I have a piece up at Hammer to Nail on the 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary shorts. Those 5 films set the bar very high, and were I part of the Academy, I would have a hard time determining the winner. Unfortunately, the other two categories of short films – animated and live-action – are not nearly as consistently strong. Here are my thoughts on the animation category, in order by my preference:
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos (“Мы не можем жить без космоса”) (Konstantin Bronzit, 16min.)
By far my favorite, this beautiful Russian movie, from animator Konstantin Bronzit (Lavatory Lovestory, also Oscar-nominated, back in 2009), tells the story of two childhood friends training for their first space flight. Always at the top of their class, they dream of nothing but traveling into the cosmos. As expected, they are both chosen, as #1 and #2, for the next mission. Unfortunately, #2 is a reserves-only position, but he watches good-naturedly as his lifelong pal suits up and blasts off. What happens next is both moving and memorable. Animated in a 2D style that reminds one of the great Tintin comics of yore, especially the 1953 and 1954 albums Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, We Can’t Live Without Cosmos is as funny as it is profound. And lucky you, dear reader, it is available on YouTube. I highly recommend.
World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeldt, 17min.)
In many ways, this is the most original of the bunch. Animated in a deceptively child-like drawing style (director Don Hertzfeld is known for his stick figures), World of Tomorrow tackles issues of identity, technology and the intersection of both in a metaphysical mix that is as amusing as it is thoughtful. We follow young “Emily-prime” – the first in a series of clones – on a journey through time that unsettles even as it entertains. A future descendent of hers has invited her forward to her own era to discuss the present, past and future of their shared existence. That future Emily is lonely, and we get the sense that life for an eternally returning consciousness is not, perhaps, something to be coveted. She utters this great sentence to her originator: “You can only appreciate the present once it becomes the past” (or something like that). At times, though, the movie descends into tangents that are a little too silly, and the sound mix is not always perfect (the dialogue is overrun by the music and effects), which is why it is not, ultimately, as artistically successful as my first choice, above. Still, it’s an ambitious effort that rewards careful viewing, and since it’s now on Netflix, you can (and should) watch it there.
Bear Story (“Historia de un oso”) (Gabriel Osorio Vargas, 11min.)
From an animation standpoint, this movie is beautiful. First-time movie director Gabriel Osorio Vargas clearly has talent. The story, however, while incredibly imaginative, is also a bit too nonsensical for my taste. In a world of bears, our main character’s odyssey is told through a mechanically animated device that is half-player piano/half-organ grinder, cranked by one such bear whose backstory is in some way linked to that of the bear inside his device … maybe. In other words, there is a movie within the movie, itself animated within the world of the movie. That primary bear’s story is set in a circus, where evil bosses force him to perform his act. The fact that the motivations of both our protagonist and his foes are never fully explained proved too distracting to me for the gorgeous images to completely win me over, but if narrative coherence is less important to you, then this film has much to offer.
Prologue (Richard Williams, 6min.)
This film comes with a disclaimer (at least it does when part of the packaged pre-Oscar roadshow), warning of intense violence and nudity within. Yes, there is gore, and yes, we see male genitalia, but by 21st-century standards these images are relatively mild. I suspect that were this film not animated, no such warning would be deemed necessary; however, since we (erroneously) assume that animated films are made with children in mind, someone felt it imperative to include the warning. Perhaps, also, since there is an actual child within the story, who witnesses the on-screen violence, that same someone may have found the film especially brutal. That’s all fine, but I wish the film were stronger. There is no real story, just a battle – taking place in some undefined ancient past – in which all four men involved do serious damage with swords, arrows and spears. It’s the shortest film of the lot – expressively drawn, like a shimmering charcoal sketch, by veteran animator Richard Williams (Oscar-winner for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) – and so perhaps its lack of a defined narrative may not matter to some. Still, it feels too easy. Cue violence, cut to child, and voilà, we have a moving story. I beg to differ.
Sanjay’s Super Team (Sanjay Patel, 7min.)
Finally, we have this well-intentioned story of a young boy learning to be proud of his culture. All Sanjay wants to do is play with his (white) action figures while watching his (white) superhero show on TV. When his father forces him to pray alongside him to his Hindu deities, Sanjay sulks. But then, all of a sudden, he finds himself imagining a world where these gods are just like the cartoon heroes he worships. When he emerges from his daydream, Sanjay decides to draw his own comic strip, in which these Indian characters are now the stars. I approve of the sentiments. But not of the treacle, which is layered on thick. Nor of the derivate visuals (flying martial-arts fighters), stolen directly from more original movies like the Kung Fu Panda series. Sanjay’s Super Team played, this past fall, before screenings of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (another film I did not like). Like that movie, it is cute enough, harmless, and utterly mediocre.