This year’s contenders include a much-seen Pixar title and an animated Kobe Bryant.
The best entries in this year’s crop of Oscar-nominated animated short films feature a distinctly adult sensibility. Yes, there’s a typical Pixar entry that’s quite charming. And a love letter to basketball great Kobe Bryant that just happened to be penned by Bryant himself. But it’s Negative Space and Garden Party, the latter macabre enough to delight Alfred Hitchcock, that provide the most vivid pleasures. It’s not surprising that these sophisticated efforts hail from France.
Negative Space, directed by Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata, employs stop-motion puppet animation to relate the story of a little boy who learned how to pack luggage from his father, who was often away on business trips. The exact methodology is painstakingly illustrated (making the film educational to boot), but it’s the conclusion, set at the father’s funeral many years later, that gives the film its true poignancy. The final line packs an ironic wallop.
Garden Party goes into even darker territory. Featuring hyper-realistic computer animation, this film directed by Victor Caire and Gabriel Grapperon depicts amphibians including toads, frogs and salamanders running roughshod on the grounds of a luxurious villa that seems to have been abandoned under violent circumstances, if the bullet holes through the walls are any indication. At first, the antics are playfully amusing, such as when a frog enjoys the contents of a caviar tin and a toad gets himself stuck in a jar of macarons. But when one of the animals accidentally activates the pool area’s lights and music, a gruesome discovery emerges. Suffice it to say that despite the cute frogs, this one’s not for the kiddies.
Neither, really, is Jan Lachauer and Jakob Schuh’s Revolting Rhymes, despite its fairy tales inspirations. This British short based on Roald Dahl’s snarky book of poetry delivers dark reinterpretations of such characters as the Big Bad Wolf, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and others. The story begins as a tea room conversation between the Wolf and an elderly babysitter in which he recounts several different fairy tales, only not in the familiar, comforting style we’re accustomed to. Yes, he begins by saying “Once upon a time,” but his acerbic comments about Little Red Riding Hood (“Don’t like her”) and Snow White (“She’s actually a blonde”) and his description of the Seven Dwarfs as “ex-horse race jockeys” are drolly amusing. Running 29 minutes, it’s the longest of the nominees and eventually wears out its welcome, but the terrific voice talents, including Dominic West, Tamsin Greig and Bertie Carvel, provide ample compensation.
Typical Pixar fare is Dave Mullins and Dana Murray’s Lou (it accompanied theatrical screenings of Cars 3), which means it’s very, very good. Featuring the gorgeously detailed animation typical of the company, the short provides an amusing and ultimately touching depiction of a schoolyard bully who learns the error of his ways thanks to a lost-and-found box that comes to anthropomorphic life, with a sweatshirt for its head and baseballs for its eyes. That a major plot development hinges on a name label in the bully’s underwear gives an indication of the sly humor on display.
Veteran Disney animator Glen Keane (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and countless others) delivers the hand-drawn Dear Basketball, based on Kobe Bryant’s announcement that he was retiring from the game after a decades-long career. The impressionistic short, imbued with dabs of color (purple and gold, naturally), has Bryant reading his poetic farewell that included the story of how he began playing the game as a child with rolled-up tube socks. Featuring a swelling musical score by John Williams, it’s the weakest, least memorable of the nominated bunch.
The program’s theatrical release also includes three animated short films (Lost Property Office, Weeds and Achoo) that weren’t screened in advance.