By Gary M. Kramer.
The best short films hook viewers, carry them through the story, and deliver a surprising finish. Animation is best when it is used to depict things that cannot quite happen in real life – especially when animation is used to do this in inventive ways. The five animated shorts competing for this year’s Academy Award are each satisfying for their clever narratives and visual storytelling. While four of the five nominees run under 7 minutes, all the films use the time they take to tell their story well. None of the competitors seem too long – and yes, even a five-minute short can feel endless if told badly.
The oddsmakers’ longshot in the category, Revolting Rhymes, is also the longest of the nominees. Clocking in at 30 minutes, this highly entertaining adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book is a revenge-filled tale told in couplets. For viewers of a certain age, it will be reminiscent of the old Fracture Fairy Tales segments from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Here a wolf (voiced by Dominic West) recounts the ill-fated encounters to his two nephews Rex (David Walliams) and Rolf (Rob Brydon) each had when they met Red Riding Hood (Rose Leslie). Of course, Snow White (Gemma Chan), Grandma, seven jockeys (dwarfs!), a wicked queen, and a magic mirror among other fairy tale favorites figure prominently in the story. Revolting Rhymes provides some charming visuals and chuckles as a Banker Pig keeps Red’s saving in a piggy bank, and the evil Miss Maclahose, a nasty, scheming queen, does something, well, revolting. This longer short is witty and clever, likely to amuse both children and adults. Alas, it won’t bring home the gold, much as it deserves to.
Likewise, Garden Party, is a terrific short film that looks so realistic, viewers may need a minute to realize it is animated. In seven minutes, dozens of frogs explore an abandoned house. There are some indelible images, from a frog climbing across a window, to a large amphibian caught in a jar, or sticking its face in a pile of caviar. Garden Party is completely wordless but entirely captivating as the truth behind what is going on is slowly, but eventually revealed. If there were any justice at the Oscars, this short would win the prize.
Arguably the slightest entry is the melancholy short Negative Space. This French nominee uses stop-motion and showcases some nifty visual motifs – a road becomes a zipper, signaling a memory, or wave of clothes “wash” up and across a floor – as a son recalls the bond he had packing suitcases with and for his father. And even though the final punchline is obvious, this five-minute short is still quite touching.
Lou, this year’s Disney/Pixar entry, is a modest morality tale about bullying. The film does feature some creative images as a collection of playground toys are used to taunt the bully into being a better person. However, the short’s life lesson – sharing is caring – is not necessarily going to change minds no matter how well told. The best thing about the almost entirely wordless Lou is how the toys re-assemble themselves and use the playground equipment to beat the bully at his own game. This short isn’t terrible, just terribly mediocre, which is why it could pull an upset at the Oscars.
However, if that happens, Lou would have to beat this year’s hands-down favorite, Dear Basketball. A pen and ink style animated short, Dear Basketball features Kobe Bryant voicing his own poem announcing his retirement while also professing his lifelong love of the game. With vivid color swirling amid black-and-white backgrounds, the film describes how a 6-year-old Bryant fell in love with basketball as a child and gave his heart and played through his hurt to realize his dream of being on the Lakers. Images of the young and old Bryant playing side by side effectively convey the athlete’s lifelong devotion to the sport. The only flaw in director Glen Keane’s film is his insistence on having John Williams compose the syrupy, inspirational score that tugs too hard at the heartstrings. Bryant’s poignant voice-over does that perfectly well on its own. Nevertheless, Dear Basketball is a slam-dunk to win the Academy Award this year.
Because the five nominees run just under an hour, three additional films, Lost Property Office, Coin Operated, and Achoo, round out the program to 83 minutes. However, those films were not available for pre-screening.
Read also Elias Savada, “Social Critique, in Truth and Fiction: 2018 Oscar Nominated Live Action and Documentary Shorts”
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.