Great animated shorts are like poems, and in some cases, they quite literally are poems — as is the case of three of this year’s Oscar nominees: the Kobe Bryant penned “Dear Basketball,” stop-motion “Negative Space,” and Roald Dahl adaptation “Revolting Rhymes.” Not that the other two entries are lacking in poetry, either visual or of spirit, which makes for an all-around delightful package of cartoon inspiration when viewed on the big screen (where ShortsTV has included three bonus “highly commended” shorts and a running series of loony “Petite Faim” interstitials created by students at France’s Ecole Supérieure des Métiers Artistiques).
Taken from a letter L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant wrote on the eve of his retirement from the NBA, “Dear Basketball” pairs hand-drawn visuals with a heartfelt ode to the sport that made him a star (Bryant reads his own words aloud, as audiences watch what looks like a black-and-white sketchbook come to life). It’s strange, yet surprisingly effective to witness Bryant’s familiar profile transformed into an adorable, Disney-style kiddo via animation legend Glen Keane’s loose graphite drawings. We see cute, cartoon Kobe sitting on the bed, clutching a basketball as big as his head, dreaming of a pro sports career in precisely the way his success has inspired so many others. Simple and sincere, the short runs just five minutes, but packs a powerful emotional punch — some of it earned, and some goosed by a stirring piece of music from John Williams that makes it feel like the climactic gesture at the end of an epic career.
Co-directors Ru Kuwathata and Max Porter’s “Negative Space” also serves as a backward-gazing homage of sorts, only this one is adapted from a poem by Ron Koertge — fewer than 150 words about something so mundane as the proper way to pack a suitcase, and yet, the voiceover and accompanying visuals carry all the weight of a son’s love for his late father. The film’s narrator describes how his dad was constantly traveling, and how preparing his bags became an unusual way for them to express their love for one another (it may also give audiences a few ideas on how to travel more efficiently, “Roll things that roll. … Belts around the sides like snakes”). But underneath it all, enhanced by vaguely “My Life as a Zucchini”-style visuals that nicely emphasize the child’s-eye view of a family situation, is a certain melancholy that lands beautifully with the poem’s final line.
Conceived for television and reminiscent of (though not necessarily as charming as) recent nominee “The Gruffalo,” Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer’s “Revolting Rhymes” puts an irreverent spin on popular children’s stories, retelling the travails of Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs from the wolves’ point of view. The visuals look a bit basic and lack in the kind of detail (fur, shading, and general character design) that young audiences have come to expect from computer animation, but there’s no faulting the material, which gooses certain kidlit heroes the way “Shrek” did the fairy tale genre. It’s by far the most kid-friendly of the bunch, and given its 30-minute small-screen format, may actually wind up being the widest seen.
At the opposite end of the CG visual spectrum is a French graduation film called “Garden Party” (the work of six MOPA students) which is so meticulous in its detail that some may be fooled into believing that actual cameras were involved. In lieu of a conventional narrative, the filmmakers roam around a deserted mansion, spying on the frogs and toads that have overtaken the home. What happened to its owner, you ask? Well, that’s a surprise that slowly reveals itself via film noir-style clues — a bullet hole here, a broken security camera there — culminating with a grotesque twist outside in the swimming pool onto which certain viewers have projected ideas of Donald Trump or Harvey Weinstein. That’s a bit of a stretch, though it’s safe to conclude that these amusing amphibians are better off without the creep whose home they’ve claimed as their own.
Last but not least is this year’s Pixar short, “Lou,” which takes an inspired idea (the title creature lives in a school playground’s lost-and-found box, made up of the clothes and toys kids have left behind) and milks it for maximum sentimentality. An amorphous character with mismatched baseballs for eyes, Lou looks like a Muppet and moves like a transformer, which must have been quite the animation challenge for director Dave Mullins and his team — although the concept has more than a few logic gaps they never sorted out. Basically, Mullins’ idea was to pit Lou against the schoolyard bully, using a cheap “Ratatouille”-like emotional ploy to teach him a lesson, but it’s still unclear exactly what Lou is supposed to be: is he a benevolent force, or is this weird lost-and-found monster a bully as well, one who’s been stealing the other kids’ toys all along? It’s bold, but hardly Pixar’s best.
Truth be told, last year’s best animated short — that would be Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s Annecy- and Emile Award-winning “The Burden” — isn’t anywhere to be found, and it’s a shame that ShortsTV didn’t correct the oversight by including in among the three bonus shorts (as it is, the extras include Daniel Agdag’s intricate stop-motion “Lost Property Office,” Kevin Hudson’s 3-minute CG dandelion-dreamer cartoon “Weeds,” and the generally obnoxious, borderline ugly “Achoo,” about the snot-nosed dragon that invented fireworks). At 15 minutes, “The Burden” is a surreal stop-motion oddity, and one for the ages, offering a melancholy musical take on loneliness in the modern world, complete with singing sardines and tap-dancing rats. In all fairness, it belongs on the ballot.