No 2020 Oscar category can boast a higher level of quality — or diversity, for that matter — than the animated shorts, and though the five nominees are among the least-seen (especially this year, when ShortsTV’s theatrical program released just nine days before Oscar night), film buffs would do well to track them down all the same. This also happens to be the category that scales best to smaller screens, and which can be watched in increments ranging from seven to 15 minutes apiece, so do yourself a favor and seek them out. Despite the range of origins and animation styles represented, this year’s batch clusters around a single theme — family — as these filmmakers explore the dynamics between fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and so on, with a fifth short about an unlikely pairing of pets thrown in for good measure.
In ShortsTV’s theatrical lineup, the first short is the likely winner, “Hair Love,” written by Matthew A. Cherry, a former NFL wide receiver who made his directing debut with the live-action football drama “The Last Fall.” Here, Cherry imagines an instantly engaging — if somewhat emotionally manipulative — way to untangle and potentially reshape a number of African American stereotypes. Co-directed with Everett Downing Jr. and Bruce W. Smith, “Hair Love” centers on a girl named Zuri, whose hair is too much for her seemingly single father to manage. But Dad makes an effort, following a step-by-step online video (voiced by Issa Rae) — intercut with scenes of the monster curls being subdued in a wrestling ring — until he and Zuri are content with the result. The last scene, which takes place in a cancer ward, puts everything into perspective, although the reveal feels a little bit rushed for the film’s nine-minute running time. Crowdfunded by Kickstarter, but later acquired by Sony Pictures Animation and shown theatrically in front of “Angry Birds 2,” the bright, seemingly hand-drawn project (actually rendered using Toon Boom Harmony software) finds an upbeat way to address — via comical exaggeration — the unique challenges of black hair. In reality, African American kids are sent home from school and banned from school photos for wearing their hair in ways that don’t conform with the white majority, which makes “Hair Love” a way of boosting pride and understanding alike.
Up-and-coming Czech animator Daria Kashcheeva also focuses on the bond between a young girl and her father in “Daughter,” a film school thesis project that just added Sundance’s animation jury prize to its already impressive list of awards. Like “Hair Love,” it concerns a hospital visit, though Kashcheeva’s film is considerably more melancholy in tone, opening with the title character at what could be her dad’s death bed. While standing there silently, she’s startled by a bird crashing into the window, which in turn sparks a series of somewhat-difficult-to-follow memories in which she imagines herself to be a bird — a metaphor of some kind for her relationship to her father. The film isn’t always clear, but it’s a stunning achievement in design and technique. Kashcheeva’s puppets appear to be made from papier-mâché, and though their facial expressions don’t change much, that suits the film’s theme of communication challenges just fine. Still, the real innovation is in Kashcheeva’s camerawork, which mirrors the shallow focus and shaky, handheld technique used to convey emotional turmoil and confusion in live-action movies, which she manages to replicate here on a frame-by-frame level. Even the technical wizards at Laika hadn’t figure out how to do that (they’re only starting to experiment with camera movement), and rest assured, the medium will never be the same.
Another incredibly labor-intensive film school project, Cal Arts grad Siqi Song’s stop-motion “Sister” represents the most successful marriage of concept and technique among the nominees, but hinges on a twist that’s best not revealed here. Designed to suggest old family album photographs, the nearly monochromatic short (accented with touches of red) is presented from the point of view of a Chinese boy, who still seems vexed by the younger sister who was constantly getting him into trouble as a kid. Song leans in to the young man’s imagination, bringing a touch of fantasy to each of the reenactments, before making her deeper point about China’s one-child policy. Like the title character in Nina Gantz’s similarly impressive “Edmond,” Song’s puppets have been assembled from fuzzy wool, which the director lights in such a way that they look alive. Stray squiggles of loose material complete the illusion, vibrating even as the dolls sit still. Song reduces the faces to a pair of blinking eyes and walnut-shaped mouth, superimposed digitally onto tiny scraps of paper, but the underlying script is so strong (narrated by Bingyang Liu) that these features merely reinforce the film’s humor — as when the hungry infant swells to fill the entire nursery, then comically deflates like a balloon after her brother pulls at her belly button.
French stop-motion entry “Mémorable” deals with an elderly artist coping with Alzheimer’s, a favorite subject among animators, who have invented creative solutions to depict the unreliable subjectivity in such memory-loss shorts as “Late Afternoon” and “The Head Vanishes.” Director Bruno Collet has designed his main character to resemble one of Vincent van Gogh’s self-portraits, the foam-latex skin modeled to look like thick swirls of colored paint. The aesthetic alone is satisfying to watch, but what Collet does with it fascinates all the more, as the man’s wife does her best to manage a partner who refuses to admit that he’s losing his mind. In one scene, he struggles to recognize an iPhone, presented as a melting glob of multicolored clay on the table in front of him, and later, he mistakes a hairdryer for a pistol and literally tries to blow his brains out. The man remains determined to paint, asking his wife to pose without realizing who she is. (Odd aside: Among the artist’s paintings, Collet has reproduced the young couple from Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point” poster.) It should be said that music supplies an extra level to each of these shorts, and here, Nicolas Martin’s string score adds resonance to the couple’s predicament.
Rounding out the nominees, Rosanna Sullivan’s “Kitbull” shifts the focus from human families to a couple of stray animals who become mismatched allies. A corrective to decades of “Tom & Jerry”-style cartoons, in which cats hate dogs and mice hate cats, “Kitbull” focuses on a bedraggled ball of black fur — a quick-to-alarm stray cat — who lives in a San Francisco junkyard guarded by a muscular white pit bull. Over the course of nine minutes, the two animals go from being wary would-be enemies to the best of friends, bonded by a series of encounters in which they behave in the opposite way one might expect from either species. If there’s an evil creature here, it’s the dog’s owner, who encourages the pit bull’s aggressive tendencies, and takes him indoors for what we can assume is an illegal dogfight. When the animal emerges, he’s scratched and bloody, but still capable of showing kindness to the vulnerable cat. The third project to come out of Pixar’s SparkShorts program, the hand-drawn and -painted “Kitbull” delivers the conventional pleasures of a classic Looney Tunes cartoon while making a statement about animal cruelty. It also challenges the notion that pit bulls are inherently violent, and ends on a note that suggests a loving kitten (and understanding humans) can bring out the species’ best qualities.
As always, those who catch the program in cinemas will be treated to a handful of “highly commended” shorts, none of which comes close to the level of the nominees. A fourth stop-motion project, “Henrietta Bulkowski,” uses 3D printing techniques (à la “Anomalisa”) to tell an obvious parable about overcoming differences. The animation’s nice, but the story feels rigged to prove a point — that disability shouldn’t impair people from following their dreams — that crash-lands on arrival. Carol Freeman’s “The Bird & the Whale” represents a painstaking job of hand-painted oil-on-glass animation, though the story — in which the two creatures bond, nowhere near as intuitively as the “Kitbull” duo — doesn’t quite work. Computer-animated French entry “Hors Piste” is hilarious in its retro-toned, well-timed slapstick humor, featuring a number of clever gags involving a bumbling high-altitude rescue squad. The short ends abruptly, without resolution (do the characters survive?), but the creative team is sure to go far. And two-minute CG “Maestro,” from the team behind 2018 nominee “Garden Party,” shows them pushing their photoreal animal animation to new levels, even if it’s essentially a one-joke bumper.