Those who typically scope the Academy Award-nominated shorts programs hoping to win the Oscar pool will have a particularly tough time of it with this year’s animated roster, as the options are wide-ranging but lack a clear front-runner. A few of the talents have ties to Pixar, though only one short was actually developed at a studio, while the other four are far more personal, independent expressions with little in common, least of all technique. Compared with past editions, this is a relatively weak year, though it’s always a treat to survey the range of offerings, released in theaters and on demand by ShortsTV.
Madeline Sharafian’s adorable but basic bunny toon “Burrow” was developed within Disney/Pixar’s SparkShorts program, a creative sandbox for up-and-coming voices, which also produced previous nominee “Kitbull.” Choosing hand-drawn techniques over the studio’s traditional hyper-polished 3D rendering, the film boasts an old-fashioned, storybook feel, starring a menagerie of cute googly-eyed animals — a regular “Wind in the Willows” of badgers, mice, salamanders and moles. These critters can’t speak but are human-like in virtually every other sense, save one: They all live underground, which complicates things for our bunny hero(ine), who’s trying to dig a one-room dwelling (complete with disco), but keeps bumping into others’ burrows. Staged like an ant farm, the movie’s full of cross-sectional sight gags, which reward multiple viewings — although without dialogue, it’s sometimes tough to understand what the conflict is (the character must learn to ask for help from her neighbors).
Even more confusing, but compensating for it with stunning visuals (and visual ideas), French animator Adrien Mérigeau’s “Genius Loci” offers a subjective, surrealistic portrait through the eyes (or imagination) of Reine, a young Black woman trying to process the sounds and swirls of urban Paris — a symphony of abstract distractions. “All around me I find chaos,” Reine says, which Mérigeau interprets through a succession of striking, retro-modernist watercolors: Faces break down into cubist elements; scattered pages resemble a pack of running dogs; a homeless man transforms into a blue horse. The short’s Latin title refers to the protective spirit of a given location, but here, the concept takes on a slightly menacing tone, as Reine is overwhelmed by her surroundings, even herself becoming a feral animal at one point. “It’s you who decides,” counsels a friend, which also goes for audiences and what they make of the kaleidoscopic ride.
Korean artist Erick Oh spent more than five years working at Pixar, but definitely goes his own way with 9-minute “Opera.” Designed as a giant pyramid populated by hundreds of bug-size stick figures, the intricate tableau operates as a cryptic medieval altarpiece come to life: Hieronymus Bosch meets Ayn Rand, and an absurdist metaphor for all humanity, viewed from on high. Oh invites viewers to explore dozens of distinct chambers as the camera pans down from the pinnacle (atop which a crowned ruler reigns) to the base of the structure, where a war erupts in miniature. It can be frustrating to be confronted by such a busy composition. Think of it like a painting, however, and the experience becomes more intuitive, as one’s eye moves about rooms containing short animated loops: weddings and funerals, eating halls and pooping stalls — mundane cycles within the larger circle of life.
Things take a more serious turn in “If Anything Happens I Love You,” wherein co-directors Michael Govier and Will McCormack (another Pixar vet and part of the story team on “Toy Story 4”) use animation to explore the emotional state of a couple coping with tragedy and persecuted by their own shadows. By hiding what happened till the end, they orchestrate a sense of mystery for audiences, who slowly discover what’s missing from these haunted characters’ lives. Turns out, things haven’t been the same since their daughter left home. Though viewers might assume it’s simply a case of a girl going off to college, a far more upsetting twist is in store. Simple, mostly monochromatic pencil sketches allow for a dynamic storytelling technique in which perspective constantly shifts to reveal more information, swooping and zooming through space, before stepping back to remain outside — beneath a full-color American flag — for the wrenching finale.
The most playful of the bunch, Icelandic “Yes-People” focuses on a handful of neighbors in everyday domestic scenes — slurping soup, practicing clarinet, snarfing food in front of the TV — rendered comical through the stylized character design and pantomimed performances. (The characters don’t speak any recognizable language, but instead express themselves through monosyllabic grunts and nonsense singing.) The group portrait consists of a middle-aged couple, the still-frisky older pair who live upstairs and a single mom with two kids, all rendered with a slightly fuzzy quality that suggests stop-motion — with its interchangeable mouth shapes, snappy poses and bendy limbs — more than CG animation. It’s a clever way for director Gísli Darri Halldórsson to cover the fact that he’s working with a fraction of a studio budget, and a pleasant surprise that the Academy favored this over some of the more polished films that were eligible.
ShortsTV has included two of those slicker CG offerings — plus a distinctively hand-painted entry — among a trio of “Highly Commended” bonus toons, giving audiences a chance to debate whether the Academy made the right call (all three made the shortlist and could have been nominated). From the team that made “The Gruffalo,” picture-book adaptation “The Snail and the Whale” looks gorgeous, with endearing character design and lyrical narration from Diana Rigg. Familiar but effective, DreamWorks’ “To Gerard” tells the story of a mail clerk who performs magic tricks for no particular audience, and the little girl he inspires to make good on his dreams. And Waikiki-set “Kapaemahu” deals with a different kind of magic, using indigenous illustration style to reconnect audiences with third-gender souls from centuries earlier.