Don’t even think of taking the kids to see the Oscar-nominated animated shorts this year. The five animated shorts in contention are a varied bunch. They might comprise the wackiest group in recent memory. There is one cuddly animal movie, mind you, but these shorties are glaringly anti-cat, dark, and twisted. With that said, there’s some R-rated brilliance here. Some of these animated shorts are Oscar-nominated for a reason. They’re an acquired taste, but appealing snapshots of contemporary animation.
Affairs of the Art
The British-Canadian co-production Affairs of the Art, for one, puts our tax dollars to good use. This National Film Board of Canada flick is a frazzled and frenzied hand-drawn delight. British director Joanna Quinn offers a personal story of artistic inspiration as Beryl (Menna Trussler) recounts her evolution as an artist. It’s a madcap tale as she reflects upon her relationship with her dead-beat son, Colin, her husband/life model, Ifor, and her sister Beverly. Beryl gabs about an artistic journey that began with taxidermy lessons on the family dog and graduated to eclectic portraiture. Bev, meanwhile, sees her body as a canvas and nips and tucks it into a work of art.
Quinn ingeniously crafts the artistic process into the animation aesthetic as Affairs of the Art features a whirlwind of pencil strokes and sketches. As Beryl learns how to convey motion, Quinn accentuates the artistic beats that define the process. The storm of strokes captures the rhythm and energy entailed in hand-drawn works. Similarly, the film has a lot of fun with ideas of decay and beauty as the sisters debate their bodies. The film has a morbid sense of humour, including a jarring act of felinicide, but Affairs spins the ugly into art. Affairs is the 76th nominated film for the NFB, and while it might be too edgy for a category that almost exclusively honours family fare, it’s a welcome subversion of the genre. (Watch it here.)
Another dark tale among the Oscar-nominated animated shorts, Bestia is a stop-motion nightmare. This Chilean entry directed by Hugo Covarrubias is a deranged fever dream. Bestia is a wordless portrait of Ingrid, a hired-hand for the Chilean Intelligence Directorate in 1975. The animation and technique are brilliant here. The story, however, is less so. Bestia never really clicks as Ingrid finds herself trapped in a violent loop. She decapitates her dog one day and then the puppy eats her out the next. Knives spin and bodies pile up. Covarrubias traps Ingrid in a cycle of violence that evokes a fatalistic sleepwalking act. Her dog barks incessantly to rouse her from her slumber, but to no avail.
Covarrubias uses figurines and found objects to evoke the sense of time and place. Ingrid seems frozen, like a relic of a violent past. While these objects are eclectic, the film borders upon opaque. Bestia, however, offers a provocative trip—but also the least accessible contender among the nominees.
The Windshield Wiper
An admirable misfire, meanwhile, comes in The Windshield Wiper. Admittedly, I completely forgot everything about this film in the days between watching it and reviewing it. The short, following a re-watch, is a decent exercise in connection and memory. It’s a free flowing essay about contemporary alienation, sex, and romance. However, the animation is the most rudimentary of the batch, and the story offers little new. As the middle-aged romantic at the centre of the film ponders existence as images whir through the frame, The Windshield Wiper is a fleeting, ephemeral experience. The blizzard of idea and images are too chaotic to land an impression, though. It’s a bit disappointing considering films like Zacharias Kunuk’s The Shaman’s Apprentice missed the cut. (Watch it here.)
Far stronger when it comes to the messy dance of love is Boxballet. This wordless Russian ditty is dark and tough, but has a big heart. Directed by Anton Dyakov, Boxballet is a pas de deux between ballerina Olya and boxer Evgeny. They have a chance encounter that sparks unexpected flutters of the heart. As they begin an awkward, cautious courtship, they both pursue their respective careers. Boxballet fluidly contrasts the physicality of both their crafts. Lyrical dance sequences showcase Olya’s flexibility, agility, and grace. Rough and intense boxing sequences let audiences feel the visceral blows that Evgeny receives and delivers. The film delicately navigates the elements of gender roles both prescribed and internalized as the athletes face challenges both personally and professionally.
Dyakov creates striking dimensions to the Boxballet using a canvas of modest 2D animation. Aesthetically, Boxballet is an inventive design of sharp angles and personable textures. It actually offers a nice counterpoint to Affairs of the Art, as the film’s emphasis on motion and action, as well as its use of parallels and juxtaposition, evokes Art’s exploration of rhythm and tempo. There’s something to admire about Dyakov’s restraint. Boxballet might be the strongest of the Oscar-nominated animated shorts both aesthetically and editorially. It doesn’t need a single word to point an arrow straight at the heart.
On a much lighter note among the Oscar-nominated animated shorts, however, is Robin Robin. Netflix is the defending champion in this category after last year’s stupendous If Anything Happens, I Love You. While the streamer might have a tougher go with this fun film, Robin Robin also offers a default option for viewers/voters turned off by the dark humour of the other nominees. Directors Daniel Ojari and Michael Please offer a buoyant collaboration with Aardman Animation. This adventure continues the Aardman tradition for delightful stop-motion animal fables. Robin Robin is the story of a Robin who is raised as a mouse and learns the stealthy practice of stealing food from human’s houses. Eventually, Robin teams up with a thieving magpie (voiced brilliantly by Richard E. Grant) to learn the birding ways.
Although Robin Robin joins the decidedly anti-cat inclinations of other shorts in the series, the feline villain voiced by Gillian Anderson doesn’t meet a totally gruesome end. This entry is the most, or only, family-friendly film of the bunch. There are buoyant songs throughout the half-hour short. Fun calls to action let Robin and Magpie rejoice through birdsong. The lyrics, meanwhile, are clever and the spirit is lively. It’s a welcome respite from the darkness of the other contenders. Moreover, the stop-motion animation is top-notch with a great attention to detail. The film has the whole package with a smart script and energetic performances. Robin soars.