This year’s Academy Award nominees in the Animated Short Film category are kind of downer for a medium that’s often associated with uplifting children’s fare. In “Dear Basketball,” director Glen Keane partners with basketball legend Kobe Bryant to tell the story of the star’s retirement from the sport. The French “Garden Party” follows a cadre of amphibians as they pick over the detritus of a luxurious party at an opulent estate mysteriously devoid of residents. Pixar’s “Lou” begins with a playground bully robbing children of their cherished toys, and “Negative” Space features a character mourning his absentee father. Finally, the framing device of “Revolting Rhymes” — the longest of the bunch at 29 minutes — focuses on a character describing the deaths of his nephews. Despite the theme of loss, viewers can take heart in knowing that their time and money will not be lost if they catch one of the many theatrical screenings; this is the first crop of nominees in many years without a single dud.
Kobe Bryant announced his retirement from the sport that dominated his life in a November 29, 2015 letter to The Players’ Tribune. That letter serves as the basis for Glen Keane’s short film as Bryant reads the letter over colored pencil illustrations. The sketchy pencil drawings also allow the protagonist to slide back and forth between child Kobe and adult Kobe, making apparent the importance of basketball throughout the decades of Bryant’s life. However, the MVP of this short is Bryant’s voicework. While no particular line readings stand out, the wistful love of the sport can be discerned from his voice without seeing a single image.
The dialogue-free short “Garden Party” is easily my favorite of this year’s nominees. Produced by a group of six French animation students, this computer-generated 3D spectacle is downright stunning. Detail abounds on every surface. Visual minutiae are so finely tuned that each of the frogs hopping their way through the aftermath of a decadent party is rendered in a unique texture, reflecting their personalities. While the obese bullfrog gorging on sweets and caviar is riddled with bumps and granules of dirt that reflect his slovenly nature, the curious tree frog’s body is a smooth surface conducive to stealth. As the invaders pillage the luxury home, the viewer gets to enjoy two equally compelling stories in a scant six minutes: the journey of the frogs and the mystery of what happened to the home’s owners, which is gruesomely solved in the short’s final seconds.
If you’re reading this article for tips on your office Oscar pool, let me help you: Dave Mullins’s “Lou” — like most previous Pixar shorts in this category — is likely to win. Continuing the Pixar tradition of anthropomorphizing inanimate objects which started with Toy Story, “Lou” is the story of the contents of a lost and found box (whose missing letters spell the film’s title) teaching a bully named JJ an important lesson about stealing toys. What’s truly interesting in Lou is the rendering of movement. The box’s contents transform into a Frankenstein’s monster composed of objects like a hoodie, a toy dump truck, and a tennis racket topped off with baseball eyes. With every jerk and stumble in its pursuit of and escape from JJ, Mullins convincingly shows how this shambolic creature with no feet might move.
Stop motion animation is particularly crucial to this study by Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter of an emotionally stunted man memorializing his traveling salesman father. The halting, inhuman movements of stop motion are well-suited to portraying the narrator’s estrangement. His body also resembles a papier-mâchéd cooking spoon, sporting a big head that makes him seem even more alien. The unnamed protagonist attempts to find closure by recounting his father’s lessons for packing a suitcase, and as he describes the process, shoes, pants, and shirts fold themselves and make their way into the baggage. While the film feels a bit lightweight with its less-than-five-minute runtime, the visuals of “Negative Space” provide a welcome respite from the other nominees’ hand-drawn and computer-generated animation.
The final nominee adapts Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake’s 1982 children’s book of the same name, although the 3D computer-generated animation smoothes away some of the chaotic personality of Blake’s illustrations. While subversive re-imaginings of fairy tales have been done to death in recent years, “Revolting Rhymes,” by Jan Lauchauer and Jakob Schuh, innovates by repurposing the shared universe trope of contemporary storytelling. The stories are united by the framing device of a wolf — voiced by Dominic West, known to many as Detective Jimmy McNulty of The Wire — meeting an older woman in a diner and telling her the true stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and the Three Little Pigs. In this telling, Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White are good friends, and the wolves that menace Little Red Riding Hood and the pigs are the nephews of West’s canine. By linking these well-known legends, Lachauer and Schuh highlight the tropes common to all of them, unearthing the truths that make these children’s fables resonate throughout the ages.