During COVID, in-person experiences at multiplexes have been replaced by at-home viewings on whatever screen you choose. These virtual screenings may recede as more people get vaccinated and more movie theaters reopen, but for now, they are the rule, rather than the exception.
While film festivals and blockbusters most suffer from the lack of a communal experience, other offerings suffer less. Of particular note are the Oscar Nominated Shorts. If you live in Seattle, you can see all three programs (animation, live action, documentary) through Grand Illusion’s or SIFF’s streaming services. Or, you can go to the official website and find an actual or virtual theater near you. And while my original plan was the see the programs ahead of time and then post reviews for each on April 2nd (when they opened), time in a pandemic has a nasty habit of slipping away from you, especially when all you have is time.
If all you see is feature-length Pixar films, you won’t know all the various animation styles out there — some of them quite inventive. The Oscar Nominated Shorts category rectifies that oversight. Indeed, the five nominees (and three “Highly Commended” offerings) all look different from each other.
1.) Burrow (Madeline Sharafian, USA, 6 mins, 2020)
Available on Disney+
The cutest short of the bunch, the animation here looks like something you’d find in an illustrated children’s book, particularly something British like The Wind in the Willows. To the strains of “Wolfie A. Mozart” (as he’s credited), “a young rabbit embarks on a journey to dig the burrow of her dreams, despite not having a clue what she’s doing” (quoted from the press release). In fact, when she sees her neighbors’ dwellings, she’s rather embarrassed over her design and literally digs herself into a deep hole. From Pixar Animation Studios.
2.) Genius Loci (Adrien Mérigeau, France, 16 mins, 2019)
Unlike the other nominees (except for the characters in “Yes-People,” who only say one word), the characters in this short actually speak (in French). Unlike “Burrow,” the animation style is more painterly and is highly inventive in how objects form from other objects or meld together into a jumble of shapes and sounds. Makes sense, since this one relies more on visual storytelling and mood over a traditional narrative framework.
The fractured nature of the images and the protagonist’s inability to understand what one of her friends is saying made me think the film was visualizing mental illness, but perhaps she just feels that she doesn’t belong (the description in the press release gives this synopsis, “One night, Reine, a young loner, sees among the urban chaos a moving oneness that seems alive, like some sort of guide,” but something’s going on in her head, and it isn’t a moving oneness). This nominee, and less so “Yes-People,” are the reason this collection is rated PG-13 instead of a lower rating (due to profanity). The director, Adrien Mérigeau, worked on both The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea.
3.) If Anything Happens I Love You (Will McCormack and Michael Govier, USA, 13 mins, 2020)
Available on Netflix
Several years ago, I was working at a theater where one screen alternated between the Animated Shorts and the Live Action Shorts. At one screening, our projectionist accidentally started the Live Shorts instead of the Animated Shorts, and a couple who brought their children came out and complained, particularly because the first live action short dealt with a man bringing a gun to school.
I wonder what they would’ve thought of “If Anything Happens I Love You,” which deals with the aftermath of a school shooting. While not based on a true story, it received input from parents whose children were victims of gun violence, and from the non-profit Everytown for Gun Safety.
Drawn in a sketchpad style, with lots of grays and pale colors, the film explores the sense of loss and the remembrance of what was with such poignancy that my girlfriend asked if I was okay afterwards. That it’s Will McCormack and Michael Govier’s directorial debut is incredible (both are writers; McCormack for feature films such as Toy Story 4, Govier for short films and plays. Govier has also acted on TV shows and in commercials).
Quietly devastating, expertly animated, touchingly scored, and my pick for the Oscar.
4.) Opera (Erick Oh, South Korea/USA, 9 mins, 2020)
How to describe “Opera?” Visually, it’s the most impressive feature, in that it has the most moving parts onscreen with a look that’s similar to a video game. From my viewing, I’d say it chronicles a complete community functioning throughout the day. Written and directed by Erick Oh, who is a former Pixar animator. According to the press release:
OPERA is an animation project that can be defined as a contemporary animated edition of the Renaissance fresco mural paintings.
Driven by the spirits of Bosch, Michelangelo, Botticelli and more, Erick [Oh] portrays, in his own signature whimsical and surreal way, the human society and history, filled with beauty and absurdity.
Viewers will experience the range [of] in-depth emotions through this epic reflection of human life: it is hopeful, comical, thoughtful, yet scary and sad.
There’s more in the description, but if you don’t get all that from your viewing (I didn’t), don’t worry. Art is open to interpretation, and no matter how you interpret this short, you’ll appreciate its creativity and complexity.
5.) Yes-People ( Gísli Darri Halldórsson, Iceland, 9 mins, 2020)
This is the other nominee that pushed the rating up to a PG-13, though instead of cursing, it’s for sexual content that happens offscreen (but whose moaning is heard very clearly onscreen). When the characters speak, all their words sound like “yeow” (it’s actually “Já”, Icelandic for “yes” — hence the title). The shapes of the people reminded me of old Pixar films mixed with a claymation style. The director and co-producer, Gísli Darri Halldórsson, graduated with honors from the Irish School of Animation in Dublin.
This short spends a day in the life of the residents of an apartment complex. A highlight is when — in perfect rhythm and in succession — it cuts to a music teacher beating time for a student playing the recorder, a man shoveling, his wife turning pages in a book, another man eating a cookie, a kid snoring in class, and a woman drinking at home. Hit, shovel, turn, crunch, snore, drink. Along with “Burrow,” the most light-hearted of the nominees.
1.) Kapaemahu (USA, 8 mins, 2020)
Using a combination of hand drawn and 2D animation, this short is narrated in Olelo Niihau, which is the only native Hawaiian language predating the arrival of non-Hawaiians that is still used today. It tells the story surrounding four sacred stones given to Hawaiians by the mahu: spiritual beings from Tahiti who left their ancient healing arts within these stones. These spirits represent the third-gender: a gender that embraces both male and female halves and used to be celebrated in indigeneous communities, but is now often villified by transphobic populations. The animation has a chiseled look, as if the people in it were carved out of wood. Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, who is one of the writers, directors, and producers, identifies as mahu and “is a Native Hawaiian teacher, cultural practitioner and filmmaker who uses digital media to protect and perpetuate indigeneous languages and traditions” (from the website/press release).
2.) The Snail and the Whale (United Kingdom, 27 mins, 2019)
Smoothly animated characters (perhaps too smooth) interact with an environment that, at times, looks better than the real thing. Based on a children’s book by writer Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler. The second short to make me cry, and reminded me of an honorable mention I saw years ago that also ran about a half hour, was also in rhyme, and was also based on a children’s book (by the same writer/illustrator team). Called “The Gruffalo,” it was produced by Magic Light Pictures, which also produced this one and “Room on the Broom,” which was nominated for an Oscar in 2014.
3.) To: Gerard (USA, 7 mins, 2020)
Okay, so I teared up at this one, too. This short from Dreamworks concerns a mail sorter and the love of magic he inspires in a young girl. Gorgeously animated, particularly in its use of light and shadow.