statues in disrepair and scummy water. However, as the perspective pans out, there appears to be something more going on in a palatial property where a tragedy has occurred. Full of endearing animal slapstick that works surprisingly well in contrast to the darker revelations that gradually come into focus, Garden Party is a fun time that shouldn't be overlooked.
Lou (dir. Dave Mullins and Dana Murray)
Here's that likely inevitable winning Pixar short I mentioned earlier, the accompanying piece to Cars 3 this summer. And you know what? There's a reason that Pixar is such a force to be contended with when it comes to animation, even if the amount of resources at their disposal puts them at a somewhat unfair advantage. Lou is the story of an anthropomorphized Lost and Found box teaching a playground bully to share and redeem himself in the eyes of kids he's terrorized, so the requisite saccharine sweetness of a Pixar production is here in spades. What makes Lou stand out from an animation standpoint is that Lou himself is a composite creature molded from the items left in the Lost and Found box, formed of disparate pieces like a sweatshirt, baseballs, and a sock. Watching these independent items move in concert as a singular entity is a legitimate joy, and it shows just how good Pixar is at their craft.
Negative Space (dir. Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata)
I get the nagging feeling I should like Negative Space more than I do. It's stop-motion animated, so that's an immediate plus-factor, and it is about a man's reminiscences of his limited yet fond relationship with his father, something that speaks to me on a personal level. But I don't know folks; this feels more like a proof of concept than a fully realized short. The twist ending of the piece is a gut punch, but it feels like it should be the start of a deeper exploration rather than a blunt ending. Instead we're treated to an animated essay on how a boy and his father bonded over packing suitcases together, which just feels visually underwhelming in comparison to some of the other shorts in this category.
Revolting Rhymes (dir. Jan Lachauer and Jakob Schuh)
Whereas the other films in this category are all about five minutes in length, Revolting Rhymes clocks in with two half hour segments which means that it is the most narratively expansive of the films but also probably better qualified as a television special, particularly with its focus on fairy tale narratives for a young audience. Based on a book of the same name by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, Revolting Rhymes tells a differing interpretation of the stories of Red Riding Hood and Snow White, intertwining them into a singular narrative that pulls in elements of The Three Little Pigs and other fairy tales. What makes the film endearing is the fidelity to Roald Dahl's cynically dark style. We've all been Shrek'd to death with fairy tale remixes and reinterpretation, but there's an edge to Revolting Rhymes that feels honest and doesn't condescend to the youth audience it targets. Call this one a dark horse in the race, but one I certainly wouldn't mind winning.
Be sure to watch out for more The Short Of It articles, as we cover the fictional Live Action shorts and the Documentary shorts nominated for this year's Academy Awards.