BEST ANIMATED SHORT
Dcera (Daughter) (Directed by Daria Kashcheeva)
Synopsis: In a hospital room, the Daughter recalls a difficult childhood moment when as a little girl she tried to share her experience with an injured bird with her Father.
Review: Oh boy, you know things are going to be a bit rough when the first shot of an animated film is a hospital room with a daughter keeping vigil at her father’s side. By this point in my Oscar journey I’ve come to expect these animated shorts to be more than the traditional Mickey, Donald, or Chip ‘n Dale comic hi-jinks full of laughs but it’s always a cold shot of air when they are bleak from the jump. While Dcera (Daughter) has some moments of beauty, it’s largely a somber tale of a daughter recounting her life being raised by her single father and how they failed to connect until it is too late. The animation is in line with this messy, complicated relationship and I appreciated that director Daria Kashcheeva picked a tone and stuck with it through to the end. All of us can remember a time when we missed the chance to find greater meaning in a moment with a parent or parental figure and Kashcheeva doesn’t let us forget how much that stings looking back.
Hair Love (Directed by Matthew Cherry, Everett Downing Jr., & Bruce W. Smith)
Synopsis: An African-American father learns to do his daughter’s hair for the first time.
Review: There’s always one entry each year that I call the “creeper”. Not because it’s got questionable social boundaries but because it has a way of lying in wait, ready to strike at your emotions when your defenses are at their most vulnerable. Hair Love is crowned Creeper of the Year thanks to a late in the game shift that truly got me and got me good. Based on director (and former NFL player) Matthew Cherry’s book of the same name, this follows an important morning when Zuri is trying to get her hair just right. Her father, Stephen, tries to help but doesn’t have the right touch so the two turn to a familiar face for assistance. At first, you may think you know where this is headed and even when it shifts gears it may feel like you’ve been led into some manipulative territory…but keep watching through the credits because the story keeps going on. Full of joy and heart…exactly the kind of authentic spirited crowd-pleaser this category often lacks.
Kitbull (Directed by Rosana Sullivan)
Synopsis: A fiercely independent stray kitten and a chained-up pit bull experience friendship for the first time.
Review: For a long time, those cute PIXAR shorts that played before their full-length features dominated in this category and now that production on these has slowed a bit there is space for what they are calling SparkShorts. According to their website, these are “designed to discover new storytellers, explore new storytelling techniques, and experiment with new production workflows.” and while some can read that as “cheaper to produce” I prefer to look at it more like the indie unit of PIXAR animation. It’s sort of like what Fox Searchlight was to 20th Century Fox (which, like PIXAR is owned by Disney) so while you likely won’t see these SparkShorts in front of Pixar’s upcoming Onward, you would see them pop up regularly on Disney+. That’s how we wound up with Kitbull, a dark tale that isn’t quite kid friendly but still has a message of friendship that could benefit the more mature youth in your group. If I tell you the film is about the strained relationship between a stray cat and a junkyard mutt used in dog fighting, would that instantly make you think it’s a feel-good film? Well, miraculously it is and while I would absolutely not suggest this one to little tykes, parents that have a good feel for the sensitives of their children (and themselves) would likely be in for a good conversation after watching this one as a family.
Mémorable (Memorable) (Directed by Bruno Collet)
Synopsis: Painter Louis and his wife Michelle are experiencing strange events. Their world seems to be mutating. Slowly, furniture, objects, and people lose their realism. They are “destructuring,” sometimes disintegrating.
Review: Reminding me more than just a little of last year’s somber Late Afternoon, this French offering is an insightful look into the gradual deterioration of a man suffering from a neurological disorder that robs him of his memory. I don’t want to call it Alzheimer’s or dementia because the film doesn’t articulate it but it’s on that level, illustrated with startlingly clear examples as a painter slowly sees the world in less defined states. While these types of downhill spirals can be a bit of a bummer to sit through, knowing the eventual outcome is never going to be great, there’s something special in this one that allows it to blossom rather than wilt. I think it’s largely due to director Bruno Collet’s way of putting the disease into a tangible visual seen through the eyes of the painter. At first we don’t quite notice the small shifts in perspective but by the time it’s evident what’s happening it’s too far gone to do anything to address it properly. It’s a sad story but beautifully told.
Sister (Directed by Siqi Song)
Synopsis: A man remembers his childhood and growing up with an annoying little sister in 1990s China. How would his life have been if things had gone differently?
Review: Arguably the entry that I had the most desire to want to reach out and touch, Siqi Song’s stop-motion felt animation requires some attention to narrative detail at the outset for audiences to truly grasp the final twist Song cleverly tucks away until the perfect moment. As our narrator retraces his childhood in China with his younger sister by recounting some key adventures and trouble they found themselves in being highlighted, Song makes it less episodic than it can seem on the surface. It may be signs of some storytelling problems that the finale is a bit confusing, though. While I understood what Song was going for in flipping our preconceived notions on their head, if you have to pause an eight minute film to remember key details you may have missed then maybe they weren’t delivered as clearly as they could have been to begin with. Even so, this one wasn’t the most polished in terms of animation but for providing something different with an air of mystery around it, it had its share of stand-out elements.
Final Thoughts: Again, not the strongest years for nominees in this category but unlike in previous ceremonies there are no outright head scratchers that are showing up, either. Bolstered by three other highly regarded shorts (the long but oddly compelling Henrietta Bulkowski, the gorgeously realized The Bird and the Whale, and the fun Max Fleischer-esque comedy Hors Piste) that didn’t get nominated but were liked enough for Shorts TV to include them in the presentation, this is a fine group of nominees but nothing so drop your knickers amazing that there’s a definite winner in the bunch. That being said, I found Hair Love to be exactly the kind of pro-everything kind of experience we need a heck of a lot more of nowadays and Mémorable to have the most beautiful realization of a thought/concept. Never underestimate the power of PIXAR, though, and the rag-tag team of PIXAR folk that were assembled for Kitbull could propel that one to a win as well. My money is on Hair Love, though. I still can’t get it out of my hair, er, head.