This past week, I had the privilege of viewing all five 2019 Oscar-nominated animated short films. This year’s shorts are “Bao,” “Late Afternoon,” “Animal Behaviour,” “Weekends” and “One Small Step.” Overall, these shorts are great, and each one approaches its subject matter with considerable care.
It’s no surprise that “Bao,” this year’s Pixar entry, is by far the most clean-cut short of the bunch. In typical Pixar fashion, “Bao” appeals to the emotions of its audience, though this time using a uniquely absurd approach. The film’s premise is bizarre: A Chinese-Canadian woman copes with her son’s abandonment of her by personifying him in the form of a dumpling. It’s quite funny, and it’s meant to be. For much of the film, the sadness of the story is hidden behind its absurdist and colorful presentation, until the reality of the mother’s emotional devastation comes to a forefront. The amount of emotional depth conveyed within the film’s eight-minute runtime is astounding. Check out “Bao” if you’re looking to laugh and cry all at once.
Like “Bao,” the Irish short “Late Afternoon” is committed to making an emotional impact. Its 2D, minimalist design couldn’t be more different from that of “Bao,” but both shorts are alike in the way they explore the process of coming to terms with the past in different but equally poignant ways. “Late Afternoon” tells the story of an elderly woman with memory loss reliving the most important events of her life. These bursts of recollection are inspired by mementos in her house that are being stored away. The film’s bare-boned plot is complemented by fluid, vivid imagery of the woman literally diving back into the recesses of her memory. Aside from its supposed “twist” ending, “Late Afternoon” is nearly flawless. The film, though small in scope, makes a major impact, and serves as inspiration to live life to the fullest while we can still remember the experience.
Canada’s “Animal Behaviour” is without a doubt the oddball of the group. While the other shorts deal with heavy subject matter, “Animal Behaviour” is comedic gold. Like “Bao,” its premise is absurd. In the short, a group therapy session, led by a pit bull and consisting of a leech, a praying mantis, a pig, a cat and an ape, turns into chaos when the ape lets his anger overpower him. While the animation is admittedly cartoonish and could even be called ugly, it’s in concordance with the film’s ridiculous and often childish sense of humor. Although “Animal Behaviour” is unquestionably the funniest short that’s nominated, it’s still willing to get deeper. The animals grapple with surprisingly human issues, from lack of success on dating apps to dealing with crippling grief. It’s hard not to see a part of yourself in at least one of these animals.
Of all the films nominated, “Weekends” may just be the most impressive. The film explores the experience of being a child of divorce by following the protagonist’s journey from one house to another, repeating the journey over and over again for what intentionally feels like an eternity. By deliberately distinguishing the atmospheres of each home environment through color, light and sound, “Weekends” highlights just how confusing and disorienting marital separation can be from a child’s perspective. Because the protagonist is placed in between two entirely different worlds, he doesn’t fully feel at home in either. The ending of the film suggests that he will embark on a journey to find his own sense of belonging, and it is beautiful.
While “One Small Step,” an American and Chinese collaboration, has remarkable animation, it fails to make the same impact the other shorts do, simply because its premise is too contrived and derivative to actually be engaging. Luna, the short’s protagonist, has wanted to be an astronaut for as long as she can remember. Her father has encouraged her dreams all along, and the two work together to make the dream a reality. However, tragedy ensues, which ends up feeling less crucial to the story and more emotionally manipulative in order to distract from the film’s boring progression. While its message of following your dreams is undeniably a positive one, it’s simply overdone, and “One Small Step” fails to do anything new with it to make it worth reiterating.