Oscar Animated Shorts: 'Negative Space' for Gold!

Negative Space
What a delightful crop of films one finds among this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short! These five films illustrate a spectrum of animation techniques and styles, so picking a winner is no easy feat and, to some extent, simply a matter of taste. From hand-drawn sketches of life to a 3D gong show and from a personal stop-motion fable to a dark reimagining of nursery rhymes, there’s something for everyone in this field of contenders. Add the novelty of the phrase “Academy Award nominee Kobe Bryant,” and a ticket for the programme is money well spent.

However, the spectrum of nominees must start at the bottom, and the gong for worst in show easily goes to LOU (Dir. Dave Mullin; USA, 7 min.). LOU gives Pixar its obligatory annual spot in the shorts category, but don’t expect the animation house to leave the big show with two Oscars in hand. (Its win for the feature Coco is inevitable.) This short is beneath the legacy of the Pixar empire. The 3D computer animation is basic, uninspired, and unimaginative with its pandering story about a schoolyard bully who learns a lesson from the crudely animated items of the Lost & Found box. LOU feels strained even at seven minutes as the two monsters go tête-à-tête and the bully discovers how to be good with materialism serving as a vehicle for cheaply cathartic vibes. The film emotionally manipulative even by Pixar standards and surely has the voters of whichever members are responsible for nominating equally moronic crap Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

Much better and brighter is the wacky Garden Party (Dir. Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Victor Caire, Théophile Dufresne, Gabriel Grapperon, Lucas Navarro; France, 7 min.). The film sees a bunch of frogs feast on the remains of a lavish party littering the grounds of a swanky mansion. They nibble on macarons, roll in silk sheets, and lounge by the pool. However, as the day darkens, so does the film and Garden Party reveals sinister notes of violence that mark the house. What looks like a raucous party becomes a crime scene, yet these innocent animals know that the mice may play when the cat’s away. The computer-generated animation of this dark fable is simply stunning with water and glass that sparkle with breathtaking clarity and animals rendered in such vivid detail that one almost feels the textures of their screen by caressing the screen. The real stars here, however, are the delicate shifts in tone that subversively spin the film from a kids’ story to becoming a droll and violent affair. Garden Party has a wicked sense of humour.

Black comedy and storybook spirit go hand in hand as well in Revolting Rhymes (Dir. Jan Lachauer, Jakob Schuh, Bin-han To; UK, 29 min.), which has a lark adapting the children’s book by Roald Dahl. Dominic West and Tamsin Greig voice a big bad wolf and a babysitter, respectively, who wait in a café to visit some kids. The wolf recounts stories about his two lost cubs and he narrates a playful verse that draws upon all the staples of fairy tale lore with Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Three Little Pigs colliding in a tragedy in which little wolves are poor victims of voracious appetites. Revolting Rhymes treads familiar territory since other films have given storybook classics dark and similarly self-reflexive adaptations, but the film is very clever with the sinister singsong narration with which the wolf sets his trap for revenge. At half an hour, it’s longer than all of the other nominees combined, but doesn’t overstay its welcome thanks to its playful spirit.

Dear Basketball (Dir. Glen Keane; USA, 6 min.), on the other hand, keeps things short and sweet. This animated poem makes a worthy Oscar nominee out of basketball star Kobe Bryant who narrates a love letter to the sport that saved him. Beautiful hand drawn sketches make this short and intimate film an inspiring affair as Keane illustrates a young boy’s humble love for the game that grows and encourages more young players to pursue their dreams. The music by John Williams is buoyantly triumphant and the film lets Bryant soar through an unabashed love for the game. There’s just something so honest and sincere to the film that makes its passion so pure. Watch Dear Basketball in full below:

Finally, the Oscar shorts get a slam dunk with Negative Space (Dir. Max Porter, Ru Kuwahata; France, 5 min.), an ingenious ode to the lessons with which parents prepare their kids for life and all its disappointments from the team behind the brilliant Something Left, Something Taken, which was probably the best animated short I ever saw covering the dearly departed Worldwide Short Film Festival. Negative Space crafts a touching eulogy for a departed father as young Sam recalls his memory of his dad going away on business trips and leaving the family at home while jetting off to one part of the world or another. The clever fusion of style and storytelling recounts the father-son relationship through the small suitcase that Sam’s father packs efficiently for each trip. Stop-motion animation folds, rolls, tucks, and sorts the shirts, pants, socks, and undies that Sam and his father stow away with expert care as belts slither like snakes and shoes clop through the air with their footsteps providing simple memories that connect father and son despite their geographical distance. Negative Space has a great spring to its step as Sam, his father, and their well-tucked valises move through the frame with an idiosyncratic beat. Porter and Kuwahata’s character style also gives the humans a refreshingly offbeat look. Rather than try to make lifelike humans—an endeavour in animation that I never understand, and can be seen in the dead-eyed children of LOUNegative Space creates its world with a true originality of vision. This quirky short is the most original work of the bunch both narratively and aesthetically, delivering both witty laughs and a heartfelt punch. Negative Space packs in five quick, economical minutes a film that is as efficiently bundled as the dad’s travel bag. It's a beautiful and flat-out brilliant film worthy of Oscar gold. Watch Negative Space in full (with Spanish subtitles) below:

Which short gets your vote?

The Oscar Animated Shorts open in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on Feb. 9 and in Ottawa at The Bytowne on Feb. 23.