Just like last year, the Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films are an uneven lot, leaning toward the undistinguished. So far as I’m concerned, only two of them really belong in contention. Even there, I have no trouble picking my choice for the winner. (How Academy voters feel is another matter.) Also like last year, their combined running time has come up short, and the program has been filled out with other (presumably) worthwhile animated shorts that were not nominated.
Bear Story (Historia de un Oso). Director: Gabriel Osorio. Country: Chile. This little 11-minute film strikes me as the clear winner. The animation is exceptional. The images are gorgeous. The colors are striking. The completely visual story is simple, yet eloquent and moving. The entire film is built around the life story of an anthropomorphic bear, which he tells as a street performer through a clockwork diorama of his own making. It’s clever and creative — and almost makes sitting through the lesser entries worthwhile.
Prologue. Director: Richard Williams. Country: UK. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Prologue. As animation — painstakingly hand-drawn — it would be hard to fault, and it undeniably has its own distinctive look. But the title is pretty apt. Indeed, this is like a prologue to a movie that doesn’t exist. Essentially, it’s a six-minute battle between a Spartan and an Athenian warrior. That’s it. Excellent for what it is. But what it is, isn’t much.
Sanjay’s Super Team. Director: Sanjay Patel. Country: U.S. Here’s the one entry that you stand a fair chance of having seen, since it was shown before Pixar’s dismal The Good Dinosaur — and it was, at least, better than the feature. It is also pretty clearly Oscar’s annual nod to something from Pixar or Disney. What we have here is a pleasant, innocuous seven-minute film about a young Indian-American boy, Sanjay, in conflict with his more religious Indian-born father. The bridge between them is, it seems, the boy coming to view Hindu gods as super-heroes. Pleasant enough, but nothing more.
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos. Director: Konstantin Bronzit. Country: Russia. At 16 minutes, this Russian film is one of the longer contenders. It’s also one of the better ones, and I’d put it second only to Bear Story. It’s basically a story of friendship that just happens to be between two over-achiever cosmonauts. The drawing is simple (just this side of Hanna-Barbera), and the animation (which leans heavily on cycled footage) is pretty basic. But the film has a pleasantly dry sense of humor, a quiet touch of the absurd and a real heart beneath it all.
World of Tomorrow. Director: Don Hertzfeldt. Country: U.S. The longest film in the set (by one minute). And, frankly, it feels it. However, it should be noted that I do not get the appeal of Don Hertzfeldt and his stick-figure animation — at all. I have a friend who likes to send e-cards where a vaguely female cat says rude or disconcerting things in a monotone English accent. That is exactly what World of Tomorrow of reminded me of in both voice acting and level of humor. The whole idea is that a little girl’s clone from the distant future takes the kid on a look at her disconcerting life (or lives) to come. Some seem to find it profound. You may be among them.