The Oscar-nominated Animated Shorts challenge viewers to face the many forms of grief

2020 Oscar Shorts — Animated

FilmScene—Chauncey — various showtimes

Blue Carpet Bash

FilmScene—Chauncey — Sunday, Feb. 9 at 5:30 p.m.

Dcera (Daughter) — video still

More than a few years back, I recall asking an acquaintance if they were at all interested in seeing a certain animated film, probably a recent Pixar release, and they said with true joy in their heart, “Oh yes, I love kids’ movies.”

This person has since become like family to me, and I find it more than a little fascinating that this interaction — benign as it is — continues to stay with me ten years after the fact. I attach this generalization to almost every and any animated film I see, asking, “Kids’ movie? Or not?” I think it’s a pretty understandable conclusion to draw a connection between animated films and films made for children, certainly on the grand Hollywood stage.

Through the mainstream film industry, it’s a truly rare animated film not aimed at a younger audience. In recent years, we could point to the hysterically offensive Sausage Party, the existentially profound Anomolisa or this year’s nominee for Best Animated Film, I Lost My Body, as examples of adult animation, but they are part of the notable few in a field truly dominated by Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks and Illumination.

This is such a big part of what makes the Oscar-nominated Animated Shorts an exciting annual treat. Perhaps more than any of the other 23 categories, these nominees come with the promise of fresh, risk-taking perspectives. The medium of animation is truly limitless, and for being so constrained within the mainstream, there is something liberating to view the artistic shorts explore, push and reinvent themselves for the betterment of their own narratives. With these five stories, ranging between 7 and 15 minutes, audiences experience five different, inventive and singular pieces that share a very specific theme.

Throughout the 51 minutes of nominees (the program is 83 minutes in total, as it also features three “Honorable Mentions” not reviewed here), there is an examination of grief and loss soaked in the fabric of images, abstract and human all at once. If that sounds too heavy, it’s understandable. But grief is not inherently heavy or sad. It’s the way we process change and the adjustment to a new normal; it’s natural and necessary.

Hair Love — video still

In director Matthew A. Cherry’s Hair Love (7 min.), a single black father attempts to do his daughter’s hair for the first time. His failures are charmingly framed as a father-vs-hair, Rocky-esque boxing match. There is no dialogue spoken between the father and daughter, but what they are not saying is deafening, as both acknowledge the person who could always tame the hair, who’s not there. It’s a striking illustration of the rippling effects of loss and how it permeates through even the most “normal” aspects of life.

The animation in this short is perhaps the most “mainstream” in style and technique — vibrant, colorful and realistic. It’s also notable that the film was funded through Kickstarter and eventually released by Sony Pictures. This notoriety, coupled with being the most crowd-pleasing of the bunch, make it a virtual lock for the gold, though it certainly has competition in one of the category’s most prominent victors.

Kitbull — video still

Pixar has won two of the past four awards in this category and is looking for the hat trick with Kitbull (9 min.), directed by Rosana Sullivan — but will most likely fall short. Beautifully animated, Kitbull is the story of a stray cat who observes, pities and eventually befriends a sweet pitbull chained up in the backyard of a warehouse used for dogfights. Though certainly affecting in all the ways it’s trying to be, including endearing characterizations of the animal duo, it often feels like Pixar is trying too hard to win the audience’s vote.

Cute animals? Check. Sad premise? Check. Strong stance against a practice that all decent people reject? Check. The emotions here feel manipulative, but that’s not necessarily a reason to dismiss it. Pixar remains masters of their artform, and the art-design and narrative will most certainly please a wide audience, but it fails to dig any deeper than what is required to elicit an emotional response.

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Sister — video still

Nothing could be further from the truth, however, for two other nominees, which bravely explore alternate aspects of ambiguous grief, demonstrating vulnerability and emotional intelligence through their unique stylizations. Sister (8 min.), directed by Siqi Song, is a socio-political examination of China’s One Child Policy through the lens of a child mourning a sister he fantasizes about, but never had.

The animation style is stop-motion and uses subjects made of fabric, at once making them feel textured and tangible, yet also inauthentic, like a felt puppet. This artistic choice sits in conflict as the viewer relates to something so clearly fabricated. The policy in question is presented as-is, without overt judgement, but with honest reflection of the effects such laws have on families, the only child and the parents forced to make heart-breaking choices. Its initial subversive nature lures you in, but the impact is meaningful.

Memorable — video still

This ambiguous loss, mourning someone who never existed, is inverted in the impressionistic Memorable (12min.), directed by Bruno Collet, as a painter succumbs to dementia while his wife cares for him; mourning the loss of a man who is still right in front of her. Though challenging to watch, this French short represents the very best of what animation has to offer in terms of artistic risks and fusing medium with narrative.

With most of the nominees, it’s easy to imagine that their stories could just be told through live action, yet Memorable demands its paints and clay models, insists they exist. Its through this narrative that we see this artist reframe the loss of his memory as artistic styles — his family and doctor, unrecognizable to him now, appear as surreal figures and Picasso-esque impressions, all representative of his world-view slipping into the only thing he has left: art. Even his sense of self changes and morphs from scene to scene, from realism to Van Gogh textures, until the world itself can no longer contain color. It’s a devastating work of brilliance, and it would be deserving of this, and all other, awards.

Dcera (Daughter) — video still

And yet, it’s in the final nominee, one very akin to Memorable, that is this year’s crowning achievement in animation short-form, infusing animation style with the emotion of the story. Dcera (Daughter) (15 min.), directed by Daria Kashcheeva, transcends both style and narrative, leaning heavily on its relationships and heartbreak. The short feels almost dreamlike, told not particularly from the perspective of the person mourning, but more from the grief itself, as though it were a character. Daughter uses ceramic dolls painted impressionistically and without true form, a representation of the messiness that is the human experience.

Free of dialogue, the pain shared and felt between the father and daughter in this story feels almost visceral, furthered by a camera that feels handheld and present. These are not static or drawn shots, but rather carefully executed stop motion camera movements, to represent something raw and real. There is a lot unsaid in Daughter, both between the characters and to the audience. There are images of pain and death and struggle, some understandable, some not. It’s a deluge of perception, perspective and penance — and there is perhaps no more true and relatable feeling in film this year.

This is what the animated short form is intrinsically capable of. It’s a playground for risky choices and inventive narratives. Each year, It appears that the cynicism toward the Academy Awards escalates more and more. Not that it’s unearned, as it often feels one step forward two steps back in terms of progressive, equal nominations and representation. And it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at the ways in which big-budget films and producers flush with cash are able to influence the votes. A ceremony meant to celebrate the art of movies, has slowly removed “art” from that mission statement.

But artistry is alive and well in the short-form, and no better representation of that can be found than in the animated films. Three of the five nominees are directed by women, three by people of color, and two of the films specifically represent cultures and relevant cultural experiences outside the white, privileged perspective typically lifted up by the Academy. Representation, advocacy, compassion and artistry do exist within this divisive ceremony, and they are right here. Come and get them.

The Oscar-nominated Animated Shorts are playing at FilmScene now through Feb. 6. Parents should be aware that while they are not explicitly adult-only, most themes and styles depicted in these shorts are fairly heavy and advanced. Read all about the 2020 Oscar Shorts — Documentary and 2020 Oscar Shorts — Live Action, both also continuing at FilmScene.

The 92nd Academy Awards will air live on Sunday, Feb. 9 at 7 p.m. on ABC. FilmScene will be screening the awards during their annual Blue Carpet Bash, free to the public and presented at the new Chauncey Location.