Film Review: 2018 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animation

This year's animated shorts category at the Oscars is marked by two obvious standouts.
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Two standouts among this year’s Oscar-nominated animated shorts are Dave Mullins’ Lou (USA), a seven-minute story about a schoolyard bully, and Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata’s Negative Space (France), a six-minute film that tells a delightfully nuanced story of a boy’s relationship with his father. The latter, two years in the making, features the only stop-motion animation among the five nominees. Its meticulous character design and production design, especially of “exteriors,” such as a highway with moving cardboard cars, is extraordinary. Flawless direction is especially apparent in a wistful deep-focus shot of the boy watching his father through a living room window as he departs in a taxi. The son’s story is that he bonded with his father, who traveled often on business, over the art of packing luggage. 

Mullins is a Pixar artist, and Lou is very much in line with that studio’s crisp, colorful style. The story begins with Lou’s harassment of other children in his class before moving to a brief explanation of how the boy was himself bullied. Lou's behavior goes unnocited by adults...but the same can't be said of the school's sentient lost and found box, a creature that at first resembles a lopsided Kermit the Frog. The creature steals Lou's backpack with Lou taking off in pursuit, the creature continually arranging itself as its parts become separated in the chase. In the end, Lou gets his gentle comeuppance.

This year's category gets a pair of macabre entries in Revolting Rhymes (U.K.), a 29-minute film by two-time nominees Jacob Schuh (The Gruffalo, 2011) and Jan Lachauer (Room on a Broom, 2014), and the seven-minute Garden Party (France), by Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Victor Caire, Théophile Dufresne, Gabriel Grapperon and Lucas Navarro. Revolting Rhymes, adapted from Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, is ostensibly for children. The short is in the spirit of the 1950s “Fractured Fairy Tales,” but unlike that television program, the humor is far too dark for young children. The film’s conflation of modernized versions of Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood results in an awkward and meandering narrative. As for Garden Party, it is about frogs and geckos who have found their paradise in a luxury home with a swimming pool; insects abound on rotting food and the remains of other things only hinted at by the bullet-riddled windows. The short is creepy, cleverly conceived and ends on a terrific tongue-in-cheek musical note.

The last of the shorts, Dear Basketball, is little more than an advertisement. Written by retired Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant and co-directed by Bryant and Glen Keane, the short represents a shockingly offensive choice on the part of the Academy. Bryant is as well known for his basketball career as he is for his alleged 2003 rape of a 19-year-old hotel employee. The Colorado case was settled out of court on terms that were never disclosed. Bryant claimed the encounter was consensual and later apologized for his behavior. While the five-minute short consists of beautiful pencil drawings by Disney alumnus Keane and represents the category's sole African-American narrative, the narration is saccharine and the direction is amateurish. This nomination is yet another indication of the industry’s indifference to the culture of sexual harassment. The proliferation of men’s voices and men’s narratives in this category should also be noted—Ru Kawahata is the only female director represented.

Correction: An earlier version of this review overlooked the presence of director Ru Kawahata in this category.