Monday, February 15, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Animated Short

Best Animated Short nominee Bear Story tells a moving tale of oppression and loss.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Animated Short

The nominees are:

Bear Story
Sanjay’s Super Team
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
World of Tomorrow

I missed the obvious in this category last year, and I will try not to do that again. Last year, I predicted the deeply emotional, beautifully rendered The Dam Keeper to win this category. My reason was that if voters had to see the movies, there is no way they could not vote for it. The rules, however, recently changed, and voters no longer are required to prove they have seen all the shorts to vote on the category. That means the most popular film – or at least, the one most will have seen – is the most likely winner.

That leaves us with two frontrunners this year – a gorgeous little tale of cultural acceptance from the Pixar machine and an epic of futurism and human folly from one of the most inventive and imaginative animators in the business. Any of the other three could win, but Pixar has the name recognition, while Don Hertzfeldt’s short has been on Netflix for months now, making those the two most available nominees. It should not work that way – obviously, it should be about the work, not just who sees the work – but here we are.

Sanjay’s Super Team – Director Sanjay Patel and producer Nicole Paradis Grindle have crafted a gently moving story about a young boy who learns to accept and embrace his culture. The boy, Sanjay, settles in to watch his favorite superhero show, but his father insists he practice their religion first. It is not that Sanjay does not care about Hinduism, but when you are a child, superheroes are a lot more fun. While he is supposed to be in prayerful meditation, Sanjay takes a journey in his mind in which he imagines the Hindu gods as superheroes battling a demon from the darkness.

The animation is beautiful and shifts mediums with ease, portraying the real world in a more classical Pixar style while showing Sanjay’s imagination in a more Saturday morning cartoon style but with the edge and polish of Pixar. Of course, as we said yesterday in discussing Best Original Screenplay, Pixar is a story-first company, and Sanjay’s Super Team builds to an emotionally powerful climax in which both father and son find common cultural ground.

World of Tomorrow – Despite not yet being 40, Hertzfeldt is a legend in the animation world and has created some of the most inventive, influential work of the last 15 years. He is probably most famous for his previous Oscar nominee in this category, Rejected, which was a cult hit before the Internet but blew up in popularity with the advent of YouTube and content-sharing websites. Hertzfeldt has been a cultural force since his early 20s, but he never has lost his independent edge or sardonic view of the world.

World of Tomorrow tells a complex tale of the future, filtered through modern cultural mores and expectations. In the future, there will be cloning and time travel, and people, through their clones, will live for hundreds of years, but the effects will be disastrous, and none of this will hold off the inevitable. A later-generation clone brings her prime, the person from whom she was cloned, forward in time to show her how the world will look and tell her what will be important to her as she grows and experiences more.

It turns into a mediation on humanity and the ways we both waste our time on this planet and find little things to make that time meaningful. The animation, in true Hertzfeldt style, is a shambolic trip through the deteriorating mind of a dying clone. Only Hertzfeldt could create something this funny, this sad, this jarring, and this contemplative and make it both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Bear Story – From Chilean director Gabriel Osorio and producer Pato Escala Pierart, Bear Story is a tragic tale of longing and loss that works on multiple levels as a family drama, political protest, and environmental message. It also features my favorite animation of the bunch, switching styles at its midway point to tell the backstory of its protagonist the way he communicates with the world, through the complex inner workings of a music box.

The story is of an anthropomorphized bear kidnapped from his wife and child and forced to perform in a traveling circus with other kidnapped animals. It is impossible to watch the film and not think of the terrible atrocities committed under the regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and in fact, Osorio’s grandfather was exiled from Chile in the 1970s. If we take it at face value, however, it still communicates an important message about the way we treat the other living beings on our planet – humans included. Finally, it is a simple story of a man (or bear) enduring pain and humiliation but persevering so that he might see his family again someday. Simply, it is wonderful.

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos – Russian writer-director Konstantin Bronzit was previously nominated for his animated short Lavatory Lovestory in 2008. This time, he turns his eye to outer space but keeps his story focused on the simple lives of two people with a dream. We Can’t Live Without Cosmos focuses on two best friends in the Russian cosmonaut program whose only dream their whole lives has been to travel into space. They work hard, have fun, and never lose sight of either their shared dream or their friendship.

When one of them finally is chosen for the mission, everything goes wrong, and the story transitions into one about overcoming depression and finding a way to cope with loss within a dehumanizing system. The animation is simple but effective, and the story incorporates a magical realism that prepares us for the film’s beautiful final passages. There is nothing wrong with We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, but against this field, it feels comparatively lightweight.

Prologue – Director Richard Williams and producer Imogen Sutton’s pencil-drawn Prologue works more like a poem than a traditional story, showing us the violence of men throughout history in the most graphic ways possible. There is nothing wrong with nudity or graphic violence, and in this case, both are natural outgrowths of the story being told, but none of it adds up to much.

The premise seems to be humans – or more specifically, men – have been violent forever, and we should be shocked by that, or it is sad that is the case, or something. For its thematic and storytelling shortcomings, the fluidity and detail of the pencil animation is stunning to behold. A lot of effort ends up onscreen, but that effort means little in the service of something this empty.

Sutton is a first-time nominee, while Williams has been nominated and won twice, once for Best Animated Short in 1972 and once for Best Visual Effects for his animation work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He also received a special Academy Award for the animation direction on that film. Williams is a massive talent, but I wish he had applied that talent to a more focused story.

The final analysis

The three best films in this category – Sanjay’s Super Team, World of Tomorrow, and Bear Story – are orders of magnitude better than the other nominees, and if there is any justice, voters will recognize that. Any one of these three would be a deserving, impressive winner. One can never underestimate the Academy’s affinity for hand-drawn, classical animation styles, so Prologue cannot be counted out, but those voters likely will turn to Hertzfeldt. In the end, I think it comes down to Pixar vs. Hertzfeldt, and it just seems more people will have seen the Pixar short.

Will win: Sanjay’s Super Team
Should win: World of Tomorrow
Should have been here: The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse

Tomorrow: Best Live Action Short

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