The Animated Short category at the Oscars offers a chance for riskier and more experimental movies to shine. The full-length animated feature category is usually reserved for the most popular animated features of the year, which certainly includes some incredible films, like Coco, and Shrek, but it also includes less honorable ones, like Kung Fu Panda 2 and The Boss Baby. In the compressed length, short filmmakers have more freedom. The 2019 nominations for Animated Short are a melancholic collection of mostly wordless meditations on the loneliness of parenthood, from divorce to Alzheimer’s. All of the nominated shorts, including live-action and documentary, will screen at Regent Square Theater starting Feb. 8.
Bao, the most well-known of the shorts for its Pixar production and its in-theater appearance before The Incredibles 2, packs impressive emotional complexity. Directed by Chinese-Canadian Domee Shi, the story follows a human mother as she lovingly raises and cares for her dumpling son, who soon hits puberty and wants nothing to do with his mother. Her heartbreak reveals the relationship to be an allegory for the relationship with her human son. It encompasses the intricacies of the cultural differences between a Chinese immigrant mother and her Canadian-born son, as well as the general empty-nest loneliness universal with motherhood. It’s a sad but sweet movie, made with obvious heartfelt dedication.
Anthropomorphized animals work out their creature-specific problems in group therapy in Animal Behaviour. Directed by David Fine and Alison Snowden, the film is also the only one in the selection that’s not especially kid-friendly. A praying mantis complains about her 1,000 children and her inability to keep a man due to killing/eating him during sex. A bird recalls the childhood trauma of pushing his brother out of a tree. The group gets shaken up when an ape in denial about his anger issues barges in.
The movie is a little too on the nose, giving each animal the exact ailment you might predict. It’s a fun premise, but doesn’t provide the human-insight-in-animal-cartoons with the same skill as, say, Bojack Horseman.
Emily, an aging Irish woman struggling with memory loss drinks tea as she remembers brief flashes of her life in Late Afternoon, directed by Louise Bagnall. While reminiscing, her caretaker Kate packs up the room, periodically giving Emily objects that trigger her memory. The animation style is sparse but beautiful, as Emily’s happiest memories dissolve into each other, disappearing just as they come together. The score is a twinge to the heart, underlining the bittersweetness of a woman who’s had a rich life but can’t remember most of it.
Like many other featured shorts, One Small Step, directed by Bobby Pontillas and Andrew Chesworth, is about heartbreak in the relationship between parent and child. The Chinese-American film is a familiar story about Luna, the daughter of a cobbler who dreams of becoming an astronaut. As she gets absorbed in her schoolwork, Luna becomes more distant from her father, until his death sparks an awakening. The animation is typical cute fare, with big eyes and button noses. And while the story is nothing groundbreaking, it’s tender and heartwarming, and refreshing to see the rare story where a girl becomes an astronaut.
Rounding out the selections is Weekends, a slow-moving hand-drawn film that is the longest of the selection at 15 minutes. Directed by Trevor Jimenez and set in 1980s Toronto, centers around a young boy coping with his parents’ divorce, as he gets shuffled between his mom’s house in the country and his dad’s apartment in the city. It takes on a dreamlike quality as the boy’s favorite companion is a large wooden horse, which he sits atop, imaging he were on the roof of his dad’s building overlooking the city. As his parents fall in and out of new relationship, the boy learns to accept his life’s unpredictable changes. The animation is beautifully eerie and bleak, with the only words coming from “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits blasting from a car radio.
Oscar Shorts open at Regent Square Theater on Feb. 8.