Even before an unclothed male warrior sustains a gruesome injury to the perineum in Richard Williams’ “Prologue,” the final selection in this year’s program of Oscar-nominated shorts, it should be clear to viewers to this year’s nominee slate is hardly child’s play. Though proceedings begin with a sprightly, kid-targeted plea for cultural heterogeneity in Pixar’s “Sanjay’s Super Team,” a more melancholic current runs through its stylistically diverse competitors: Williams’ opaque effort hints at the post-traumatic hauntings of violence; politicized Chilean diorama “Bear Story” and droll Russian astronaut tale “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” offer very different windows on crippling loneliness; and Don Hertzfeldt’s exquisite “World of Tomorrow,” undoubtedly the class of its field, paints (or stick-figure-sketches, at least) a disquieting picture of dissociated human identity in the future that is mercifully lost on its preschooler protagonist. Alike in formal spryness if nothing else, the five form one of the category’s most sophisticated lineups in recent memory.
If this year’s excitingly off-piste picks in the feature-length animated category — with only one of the five nominees repping U.S. studio animation — indicate a voting branch evolving faster than many of its Academy counterparts in embracing international and independent filmmaking, these sweet-and-salty-teared short films send much the same message. The composition of both categories, meanwhile, is oddly comparable this year: Both feature a glossy Pixar family film, a characteristically cerebral work from an acrobatic U.S. auteur, and three enticing outliers from further afield, with Britain and South America represented in both races. Three of the nominated shorts (as opposed to one of the features) are skewed toward adult viewers, though smaller fry would certainly not be hurt by the humane wisdom on offer in two of those.
Comfortably the most widely exposed of the contenders thanks to its pairing in theaters with Pixar’s winter underperformer “The Good Dinosaur,” writer-director Sanjay Patel’s autobiographical “Sanjay’s Super Team” kicks off the program on in broadly accessible fashion. Still, it sounds a progressive note by the standards of its superpowered studio, which has hitherto shown limited curiosity regarding spirituality and real-world ethnic difference. Generational conflict, too, comes to the fore in this wordless vignette, played out in an ordinary American living room where westernized pre-teen Sanjay and his devout Hindu father quarrel over a minor issue that points to a larger fight for cultural dominance: Saturday morning cartoons or Saturday morning prayer? Subjected to the latter, the boy finds holy compromise in extravagant imaginings of his religion’s revered gods as kick-ass cartoon superheroes in their own right. It’s an efficient, sensitive life lesson, let down slightly by its fantasy centerpiece: Animated with verve in Pixar’s customary peach-skin-smooth style, it’s a little low on invention and humor in its deployment of Hindu iconography — about which uninformed viewers are unlikely to learn anything specific here.
If “Super Team” winds up a little too pat, that’s certainly not the word for “World of Tomorrow,” another child’s-eye journey into realms of suspended reality that positively assails the viewer with several features’ worth of unknotted ideas about time, space and ways we exist. If that suggests Hertzfeldt (here at least matching the philosophical reach of 2012’s hour-long “It’s Such a Beautiful Day”) has bitten off more than he can chew, it shouldn’t. This story of a young girl, Emily Prime, visited by her own third-generation clone from 227 years hence is intended to be overwhelming in its implications about the future — a future, according to the temperate-voiced replica, on the brink of an apocalypse that will at least rescue humanity from its own chilling, devalued imitation of life. Even at his most profound, Hertzfeldt never errs on the side of pomposity: The grandiose design of his universe is wittily undercut by the signature naivete of his drawing style, in turn elevated by the digitized iridescence of his shifting backdrops. Likewise, even his most despairing prognoses are cut through with his playful command of irony and human perception; the unaffected, non sequitur-strewn voice work of his four-year-old niece, Winona Mae, is the most endearing of the film’s myriad marvels.
At first glance, the feelings engendered by “Bear Story,” Pato Escala’s anthropomorphized tale of ursine woe, are markedly less complicated, instead making an effective beeline (or bearline?) for the tear-ducts. Not all auds (and certainly not teddy-toting juniors) will pick up the aching political allegory in this story-within-a-story of a Papa Bear, abducted from his home in Chile and recruited into a traveling circus, seeking a family reunion. Consider the ringmasters instead as the brutal Pinochet regime that destroyed so many lives and families during their 1970s reign of terror, however, and the pic’s thickly laid poignancy turns a shade more bitter than sweet. At either level, Escala’s two-tiered 3D craft is a wow: airbrushed naturalism for the bear’s framing narrative, and forged stop-motion (with a textural hint of steampunk Meccano) for the nickelodeon show he constructs from his tragic backstory.
By contrast, Konstantin Bronzit’s “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” won’t be winning any awards for technical ingenuity, though the clean hand-drawn lines and muted industrial color palette of its visuals — recalling the print cartoons of Gary Larson at points — fit comfortably with the reserve of its storytelling, as dry comedy gives way to unspoken heartbreak. Hinting at goofier inclinations as it lays out the devoted relationship between two lifelong friends turned star cosmonauts in the Russian space program, the film takes a sadder, stranger turn after liftoff — though the emotional upshot of it all may depend on how individual viewers choose to read the friendship in question. Bronzit’s spare, dialogue-free script offers only ambiguous gestural clues as to whether we’re watching a bromance or romance in peril; if the latter, its moving portrait of institutional indifference to psychic pain is all the more pointed, not least in light of Russia’s conservative stance on LGBT rights.
Following an on-screen parental advisory, “Prologue” closes out the program — a position determined by the film’s unsuitability for young viewers, given its full-frontal male nudity and bloody scenes of war. It’s certainly not for thematic reasons: As conveyed by the title, this pristinely executed 6-minute tease feels very much like the beginning of something still in the formative stages. Viewers may cogitate on the semiotic connection between its introductory images, as a whimsically hand-etched title card gives way to a textbook-style sketch of a bee-graced blossom, which in turn segues to the wide-eyed perspective of a young girl, terrified as she watches four Spartan and Athenian soldiers engage in gut-spilling combat. 82-year-old animation veteran Williams, a previous winner in this category who also picked up two Oscars for his groundbreaking work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” claims the film is indeed a prologue for a planned feature-length adaptation of Aristophanes’ anti-war comedy “Lysistrata.” At present, it seems principally a technical exercise, though the technique — intricately shaded pencil work, its papery frames fluidly flowing as if breeze-blown — is quite something.
Also included on the bill are four “highly commended” shorts (not all, it should be said, films that made the category’s pre-nomination shortlist) from the pile of official submissions. None makes an immediately compelling case for nomination over the final five, though “The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse,” a simple animal odd-couple fable from graduates of French arts academy ESMA, is the most visually lyrical. Bill Plympton’s Patton Oswalt-narrated “The Loneliest Stoplight” is minor whimsy by its maker’s standards, Cordell Barker’s “If I Was God” brings some mordant absurdity to a classroom daydream, and another ESMA effort, jaunty meerkat chase “Catch It,” is best viewed as a slick showreel for an “Ice Age”-style feature to come.
Sanjay’s Super Team
A Walt Disney Studios presentation of a Pixar Animation Studios production. Produced by Nicole Paradis Grindle. Executive producer, John Lasseter.
Directed, written by Sanjay Patel. (Color); editor, Kevin Rose-Williams; music, Mychael Danna; music supervisor, Tom MacDougall; production designer, Chris Sasaki; sound, Justin Pearson; re-recording mixer, Michael Semanick; visual effects supervisor, Bill Watral. Running time: 7 MIN.
Voices: Brenton Schraff, Sunny Singh Attar, Arun Rao, Jaquelynn Herrera.
World of Tomorrow
A Bitter Films production.
Directed, written by Don Hertzfeldt. Running time: 17 MIN.
Voices: Julia Pott, Winona Mae.
(Chile) A Punkrobot Animation Studio production. Executive producer, Pato Escala.
Directed, written by Gabriel Osorio. (Color); editor, Escala; music, Denver; art director, Antonia Herrera; sound, Milton Mahan, Pablo Munoz. Running time: 10 MIN.
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
(Russia) A Melnitsa Animation Studio presentation. Produced by Alexander Boyarsky, Sergey Selyandu.
Directed, written by Konstantin Bronzit. (Color); music, Valentin Vassenkov; production designer, Roman Sokolov; sound, Vladimir Goldunin. Running time: 15 MIN.
(U.K.) An Imogen Sutton presentation. Produced by Imogen Sutton.
Directed by Richard Williams. Camera (color), Nick Beeks-Sanders; editor, Julie Wild; sound, Adrian Rhodes. Running time: 6 MIN.