Saturday, March 26, 2022

Short Stuff: The 2021 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

One of the odder effects of Disney moving all of their Pixar releases to their streaming service during the pandemic is that no short films have accompanied them into theaters, meaning that the "Best Animated Short Film" category lacks an obvious front-runner. Indeed, the category and theatrical presentation of it looks rather different than it has in previous years, with longer entries, a larger fraction of which are unambiguously geared toward adults. Where the theatrical package usually has to include some "highly commended" runners-up in order to reach a length where moviegoers feel the price of a ticket is worth it, this group passes the 90 minute mark without any help.

"Robin Robin"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

Of course, there are still some familiar entries, though "Robin Robin", an Aardman-produced British half-hour Christmas special, now comes via Netflix rather than the BBC. It is, however, the sort of thing that should seem instantly comfortable - cute animals, earnest but dry humor, and a noteworthy voice or two sprinkled into the cast. It's a simple, fun story - when a robin's egg falls out of its nest and hatches after being found by a family of mice, the new sibling struggles to prove she belongs.

As with many of the best movies of this type, there's a dry sort of anarchy to what filmmakers Dan Ojari & Michael Please are up to as Robin (voice of Bronte Carmichael) cannot help but demonstrate that the whole "quiet as a mouse" thing does not come naturally to her at all, blithely leaving a mess behind her at every opportunity. She spends much of the film paired with a Magpie voiced by Richard E. Grant, all matter-of-fact about his obsession with shiny things, while Adeel Akhtar delivers not quite saintly patience as the mouse family's Dad and Gillian Anderson gets to be enjoyably sinister as a hungry stray cat. There are fun little songs and impressively staged chases. The animation is so impressive that it's hard to tell which sort of Aardman film it is - impeccable stop-motion with some digital assistance, or CGI with models built to resemble and move like plasticine. It is, from the jobs listed in the credits, the former, but is occasionally smooth in the way this medium often isn't to make one second-guess.

It's a charming little thing, thoroughly traditional right down to an earnest ending that lays out how Robin can be both bird and mouse and that this is only complicated if one makes it so. It's a fine before-bedtime story.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

Anton Dyakov's "Boxballet" is the sort of animated short that in many ways seems to be built to see how far one can stretch its character designs and still have its characters recognizably part of the same human species. Its ballerina is sleek and thin, with her body seeming to twirl without it affecting her head at all; the boxer is lumpy and damaged, with an oxbow of a broken nose. They don't belong in the same space, obviously, except that each is a little too honest for their chosen metier. A chance encounter has him more open to something beautiful in his life and her maybe less self-destructive in her pursuit of perfection.

Dyakov tells this as visual anecdotes and without enough words to make subtitling necessary, and at times that seems not quite enough - there's not a whole lot of room for back-and-forth, and the ballerina gets lost in a sea of identically-designed figures in a way that the boxer really can't. It's a tricky thing to make them both represent something and become individuals, especially when there's an expressive deadpan slapstick to his matches while she can't quite escape choreography. They can't quite become actual characters together.

It probably also doesn't help that the coda doesn't quite hit the same way was it would have when the film was made a year or two ago - the fall of the Soviet Union and the promise of a new Russia where one doesn't have to fit the role others have chosen always had soem caveats, but requires a bit more grappling in March 2022.

"Affairs of the Art"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

I'm a bit curious how Joanna Quinn's "Affairs of the Art" plays when seen next to "Dreams and Desires: Family Ties", her previous short film from 2006 with which it apparently shares characters. Quinn dives right in without doing much to introduce the brash and enthusiastic Beryl, who has grown obsessed with creating art while also chronicling her sister Beverly's odd journey from creepy little anarchist kid to Beverly Hills taxidermy maven, but then, it's not like these are characters that need to be explained and set up: That Beryl just sort of barges in and spits a lot of weirdness out without context, filling in bits as they occur to her, is kind of who she is, and being methodical in her portrayal might not sit right.

It's the sort of film Mills and writer Les Mills make, too, where the morphing characters and the seemingly-raw pencils hint at a raw stream of consciousness that keeps Beryl from really talking about how, as you get older, the drive to create and appreciate art can take hold. It's rather meta in that way - an attempt to create clear expression out of chaos, where you're never quite sure what is sheer randomness and what has intent, especially when the randomness often is a part of what one is trying to communicate.

"Bestia" ("Beast")

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

If nothing else, Hugo Covarrubias's "Bestia" has one of the more clever uses of its medium as a framing device, in that one of the first thing one notices about the design of its stop-motion main character is a crack in her oversized head, a zoom into which leads to the main flashback and whose later appearance serves as a climax. It's a neat trick, showing that how, especially in animation, how one tells a story is intimately related to the story itself.

That story, I suspect, has greater resonance in its native Chile, where one will connect what she is doing to the specific atrocities committed by the government in the 1970s, rather than just the idea of an autocracy building an atmosphere of distrust among its own people. The character designs are impressive - she's a frumpy little lump with the tiny face on her big head pinched into a permanent disapproving scowl, her hair an unmoving helmet, an obviously nasty piece of work who seems to elicit disdain more than fear. The thing is, she's accompanied by a big German Shepherd who is obviously intimidating and powerful but whose body language suggests a desire to please even when sitting obediently still. She's got affection for this dog but there are scenes where he's placed in a room with prisoners where you can't help but wonder what she's having it do. It's a quiet but cutting look at how evil twists things - he should be a nice but protective companion, she should be a brusque but concerned neighbor, and the government should be supporting its citizens rather than engaging in paranoid surveillance, but…

It's a simple but effective little tale. This sort of animation isn't the only way Covarrubias could tell it, but he's mingled the medium and the message very well.

"The Windshield Wiper"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

Alberto Mielgo's "The Windshield Wiper" is ambitious and abstract, posing the broad question of "What Is Love" in its opening seconds and then intermingling a number of vignettes, all looking as if filmed as live action and then rotoscoped with digital tools, before returning to the man posing it.

It is, truth be told, sort of pretentious, and not necessarily in a good way where you can see the filmmakers aspiring toward something grand even if they never reach it. The very framing of a man in a café, smoking and asking a question sort of banal in its intended depth, is as likely to create a mood where one rolls one's eyes rather than finding oneself intrigued, and some of the scenarios - particularly the two tattooed young people in a supermarket who are an obvious match never looking up from their phones' hookup apps even when they are matched with each other - are easy targets. The painted-over style can sometimes be its own worst enemy, tying the film to realism but covering up the smaller human gestures Mielgo seems to be trying to elicit.

They make for great stills to be put on a poster or next to an article, though, and often impress as bold colors splashed across a screen. At best, they can emphasize how the viewer is an outsider looking in even if what they are watching looks familiar, perhaps most especially as a homeless man rages at the television screens in a shop's front window. That moment may have the least to do with the film's stated theme, but it's immediate and popped into sharp relief by the style in a way that the other moments strive for but seldom reach.

It's interesting that the people assembling this package found themselves going back and forth between words and pantomime, and how even the most whimsical shorts have something of an edge once one gets past the one obviously made for kids. I wouldn't bet against "Robin Robin" getting the statue - Aardman is awful good at what they do, and what they do is what many people see animation as being best suited - but I certainly wouldn't complain about "Bestia" getting it either, for being such a pointedly chilling story that makes the most of how animators can use every piece of the image to build toward what they want to say.

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