Throughout late February and early March, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston screens all 2018 Oscar-nominated short films. On Feb. 17 and 18, The ICA presented this year’s five nominated animated short films, and will show them again on March 4 and March 11. As is the case every year, these Oscar-nominated shorts exhibit diversity in both animation techniques and themes.
“Dear Basketball” (2017)
“Dear Basketball” is an American short film from Kobe Bryant’s letter to “The Players’ Tribune” published in 2015, a year before Kobe’s retirement. The film recounts the former Lakers star’s journey of achieving his dream of excelling as a basketball player. This sentimental and empowering film is quintessentially American. Created using the hand-drawn animation technique, the film shows clear, rough pencil traces. Meanwhile, the film is almost monochromatic, with only a faint layer of a dull yellow, which alludes to fading old photographs. By intentionally reducing the film’s appearance of technological complexity, director Glen Keane humbles Bryant from an invincible basketball superhero to a common hardworking man. This redefinition of Bryant’s persona is meant to show that every person is the primary arbiter of their own fate — a crucial premise of the American dream.
That being said, Keane, having contributed to the productions of Disney classics such as “The Little Mermaid” (1989) and “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) is undoubtedly a technically mature animator. In “Dear Basketball,” scenes fuse seamlessly into one another through the metamorphoses of figures, a style that much resembles that of Fleischer Studios, the creator of the “Betty Boop” (1930-1939) series. Therefore, the entire film feels like a long take, unbroken by the instantaneous dark void between the switch of scenes. Kobe’s constant visual evolution as an animated figure mirrors his strenuous development in real life.
“Negative Space” (2017)
The French nominee “Negative Space” similarly deals with a sentimental theme. The stop-motion animated film illustrates its protagonist’s reflection on his relationship with his late father. In the film, the protagonist recalls that he bonds with his father mostly through packing. His father teaches him how to pack; the protagonist packs for his father and waits for his father’s approval via phone calls.
“Negative Space” is visually and emotionally reserved for the most part. Its human characters have barely any facial expressions. The film also features a packing scene in which the clothing items fold and fit perfectly in a suitcase by themselves. The precision and lack of variations and surprises make for a very minimalist and withdrawn quality. Such an aloof atmosphere in the film could symbolize the sense of emotional fatigue and emptiness upon the loss of a loved one.
However, with its last line, the film introduces a sense of humor. Toward the end of a funerary scene, the protagonist stares into his father’s coffin to see him for one last time and mutters, “Look at all that empty space.” The protagonist wittily alludes to one of his father’s principles for packing: Leave no empty space. Such humor at the end of the film functions as a break from the protagonist’s long process of emotional dullness and mourning upon his father’s death and suggests the start of a healing process.
Pixar’s entry in the short film category this year, “Lou,” tells a simple lesson of anti-bullying through digital animation. In the story, an elementary school boy grabs his classmates’ toys on the playground for fun. One day, the objects in the lost-and-found station suddenly become a cute animated monster, takes the protagonist’s school bag and beloved teddy bear and demands he return all the items that he has taken from others. The protagonist willingly follows after a short bout of wrestling with the lost-and-found monster. Lou’s visuals are classically Pixar, with the illusion of three-dimensionality and the cute characters with round faces and small noses. The film also adopts many traditional Disney characteristics, such as the use of many bright colors, harmonious motion designs, a didactic tendency and most apparently, a happy ending. “Lou” recalls the purpose of many early animation works in the 1930s, showcasing the technical spectacles of animation instead of delivering a deep message.
“Revolting Rhymes” (2016)
Part one of the two-episode film “Revolting Rhymes” is rather the antithesis of Disney. This British digitally animated film is adapted from a collection of poems written by Roald Dahl which retells popular fairy tales such as “Snow White” and “Little Red Riding Hood” with some hints of cynicism. The film “Revolting Rhymes” interweaves “Snow White,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Three Little Pigs” into one story, told by the big wolf from the original “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Three Little Pigs.”
The film defies the simple categorization of characters into “good” and “bad.” In the film, Little Red Riding Hood kills the two nephews of the big wolf as well as one of the three little pigs with a pistol. She also peels the animals and makes their skin into coats and handbags. Snow White lives with seven unlucky dwarf horse gamblers after fleeing from the woods. To help the dwarfs win their gamble, Snow White steals the omniscient magic mirror from the evil queen, so that the dwarfs know which horse to buy. The film cites a famous line from the original poem, “Gambling is not a sin, provided that you always win.”
The title “Revolting Rhymes” potentially has a clever double meaning, as it could refer to either the darkness of the original fairy tales or to the excessively sugary, bowdlerized, primarily Disney versions of these classical fairy tales.
“Garden Party” (2017)
“Garden Party,” another French nominee, pushes digital animation to its limits with its verisimilar scenes. The film depicts a group of frogs that take over a deserted luxurious mansion. The intermittent croaks, together with an inauspicious soundtrack, foreshadows a sinister climax in the film. The forewarning is strengthened by a scene of a pair of kissing frogs. In the scene, two frogs lay on a queen bed with extravagantly decorated quilts and lean in to kiss each another while immersed in golden beams of sunlight. Right before the two frogs kiss, a smaller frog suddenly jumps onto the glass window as it chases a fly, thus creating a sound that interrupts the frog couple. This scene epitomizes the film — both maintain a sense of artificial serenity that is later destroyed by a horrible turn of events. Toward the end of the film, a frog accidentally turns on the lights, fountains and water inlets in the mansion’s swimming pool. The quick flows of water brings up a gigantic inflated corpse which supposedly belongs to the owner of the mansion. The ending alludes to Gatsby’s tragic swimming pool death in “The Great Gatsby.”
The five Oscar nominees for best animated short film this year demonstrate the endless potential of animation to tell various genres of stories, whether that is autobiography, comedy, tragedy, horror or fantasy. The winner for Best Animated Short Film will be announced at the 90th Academy Awards Ceremony on Sunday, March 4.