An NBA superstar, a Disney powerhouse and a beloved children's book author make up some of the Oscar nominees for best animated short this year, and you can watch them all in theaters before the ceremony.
Since 2005, the Oscars have packaged their nominated shorts into theatrical programs for the weeks leading up to the awards, and it's one of the smartest things the Academy has done in decades. Turns out that people actually love to watch short films, especially when they know there are stakes involved, and we don't have to treat these categories with contempt when they get televised! The animated shorts theatrical program, especially, gives you a solid bang for your buck: In addition to the five nominees, this year's also comes with three additional films to snack on.
Let's break down the five with Oscar on the brain.
In 2015, Kobe Bryant announced his retirement from a 20-year NBA career by penning a letter to the game he loves. Now that he's out of the game for good, that letter has become an Oscar-nominated short (aided, no doubt, by the number of Lakers fans in the Los Angeles voting bloc). Era-defining Disney animator Glen Keane props up Bryant's own narration with patiently composed watercolor illustrations replicating his signature courtside moves, and none other than John Williams does the score, setting a record for most violins heard near a basketball.
The production values are top-notch on this one (it's the only hand-drawn short in the group), and the celeb factor is high. Much like Bryant's career, it's got technical skill and pastiche for miles. But the actual content is pretty vapid. About the only thing we learn about Bryant is that he used to pretend to make shots with dirty laundry in his room as a kid. There's no effort to get inside of the athlete's dilemma: What to do when the spirit is willing but the body isn't?
By the way, if you were wondering which Oscar nominating committee this year was going to choose to ignore past accusations of sexual assault, surprise: It's this one.
A plague of frogs descends on an empty mansion in this delightfully demented effort from upstart French animation collective Illogic (originally done as a student film). Expertly paced, the short gives us a bunch of scenes of the amphibians going about their daily business, swimming and scavenging for food, only gradually letting us onto the fact that something in the land of the humans has gone horribly wrong. The animators are clearly lovers of amphibious creatures: Every ribbit and hop is conceived in stunning, realistic detail. To say much more would spoil the fun, but the final gag is a literal knockout.
You knew Pixar was going to be on this list somewhere. In Lou, a playground's lost-and-found box is inhabited by a benevolent spirit who tries to return all the kids' toys. "Lou" does battle with a local bully who looks and acts a lot like Toy Story's Sid, but who might secretly have a heart of gold. Everyone's favorite animation studio might be spinning its wheels a bit on this one, but the bright colors and inventive character design (tennis balls for eyes, a sweatshirt for a body, and a form that morphs depending on whatever the kids happen to lose) still make this a charmer.
The only stop-motion film among the nominees is a touching tribute to a father from Baltimore-based animators Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter, based on the poem by Ron Koertge. A father and son walk us through the finer points of packing a suitcase, which the son has to do frequently for the dad always heading off on business trips. The visual inventiveness is astounding: Socks and underwear fly through the air and a roadway becomes a zipper, as we are sucked into Kuwahata and Porter's expansive environments and lovingly stitched articles of clothing. The short ends with a gut punch, and wastes no space in doing so.
Roald Dahl's 1982 picture book Revolting Rhymes was an early entry in the fractured-fairy-tale genre. Its old-school rhyming structure blended well with Quentin Blake's arch illustrations to land naughty, pithy jokes about Snow White's seven dwarves (former jockeys with a gambling problem) and Red Riding Hood (a good shot with a pistol, and a wearer of wolfskin coats). But the BBC's cheap-looking CGI adaptation gets bogged down in story by intertwining three separate fairy tales into a (lone) wolf's revenge narrative, Into The Woods-style. The short also has some weird timing issues, and eases up on Dahl's trademark irreverent, naughty voice by making the characters more sympathetic. Snow White and Red are best friends now, for example.
Originally made for TV, the 29-minute special (the first of two Revolting Rhymes the BBC produced and originally aired back in 2016) is the longest of the nominees by far, and comes with the voice talents of folks like Rob Brydon, Bel Powley, and Dominic West. Some of the jokes still land, and the ending is solid, but the thing has a lot of dead air. It's a bit too safe for Dahl's standards.
Andrew Lapin's Picks
Should Win: Garden Party
Will Win: Lou