Film Review: ‘2019 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Animation’

This year's animated nominees range from a ground-breaking Pixar short (the first to be directed by a woman) to a trio of heart-tugging personal stories.

Release Date:
Feb 8, 2019

1 hour 15 minutes

Official Site: https://shorts.tv/theoscarshorts/

A couple years ago, the Academy went and changed the rules on how the animated shorts are nominated, opening the process to members of other branches, which may explain why the ballot is one of the most conventional in ages, including none of the experimental stop-motion, hand-painted, or 360-degree techniques seen in recent years. That doesn’t make it any less delightful to watch, however — if anything, this year’s animated noms will be easier for audiences to digest, balancing out the downright depressing batch of live-action shorts.

They could hardly do better than “Bao,” a breath of fresh air from Pixar, which has been lagging virtually every other animated studio when it comes to both gender and cultural representation. (2017’s “Coco” was its first nonwhite feature, while Indian-themed “Sanjay’s Super Team” and the ultra-lame “Lava” diversified the shorts situation somewhat.) At any rate, Domee Shi has already been promoted to developing a feature on the strength of this adorable — and unexpected — morsel, in which a childless Chinese woman lovingly crafts a dumpling by hand, only to see it spring to life before her eyes. As a metaphor for (s)motherhood, it’s a brilliant example of what Pixar does best, grounding well-timed cartoon gags — including a twist that literally caused audiences to gasp in surprise — with well-earned emotional truths.

Irish director Louise Bagnall’s “Late Afternoon” is a lovely 10-minute offering crafted at Cartoon Saloon, the forward-looking, female-empowering studio behind 2017’s “The Breadwinner.” In similar fashion, “Late Afternoon” uses digital techniques to bring hand-drawn 2D images to life — in this case, sketches of an elderly woman with dementia who drifts away into the relatively colorful realm of half-forgotten memories. It’s not an especially original short (in fact, the woman’s detachable round head bears a rather alarming resemblance to Franck Dion’s “The Head Vanishes” from a couple years earlier), but it’s certainly effective, both in its deceptively simple style and the way it situates us in this not-entirely-present woman’s POV. Special mention goes to composer Colm Mac Con Iomaire for gently coaxing tears from his audience.

Popular on Variety

It’s anybody’s guess how David Fine and Alison Snowden’s “Animal Behaviour” sneaked in, although the hand-drawn toon — which feels like one of those “Orson’s Farm” quickies from the Saturday-morning “Garfield and Friends” series or a single-panel New Yorker cartoon stretched to 14 minutes — is funny enough to prove diverting. In it, a reformed pit bull moderates a group therapy session attended by a mix of critters, ranging from a codependent leech to a gorilla with anger management issues. This seems a fine time to point out that the Academy could’ve chosen Mark Smith’s meticulously detailed “Two Balloons,” DreamWorks Animation’s visually stunning “Bilby,” Phil Brough’s deranged action-movie sendup “Fire in Cardboard City,” Nienke Deutz’s growing-up/growing-apart piece “Bloeistraat 11,” or Jonatan Schwenk’s wonderfully weird “Sog.” But it didn’t.

To ita credit, it did pick Annecy winner “Weekends,” which is as personal a submission as could’ve been nominated. Trevor Jimenez crams all his memories of being raised a child of divorce into a tight 15 minutes, loosely sketching the tumult of a Canadian kid who’s constantly being shuttled back and forth between his parents’ houses. Structurally, it’s not as elegant or intuitive as so many other shorts, which find poetic ways to represent the passage of time, but it’s full of precisely the kind of lived-in detail and damage — where specifics resonate as universal — one expects from writers like Jonathan Franzen and Junot Díaz. I’ve seen “Weekends” thrice now, and some of it still confuses me, but I’m convinced it’s a work of art.

Rounding out the noms is Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas’ admirable but uneven “One Small Step,” which may as well be an audition piece for a job at Pixar, so closely does it emulate the studio’s more heart-tugging tendencies. While a girl named Luna dreams of becoming an astronaut, her Gepeto-like dad — a hard-working cobbler whom she takes for granted — sees to it that her shoes are in order. The title is a cute play on Neil Armstrong’s famous words, but the dialogue-free scenes don’t quite communicate all they’re trying to say, and the ending comes a little too easy. (To this day, no woman has walked on the moon.) Still, this CG short looks fantastic, with adorable character designs, soft edges, and a warm glow.

As always, ShortsTV rounds out the brief theatrical package with a couple of bonus shorts, neither of which posed much risk to the nominees of stealing their spot on the ballot. There’s Lizzie Zhang’s computer-animated “Wishing Box,” about a pirate who discovers the ultimate treasure chest, with a twist: Only his monkey can make it work. “Ben Hur” director Timur Bekmambetov’s daughter Zhanna finds the kind of intuitive life-spanning metaphor wished for above with the CG tightrope walk that is “Tweet-Tweet”; less clear is why this character (whose face is never shown) is accompanied by a sparrow for the entire journey. A nice touch: For the theatrical version, ShortsTV included the filmmakers’ candid reactions to their Oscar nominations over the end credits of each short.

Film Review: ‘2019 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Animation’

Reviewed at Nuart Theater, Los Angeles, Feb. 21, 2019. Running time: 75 MIN.

Production: (Animation) A Magnolia Pictures release of a ShortsTV presentation. Producers: Carter Pilcher, Leif Nielsen.

More Film

  • (center) George MacKay as Schofield in

    '1917,' 'Succession' Among Top PGA Award Winners

    “1917” continued its string of major awards season wins on Saturday night, earning the Producers Guild of America award for best picture. Coupled with its win for best picture, drama at the Golden Globes, the WWI movie is officially the front runner for Oscar’s top prize. “It’s a film that is a tribute to all [...]

  • Bong Joon Ho, Jane Rosenthal, David

    Netflix Praised by 'The Irishman,' 'Marriage Story' Filmmakers at Producers Guild Panel

    Streaming giant Netflix received strong support from filmmakers behind “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story” at the Producers Guild of America’s nominees panel on Saturday at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Jane Rosenthal, one of “The Irishman” producers, said Netflix embraced the vision that she and Martin Scorsese had for the $170 million film. [...]

  • Gabriel Harel on MyFFF ‘The Night

    Gabriel Harel Discusses Dystopic Parable ‘The Night of the Plastic Bags’

    With his first short film, the animated “Yùl and the Snake,” Gabriel Harel won Europe’s Cartoon d’Or for the continent’s best animated short film, given at the 2016 Cartoon Forum in Toulouse. Now, Harel’s awaited sophomore effort, the animated “The Night of the Plastic Bags,” competes at UniFrance’s MyFrenchFilmFestival, and is available on a swathe [...]

  • MyFrenchFilmFestival: Profiling Benjamin Crotty’s Short ‘Nicolas

    ‘The Glorious Acceptance of Nicolas Chauvin’: Nationalism Wrapped in Charisma

    Winner of Locarno’s Signs of Life section, Benjamin Crotty’s “The Glorious Acceptance of Nicolas Chauvin” has enjoyed more than 12 months of festival success and critical acclaim as it reaches the end of its festival run at UniFrance’s MyFrenchFilmFestival. A modern take on one of France’s most influential yet widely unknown characters, the film headlines [...]

  • Alexander Ludwig

    Alexander Ludwig on Sharing his Recovery Journey, Playing the 'Bad Boys' Tech Guy

    With his towering height and stature, Alexander Ludwig looks every bit the action star, first appearing as Cato in “The Hunger Games,” and more recently as fierce Norse Viking chief Bjorn Ironside on History Channel’s “Vikings” and in “Bad Boys for Life,” the third installment of the “Bad Boys” franchise, with Will Smith and Martin [...]

  • Will Smith and Martin Lawrence star

    Box Office: 'Bad Boys for Life' Scores Big With $66 Million Launch

    “Bad Boys for Life” is showing plenty of power at the North American box office with an impressive  launch of around $66 million at 3,740 venues over the four-day holiday weekend. Sony’s sequel to 1995’s “Bad Boys” and 2003’s “Bad Boys II” far exceeded the studio’s pre-release forecasts of a $38 million weekend. The film, [...]

  • A Bump Along the Way Movie

    'A Bump Along the Way': Film Review

    While “Derry Girls” continues to be the last word in young, raucous female rebellion on the Emerald Isle, “A Bump Along the Way” has a little something to add. Sin the same Northern Irish city as the hit Netflix sitcom, but shedding the ’90s nostalgia for the Snapchat age, Shelly Love’s appealing, unassuming debut feature [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content