The lessons and legacies parents pass on to their children. The dangers of not living in the present… or living too much in the present. These are the motifs woven through the five short animated films nominated for the Oscar this year.
My favorite, and the one I’d like to see win, is “Pearl” [IMDb], from Disney animator Patrick Osborne (Big Hero 6), who won in this category two years ago with his delightful “Feast.” A lovely sketch of a relationship between a father and daughter from their rough early years through her launch into adulthood, “Pearl” is told from an extraordinary perspective: we witness it all from the front passenger seat of their beat-up car. As a homeless, living-in-his-car street musician, Dad passes on a love of singing and playing to his daughter, which blossoms into a successful career for her as an adult. This tale of creative and familial bonds is moving in a sublime way when viewed as a typical 2D film, its rotoscoped-style animation full of simple, rough charm. But it becomes something truly innovative, a peek into the future of filmmaking, when experienced in the user-directed 360-degree format pioneered by Google Spotlight Stories. (When viewed on a phone or with a VR headset, it can also be experienced as virtual reality.) The melding of new tech with old-fashioned characters and emotions, demonstrating the possibilities for storytelling that are beginning to open up, elevates this short way above the other nominees. [Watch “Pearl” online now at YouTube.]
Which isn’t to say there aren’t enormous pleasures to be found in the other shorts. I do like very much the unexpectedly bitter fantasy philosophy and striking animation of “Blind Vaysha” [IMDb], from Bulgarian designer and filmmaker Theodore Ushev, who now lives and works in Canada. Based on a 2001 short story by acclaimed Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov, this is a fable of a girl born with one eye that sees only into the past, and one eye that sees only into the future. The present, the narrator repeatedly reminds us, does not exist for her, which turns her existence into an unendurable horror in which she is unable to draw any contentment from simply living in the moment. The stunning style of the animation, which resembles woodcut prints come to life, lends an extra air of a Grimm fairy tale to the film, one with a profound warning to those of us whose inner eyes linger in the past or longs for the future to the detriment of the now. [Watch “Blind Vaysha” online now at National Film Board of Canada (from Canadian IP addresses only). Buy at Amazon US VOD|Amazon UK VOD.]
The inevitable Pixar entry is the absolutely gorgeous “Piper” [IMDb|official site], which accompanied Finding Dory at cinemas in 2016. Disney animator Alan Barillaro (Monsters University) uses utterly photorealistic CGI to follow a baby sandpiper as she explores her seaside home and learns how to navigate its hazards… most scarily, the surf that rushes up onto the sand every few minutes. This is a completely enchanting depiction of a child’s curiosity about her world and her bravery in marching out to discover it. [Buy at Amazon US VOD.]
“Borrowed Time” [IMDb|official site] is another nominee from Disney veterans, animator Andrew Coats (Brave) and visual FX artist Lou Hamou-Lhadj (The Good Dinosaur). Here, a sheriff in the Old West returns to the scene of a tragedy in his childhood, and as his memories of the event flood back, he is overcome with guilt and grief. Stylized CGI — such as in the impossibly sharp angles of the sheriff’s face — underscore the raw pain of what becomes a surprisingly dark delve into despair, though one that finds a spark of hope in the end. [Buy at Amazon US VOD|Amazon UK VOD.]
By far my least favorite of the bunch is “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” [IMDb|official site], which long overstays its welcome with an unjustified 35-minute runtime. (The other shorts run from 6 to 8 minutes.) Here, TV animator Robert Valley tells what is apparently the true tale of his friendship with a guy named Techno, who lived life hard and fast. More an illustrated audiobook than a story told visually, this short features a running narration — I presume by Valley, but it’s uncredited — accompanied by often static comic-book style artwork. The noirish ethos is sleek and intriguing, but the narration is less an actual story than a meandering recitation of things that happened, no matter if they had any bearing on the ostensible larger tale or not. (The narrator’s wife, for instance, about whom we were previously unaware, makes a sudden appearance, and to no apparent impact.) The film looks great, but it’s barely engaging on the emotional level it seems to be aiming for. [Buy at Amazon US VOD|Amazon UK VOD.]
See the official site for showtimes and locations across the US, Canada, the UK, and elsewhere around the planet, and for VOD outlets starting on February 21st.