pixar piper animated short
Courtesy of Pixar Animation Studio

This year, there’s a switcheroo afoot in Oscar’s two animation categories: Michaël Dudok de Wit’s gorgeous desert-island fable “The Red Turtle” is a rare, snowflake-singular work of art, made possible after producers at Japan’s celebrated Studio Ghibli fell in love with the director’s 2001 Oscar-winning short “Fathers and Daughter” and approached the helmer about collaborating on a feature. Meanwhile, four of the directors represented in this year’s animated short category have worked on Oscar-winning features, but are branching out in an effort to try more personal work. The results are a mixed bag, but make for entertaining viewing in ShortsHD’s annual theatrical package, which also includes three bonus toons that didn’t make Oscar’s cut.

Chances are you’ve already seen “Piper.” Directed by 20-year Pixar veteran Alan Barillaro, the 6-minute short played before the studio’s hit discombobulated-fish sequel “Finding Dory,” which makes it one of the most widely viewed animated shorts of this or any year — and deservedly so. Simple as a haiku and yet stunning in its own right, the tiny toon opens with a beautifully lit, impeccably rendered shot of the seashore so realistic, one could be forgiven for mistaking it for live action. It’s not until we meet Piper, a baby sandpiper with a perfectly understandable fear of water, that we can be absolutely sure the footage was shaped by an animator’s hand — and even then, apart from his slightly cartoonish behavior, the baby bird is so detailed (the character model contains millions of feathers) he could pass for real. As impressive as Pixar’s virtual universe has become, it’s the wordless elegance and gentle relatability of “Piper” that makes it the uncontestable best of this year’s crop.

That said, it still can’t reach the heights of 2015’s winner, the Disney-backed “Feast,” as director Patrick Osborne returns with a suspiciously similar, if not quite so successful new personal project, “Pearl.” Employing a slightly less elegant version of the same animation technology (which uses CG to produce a lineless, hand-illustrated look), “Pearl” even recycles the same basic concept, attempting to shape a poignant montage around a common element. In “Feast,” the point of focus was a dog’s food bowl, which remained constant as the adorable critter grew up and watched his owner find love and start a family. “Pearl” takes place entirely in an old car, as a struggling musician drives from gig to gig as the years pass, while his daughter grows from toddler to teen, ultimately rediscovering the same car and making it her own — as well as making it in the music biz, in a way her father never could. It’s still poignant, but oddly primitive looking when watched this way (the VR short was designed for Google Spotlight Stories’ 360-degree viewing). Still, it was a nice touch to use a single song, Alexis Harte’s “No Wrong Way Home,” to reinforce the continuity offered by the car.

In theaters, the program kicks off with the Gustavo Santaolalla-scored, Western-set “Borrowed Time,” a collaboration between Andrew Coats (a character artist on “Toy Story 3,” among others) and Lou Hamou-Lhadj (whose credits include “Inside Out”). The 7-minute short, which concerns a scarecrow-shaped sheriff who returns to the scene of a childhood trauma, smacks of Pixar-style story notes, and even though the two animators made this project during their spare time over the course of five years, it feels as if it has been reverse-engineered from emotion-manipulating Pixar tactics. The look is strong, and the CG human characters are nicely expressive, but this panhandling short doesn’t quite earn the heart tug it seeks.

Such minor shortcomings aside, all four of the aforementioned animators have clearly demonstrated by their work that they can be trusted to take a more prominent role in studio features going forward. But not every animator dreams of directing features, and some — such as multimedia maestro Theodore Ushev (“The Lipsett Diaries”) — seem to flourish in the short format. His latest, “Blind Vaysha,” adapts an allegorical short story by Georgi Gospodinov into a series of woodblock-styled tableaux. (Both this and “Piper” were created in stereoscopic 3D, though the ShortsHD release flattens them to traditional 2D. “Vaysha” was additionally made available as a virtual-reality experience.) The fable, which concerns a young woman with a peculiar birth defect whereby one eye sees only the future while the other sees only the past, doesn’t quite work, though of the nominees, this one will surely hold up best when revisited in 50 years.

The ShortsHD producers have done a curious thing, since the final contender, “Pear Cider and Cigarettes,” contains such adult-leaning themes as sex, drinking, drug use, smoking, and profanity: The theatrical program includes an on-screen warning advising parents of what’s to come, and the short itself doesn’t appear until the end — following a trio of “Highly Commended” offerings. It was the right call, since Robert Valley is essentially a graphic artist in both senses of the word: His dynamic frames and long, slender character designs reflect his background sketching comics and storyboards, while his sensibility skews in the wild, R-rated direction of movies like “Inherent Vice” as he puts a contemporary spin on the film-noir notion of what it means to be “hardboiled.” While guitar-rockers Mass Mental jam on the soundtrack, Valley self-narrates the intense rise and fall of his larger-than-life amigo Techno, who seemed to believe himself immortal — until one day he wasn’t.

Those three additional shorts are a nice addition to the program, bringing a mix of different styles and tones to the table. French computer-generated “Asteria” amusingly imagines an encounter between two space explorers and a race of Minions-like aliens competing to be the first to plant their flag on a tiny new planet. Soft-edged, gentle-spirited “The Head Vanishes” portrays Alzheimer’s from the p.o.v. of a little old lady trying to make sense of the world without the benefit of her noggin. And Alicja Jasina’s clever lo-fi “Once Upon a Line” uses feminine splashes of hot pink to interrupt the dull black-and-white routine of a hand-drawn office worker. The latter echoes ideas seen in Disney animator Leo Matsuda’s “Inner Workings,” which wasn’t nominated, but would have been right at home among these shorts.

Borrowed Time
A Quorum Films production. Producer: Amanda Deering Jones. Directors: Andrew Coats, Lou Hamou-Lhadj. Screenplay: Coats, Hamou-Lhadj, Mark C. Harris. Editors: Kathy Toon. Music: Gustavo Santaolalla. Running time: 7 MIN.

Pearl
An Evil Eye Pictures, Passion Pictures, Baraboom Studios, Google Spotlight Stories production. Producer: David Eisenmann. Executive producers: Regina Dugan, Karen Dufilho, Dan Rosen, Cara Speller. Director: Patrick Osborne. Editor: Stevan Riley. Music: Alexis Harte, JJ Wiesler. Running time: 6 MIN.

Piper
A Disney, Pixar Animation Studios production. Producer: Marc Sondheimer. Executive producers: John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton. Director, writer: Alan Barillaro. Camera (color): Derek Williams. Editor: Sarah K. Reimers. Music: Adrian Belew. Running time: 6 MIN.

Blind Vaysha
(Canada-France) A National Film Board of Canada, with the participation of Arte France. Producer: Marc Bertrand. Executive producer: Julie Roy. Director, writer, editor: Theodore Ushev, based on the short story “Blind Vaysha” by Georgi Gospodinov. Music: Mandra. Voice: Caroline Dhavernas. Running time: 6 MIN.

Pear Cider and Cigarettes
(Canada-U.K.) A Massive Swerve production, in association with Passion Pictures Animation. Producer: Cara Speller. Executive producer: Andrew Ruhemann. Director, writer: Robert Valley. Music: Robert Trujillo, Armand Sabal-Lecco, Dave Nuñez. Running time: 35 MIN.

Film Review: '2017 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animation'

Reviewed at Nuart Theater, Los Angeles, Feb. 17, 2017. Running time: 87 MIN.

Production

(Animated) A Magnolia Pictures release of a ShortsHD presentation. Producers: Carter Pilcher, Leif Nielsen.

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