I don’t see how the astonishing “Opera” [IMDb|official site] — from Pixar animator Erick Oh — doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Animated Short. This is a stupendous achievement, a cartoon clockwork depicting life, the universe, and everything. It’s the circle of life and the circle of culture in nine minutes. It is love and sex, art and violence, religion and science. It is war and revolution, nature and the universe, humanity as both puny and powerful, as both good and evil. It is heaven and hell and everything in between. Oh sets in motion the totality of human existence in a pyramid of hyperkinetic activity that he pans down once, and up once again; if you watch this on a computer, you will find that there is an irresistible urge to try to scroll up and down at will, which is impossible, of course… and this becomes a meta commentary on what the film is saying, that we are subjects to the inescapable mechanics of civilization, such as it is. You don’t have to agree with that contention to get utterly sucked into this (un)holy meeting of Terry Pratchett and Monument Valley in a portrait of human history and society as a performance for anonymous gods — demons? — looking on. Or maybe all the clockwork requires to break free of it is our own awareness of our complicity in it? This is a mindboggling short that I can’t imagine I will ever tire of watching over and over.
The other nominees:
• “Genius Loci” [IMDb|official site], from French filmmaker Adrien Merigeau — an art director on Song of the Sea and an animator on The Secret of Kells — which seems like the closest competition to “Opera.” Here, a young woman, Reine (the voice of Nadia Moussa), roams a chaotic urban landscape, escaping from the claustrophobia of the small flat she shares with her sister and her infant nephew. The animation swings in a mesmerizingly mysterious way from an emotionally isolating minimalism to something Edward Hopper–esque, emphasizing Reine’s introversion and loneliness, and capturing the odd sense of connection that being alone on city streets can create.
• “Yes-People” [IMDb|official site], in which Icelandic animator Gísli Darri Halldórsson shows us a day in the lives of the occupants of a small apartment building. He sneaks so much character into the most minute of facial expressions! Just one word of dialogue — já, or yes — serves to underscore everything from mundane annoyances and exasperations to embarrassment to, ahem, overwhelming excitement. It’s all… very… human.
• “If Anything Happens I Love You” [IMDb|official site], from actors turned writer-directors Michael Govier and Will McCormack. Its earnestness, expressed via solemn pencil-sketch animation, is undeniable, as it tells the tale of a couple suffering a disconnect that, we slowly come to realize, has been caused by the death of their grade-school daughter. But if their pain is palpable and authentically depicted, the event behind their grief, when it is revealed, feels glib. And it’s too serious an American problem for that to be forgivable.
• “Burrow” [IMDb], which would have preceded Pixar’s Soul (Oscar-nominated in the animated-feature category) if it had gotten a traditional theatrical release. Madeline Sharafian, a story artist on Pixar’s Coco, introduces us to a delightful young rabbit intent on building the home of her dreams, until her enthusiasm and her naïveté get in the way. Charming hand-drawn animation — like last year’s nominee “Kitbull,” this also comes via Pixar’s SparkShorts program to discover and encourage new filmmakers and experiment with new techniques — conveys an adorable lesson about learning to acknowledge one’s limitations, accept help cheerfully offered, and embrace one’s neighbors. The poignancy of embarrassment is eventually beautifully redeemed.
Also included in the program are three “Highly Commended” shorts, films that were shortlisted for the Oscar but didn’t quite make the cut, but are nevertheless very good toons indeed. (Plus, they pad the presentation out to feature length.) They are:
• “Kapaemahu” [IMDb|official site] — from filmmakers Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson, and Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu — a beautiful story about a lost (to white people, anyway) legend of Hawaiian mythology. To this day, on Waikiki Beach, four stones stand as monuments to the healing arts brought to the ancient people of those islands by demigods who embodied both female and male spirits; this is their tale. This is a work of triumph, in its reminder that Polynesian cultures have long embraced concepts of gender fluidity; of despair, in its reminder of how colonialism has all but crushed traditional cultures; and renewal, as all-but-silenced voices are being heard again. Bravo.
• “The Snail and the Whale” [IMDb], yet another film based on a children’s book by the team of writer Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler. And this one, by Max Lang and Daniel Snaddon, has the same positive energy as the based-on-their-books shorts “The Gruffalo,” “The Guffalo’s Child,” and “Room on the Broom” (all also Oscar nominated). A very tiny snail (the delightful voice of Sally Hawkins) longs to see the world, and hitches a round-the-planet ride with a friendly whale (the voice of Rob Brydon). Sweet and gentle, this is part travelogue adventure, part plea for the protection of the natural world. Just the thing to inculcate wee ones into environmentalism.
• “To Gerard” [IMDb], a DreamWorks Animation short by Taylor Meacham, a dialogue-free slice of loveliness about an old man whose dreams of being a stage magician inspire a little girl. Have a hankie ready for the ending.