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'Oscar Nominated Shorts 2021: Animation': Film Review

Courtesy of Oscar Shorts TV
Theaters reopened just in time for the annual round-up of Oscar-nominated animated shorts.

A couple of truly daring visions spice up the expected fare in this year's crop of Academy-honored animated shorts — one of which would be as at home in an art gallery as in the theaters, which, pandemic be damned, will still showcase nominees as a big-screen event. Each candidate has something to offer, including those non-nominees that have been added (as "highly recommended") to stretch the program's running time to feature length. But this is the rare occasion in which (for the first time in a very long time) the Oscar could go to a film that really pushes the limits of the form.

This year's program starts in the 'toon wheelhouse, with cute animals: Madeline Sharafian's pen & ink-looking Burrow follows a rabbit who dreams of digging a subterranean home, but keeps stumbling into territory claimed by other animals. It's quite a menagerie down in that dirt, with ants and moles and mice lounging in fantasy homes that boast libraries and saunas (no Hobbits, though), and our poor protagonist is about to accidentally put it all in jeopardy. Saving the day will require inter-species cooperation.

Gísli Darri Halldórsson's Yes-People also tours through a variety of domestic scenes, introducing the inhabitants of a single Icelandic apartment building. The most lightweight film here by a wide margin, it puts its thin narrative across using only the word "yes" and sound effects. (Including, parents should know, some moans and squeaking bedframes.) But colorful, bulbous character design and benign eccentricity keep it diverting for its brief eight minutes.

Come to think of the aforementioned (offscreen) lovemaking, none of the five nominees except Burrow is really what you could safely call family fare. Though one is very much family-centric: Michael Govier and Will McCormack's If Anything Happens I Love You opens on a Citizen Kane-like dinner table in which the vast distance between a husband and wife is filled with memories of past strife. Using shadowy silhouettes instead of dialogue, the filmmakers soon start to hint at the grief that has caused this discord, then draw us into flashbacks of much happier days. A viewer who anticipates the film's sickening twist before it happens may well turn on it. But many viewers (and voters, presumably) will find it haunting.

Unlike any nominee in recent memory, Erick Oh's Opera begs to be put on an endless loop in a darkened gallery, where art-lovers might come watch it three or four times in a row without quite digesting everything they see. The beautifully sleek short gradually reveals a vast, stylized pyramid whose chambers seem to host just about every activity a society might engage in. Abstracted figures almost too small to see populate factories and hospitals, dining rooms and marriage beds — and of course, battlefields and inscrutable religious rites. No screen will be big enough for this vision, which makes you wish you could hit pause and zoom in for a closer look.

Finally, Adrien Merigeau's beautifully strange Genius Loci is among the most unconventional films ever to make its way past the nominating committee. The 16-minute French import follows a woman through a night of urban discombobulation that could be drug-induced, caused by mental illness, or reflect something supernatural. Merigeau alludes to a slew of modern-art heavy hitters without seeming like an art student who wants bonus points for his taste: When a face explodes into Kandinsky-esque swirls or an array of Paul Klee-like symbols fills the horizon, the effect is to draw us into sync with the film's puzzling heroine instead of wasting too much time worrying about what's going on.

Viewers accustomed to more easily-digested Oscar fare will be comforted by the bonus films here, which include a dive into Hawaiian folklore; a rhyming aquatic adventure voiced by Sally Hawkins, Rob Brydon and the late Diana Rigg; and a familiar-feeling but sweet film about magic and dreams.


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