If the Academy Award gave prizes for the best film title, two of the Oscar nominated animated shorts would be in a dead heat. It’s a toss-up whether An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It or My Year of Dicks will inspire the most chuckles when their names are read on Oscar night. All five films in the Oscar nominated animated shorts programme promise to bring smiles to viewers’ faces though. These whimsical and loving composed works mark one of the better fields for this category in recent memory.
For example, a stirring family fable meets hand drawn animation in Ice Merchants. This silent wonder by director João Gonzalez offers a touching story about a father and his child who live high at mountaintop. They sail into town and trade their chunks of ice for food and hats. As the season goes on, though, the hats become notably redundant with the rising temperature. It threatens their business and way of life. Ice Merchants builds striking dramatic turns with its simple colour palette of reds and blues. It transports viewers through a smart essay on climate change with ample heart at its centre, although the final joke with the hats somewhat undermines the environmental parable by pulling at heartstrings atop a mountain of consumer culture waste. It’s touching, if a bit off.
Storybooks and Meta-Movies
Even the lesser nominee, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse is sweetly sentimental. Directors Peter Baynton and Charlie Mackesy adapt the latter’s short story about a boy who encounters three creatures. The film admittedly plays like an animated take on The Help’s “You is kind, you is smart, you is important” shtick as the boy, the mole, the fox, and, yes, the horse debate kindness, smarts, and self-worth. Kids will likely be taken by it—and it’s the only short nominee that feels a bit juvenile—but there is no denying the quality of the animation. This film has striking storybook aesthetics. It’s like watching a bedtime tale spring to life on screen. It should bring out the kid in all who see it.
Animals invite a darker chuckle in the aforementioned An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It. This meta-movie directed by Lachlan Pendragon is a droll consideration of the artifice of daily life. The film foregrounds the animation process as the bulk of the action plays out on a monitor. The screen within a screen shows the story of a telemarketer as he undergoes the daily grind of selling toasters. The green screen that surrounds the set accentuates the drabness of his office, while shots occasionally cut away from the monitor to reveal the full set that houses the stop-motion animation.
The film gets really philosophical when an ostrich visits the office and tells the weary salesman that his life is a lie. Moreover, Pendragon adds a spot of fun by reaching the off-screen animator’s hand into the frame. He pesters the salesperson and reminds everyone who is pulling the strings. Equally fun and thoughtful, An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It delivers exactly what its title promises and then some.
Here Come the Dicks!
Ostrich’s fellow nominee, My Year of Dicks, also delivers on the novelty of its title. Although it isn’t going for the same number of laughs, and doesn’t quite hit the same depths in its self-serious delivery, Dicks is an insightful coming of age tale. Director Sara Gunnarsdóttir recreates Pamela Ribon’s memoir about the year in which her sixteen-year-old self vowed to lose her virginity. The film follows Pamela through five chapters. Each one marks an attempted sexual escaped of varying degrees of disaster.
Although there are some fine observations about adolescence and maturity, My Year of Dicks represents a dilemma one has to face when choosing a favourite among the Oscar nominated animated shorts. How much does one recognize the writing compared to the animation? The script is the star of this short, but the animation itself is easily the weakest in the category. Stylistically and tonally, the film’s all over the place. There might be a better podcast to be had, but the story consistently engages even when the visuals are lacking.
Sailor Flies High
There actually aren’t any dicks to be seen in My Year of Dicks, so leave it to the National Film Board of Canada to let a little man fly to the Oscars. The Flying Sailor delivers the goods among the Oscar animated short films in many ways. Previous nominees Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby (When the Day Breaks, Wild Life) outdo themselves with this ingenious take on the Halifax Explosion. The Flying Sailor runs with the strange but true story of a sailor who shot sky high when the boats of Nova Scotia went kaboom! The film offers a dazzling flight of fancy as it charts the sailor’s balletic ride through smoke and debris. Forbis and Tilby create beautiful chaos with the dimensions of the wreckage, offering smoke that has a fineness that looks like real plumes billowing across the screen.
The Flying Sailor emerges as the singular voice among the nominees. It’s a surreal odyssey that straddles the lines of narrative and experimental filmmaking. Moreover, it’s the most technically accomplished and imaginative work of the bunch, particularly for its thunderous soundtrack. It conjures the impact of the landmark tragedy with basslines that should rock every theatre. The bar for the Halifax Explosion was high after the iconic Heritage Moment, but Forbis and Tilby just raised it. Sailor soars highest in a strong group of nominees. (Watch it here at the NFB.)