Every February at the Academy Awards ceremony, the greatest diversity of content can often be found in the Best Short Film (Animated) category. While this year’s nominations sadly only feature English language contenders, animation’s open canvas creates endless story possibilities; for instance, Bugs Bunny has endured for over 75 years because — during any of his appearances — he’s just as likely to eat a carrot as take off on an elaborate, operatic adventure. Currently screening at theaters around the country, this year’s nominees likewise represent a grab bag of the many places animation can transport you, treating viewers to a Western about the demons of the past (Borrowed Time), a decades-spanning account of a father-daughter relationship steeped in music (Pearl), a baby bird’s struggle against adversity (Piper), a haunting fable about a girl whose eyes are portals to the past and the future (Blind Vaysha), and a noir-tinged remembrance of the fall of a hard-living friend (Pear Cider and Cigarettes). The shorts run the gamut from failure to success, the outcome depending largely on the degree to which they innovate rather than recycle clichés.
Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj’s 3D-animated tale uses blockbuster action as its centerpiece. A sheriff out of an old Western contemplates suicide as he remembers how he failed to save his lawman father after a coach accident left him dangling from a cliff. This US production’s character design is particularly strong, with the suicidal sheriff’s head — all sunken cheeks, narrow chin, and pronounced brow — resembling a Halloween skeleton’s skull. The rendering of the short’s Monument Valley setting also shows the filmmakers duplicating the majestic natural beauty present in some Westworld landscape shots — without the onerous cost of a location shoot or having to pay Anthony Hopkins.
This short from director Patrick Osborn — a previous winner in the category for 2014’s Feast — tells its story from the vantage point of an old car. This US short begins with a girl climbing into the dusty hatchback to find a tape recording of one of her musician father’s Mumford-ish jingles. Looking into the car from the dashboard, we follow the father-daughter duo as they travel the country busking in diversely rendered environments of rich and vibrant color. Many of the nominated short films adhere to specific color palettes, but Pearl adopts a different swatch for each environment and period portrayed, from the stark white of snowfall to the cooler blues of an urban environment, making for frequent visual surprises.
In this computer-animated short — Pixar’s contribution to a category in which it is a perennial nominee — a sandpiper is born on a beach and must confront its fear of the ocean. The granular detail that director Alan Barillaro achieves is impressive, especially as the diminutive chick engages in a battle of the wills with a hermit crab several times smaller; when the bird throws sand in the crab’s face, viewers can discern the lovingly crafted detail in each grain of sand. The final shot borrows the cinematic syntax of happy lovers running along a beach, but with the slight change that the lovers are the sandpiper and the ocean, now coexisting harmoniously. With its repurposing of familiar visual tropes and intense attention to detail, this short seems likely to peck away the competition and scoop up the Oscar on Sunday.
“Do we look at the world through the eyes of Vaysha the Blind?” the narrator of this fable from Canada asks at the end of its eight minutes. This one-of-a-kind creation uses woodcut-like illustrations to recount the life of a girl whose green left eye only showed visions of the past while her red right eye constantly showed the future. The question that ends the short film comes after the narrator implores viewers to close each eye and ask which perspective — past or future — would be preferable; from the left eye’s vantage, all art has yet to be created, while the ravages of time turn it to dust on the right. In this attempt at audience engagement, director Theodore Ushev asks viewers to consider how their own perception influences their experiences of the world. This introspection — fortified by an animation style that draws on the history of illustration and printmaking — is what makes this the most powerful film of this year’s nominees.
Pear Cider and Cigarettes
Robert Valley’s Pear Cider and Cigarettes — a true story of Valley’s improbably named friend Techno Stypes and his bouts with alcoholism — runs at the end of each screening due to its adult content. At the Saturday afternoon screening I attended, several children were in the crowd with parents, but they all stayed after the content warning. It was telling to see them slowly trickle out during Pear Cider and Cigarettes’s excessive, 35-minute runtime. The families were more likely exhausted by the film’s immaturity — the narrator talks about everything from cocaine to pubic hair in a comically misconceived, tough guy growl — than worried that their children were too immature for the film’s content. The Photoshop animation is reminiscent of the style employed in Valley’s work on Gorillaz music videos, but it gets a bit on-the-nose sometimes. Switching Techno from a color drawing to a black-and-white sketch would make for an effectively jarring shift in telling the story of someone whose life is a series of jarring shifts, but it loses much of its power when accompanied by the narrator’s head-slappingly expository grumble, “Techno was sketched out.” At least this Canadian/British co-production gives you the easy out of a content warning; take the cue and leave the theater instead of paying this heavy-handed exercise any mind.