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Plague Diversions: Gazing at the Shortlist for the Best Animated Short Oscar

AWN’s Animation Pimp and Ottawa Animation Festival artistic director Chris Robinson shares his takes on this year’s set of 15 films shortlisted for a spot as one of five nominated for the upcoming Academy Awards.

Ah… it’s the time of the year when our weird, often shuttered little world of animation gets to go outside and play. The one time of the year when my family members ask about what’s good in ‘amination’ this year. Yes, it’s Oscar time, when animation gets the “privilege” of hanging out with the big kids, you know, the real artists, not the ones just making cartoons for shits and giggles.  

Okay, I exaggerate.

The truth is it’s kinda good for animators. The animation art form is so steadily ignored outside our community that it’s the one time of the year when there’s a slightly larger focus (though admittedly, I’m not fully convinced of that… it’s mostly still just animation folks giving a hoot about animation)... but whatever… maybe it brings a few films and voices to a different community… ones that aren’t so converted. 

With that upbeat ramshackle ramble at an end, let’s take a look at the films vying for an Oscar nomination.

There are some gems in this year’s shortlist. All these films are well made and worthy of some love. That said, some of the films resonate with me more than others. It’s refreshing to not only see some works that take deep dives into the murky waters of politics, war, and mental health, but that offer different cultural and generational perspectives. Among this crop, we have indigenous stories, troubling memories of the Algerian war, a Vietnamese family shattered by war, China’s notorious one-child policy, and a violent Chilean dictatorship. Not your usual - thankfully - Oscar animation fodder.

Affairs of the Art - Joanna Quinn, Les Mills, UK/Canada

One of the most anticipated films of the last year. Animation maestro, Joanna Quinn (and her partner, Les Mills, who wrote and co-directed), returns with her first film since Dreams and Desires (2006). Visually and technically, this is an animation masterclass in design, drawing, and animation. Storywise, it’s familiar territory. We continue to follow the erratic life of poor old Beryl, the long-suffering woman who never stops dreaming of being an artist and dwelling on her failures. This time around we meet Beryl’s, not surprisingly, equally bizarro family.

Like so many, I was looking forward to the duo’s latest work, but I felt unsatisfied. The narrative is a jumbled mess (yes, it matches the headspace of Beryl) that left me cold and unable to connect with any of the characters. Maybe that was the point? No matter how hard she tries, Beryl struggles to connect with those around her in any meaningful way. Still, the story and protagonist feel tired. We’ve had over 30 years of Beryl bemoaning her unfulfilled life. Where it once was funny and even radical (as she challenged workplace conditions and gender stereotypes in Body Beautiful and Girls Night Out), now it seems exhausting.  As a friend said, “it’s like being stuck on an airplane next to a woman who won’t stop talking.”

Having said that (that’s for you Curb fans), we rarely get stories from the perspective of an older woman. So many animation films these days are littered with moans of younger voices who’ve barely had time to experience any real complexities and difficulties. In that sense, Affairs does nicely capture the inconsistencies and absolute messiness of living and growing old.

Angakusajaujuq: The Shaman’s Apprentice - Zacharias Kunuk, Canada

One of the pleasant surprises on the animation festival circuit in 2021, The Shaman’s Apprentice offers an indigenous perspective, something we don’t get a lot of in animation; thankfully that is starting to change thanks to the works of Terril Calder, Amanda Strong, and others. Calder’s film, Meneath, should be in Oscar consideration next year.

In an Arctic landscape, a young shaman faces her first test: a trip underground to visit Kannaaluk, The One Below, to find out why someone in the community has become ill. As she encounters dark spirits and uncertainty, the woman must embrace and control her fear to find a solution.  Beautifully paced and designed, with solid storytelling and stop-motion animation (directed by Evan Derushie), Shaman’s Apprentice shares a mysterious and imaginative tale that transports us to another time and place, and culture.

Bad Seeds - Claude Cloutier, Canada

In the wilderness, two seeds sprout into a couple of odd-looking plants. One takes the shape of a bird, the other a frog. From there the two carnivorous plants transform into rapidly interchanging animals (lions, elephants), historical (Hitler, Stalin, Alfred Hitchcock), and fictional (I spotted the tin man from Wizard of Oz) figures as they fight endlessly over a fly, their source of food. In the end, well, let’s just say no one wins.

With nods to Western movie showdowns, slapstick comedy, and even the absurd hyper-violence of Tex Avery and Warner Bros. cartoons, Claude Cloutier, Canada’s animation satirist extraordinaire, crafts a deliciously biting, rapid-fire allegory about our psychotic, and ultimately futile, obsession with progress, growth, and competition.

Bestia - Hugo Covarrubias, Chile

Using porcelain and felt figures, this masterful stop-motion film takes us inside the domestic life and cracked mind of a secret police agent. Set during Chile’s military dictatorship, we follow the agent’s often tedious daily life as it skirts between her uncomfortably intimate relationship with her dog, concerns about her body image, dull bus rides to work, and, you know, the horrific torture sessions she oversees. In short, this is one fucked up woman.

The deadpan storytelling and character design, along with the quiet, suspenseful, and almost humorous tones mixed with this almost casual, placid pace, make this one of the pleasant surprises of the last year in animation.

Box Ballet - Anton Dyakov, Russia

Beauty and the Beast shifts to the boxer and the ballerina setting. A brutish boxer meets a nimble ballerina. They come from utterly different worlds, yet over time manage to bridge those gaps by embracing the world of the other.

It’s a nostalgic piece set in 1991 when hard-core communists failed in their attempt to take control from Soviet Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev. The failed coup led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. References are on TV screens throughout the film.

Perhaps unintentionally, Box Ballet brings to mind some of the great Russian animation shorts of the late 1980s and early 1990s, notably those of Pilot Animation studio. Visually, the brownish, muddy tones, precise soundtrack, and fluid editing bring to mind the work of Igor Kovalyov (Hen, His Wife). 

With traces of Chaplin and Keaton, this solid, breezy film pummels home a message of tolerance and understanding that is a timeless reminder, but especially during an era where we seem to want to (re)build walls and barriers to keep anyone who seems different from us out.

Flowing Home - Sandra Desmazières, France/Canada

A family is ripped apart by the war in Vietnam. While the older daughter remains with her parents in Vietnam, the youngest follows their uncle to Canada. They do not imagine that they will be separated for 20 years. During that time, the sisters’ only connection is via letters. They write of their new lives, hopes, memories, and loved ones now no more.

Although my first reaction was that this was autobiographical, in truth the French-born Desmazières (whose mother is Vietnamese and father is from France) based the film on stories conveyed to her by friends, along with her relationship with her sister. This is perhaps why something seems out of place and somewhat cold about the story. And while the sober design and somber, subdued colors beautifully mirror the aching isolation and loneliness of the two sisters, and the tragedy of this shattered family, the barrage of dialogue never gives you a chance to sit back and digest or appreciate the imagery or even properly process the story and characters.

Mum Is Pouring Rain - Hugo De Faucompret, France

A stubborn and surprisingly mature young girl lives with her recently unemployed and depressed mom. Her absent father (it’s not clear if the parents have split) is too busy with his music career to spend time with the girl. While the mother seeks help, the girl is sent to her grandmother’s house (the shuffling the kid(s) off to the grandparents’ house in a splendorous country landscape to become woke to life and the challenges of their parents have become all too familiar a narrative path in recent animation films). Anyway, the kid goes to stay with her quirky Grandma and meets a friendly giant in a nearby forest along with other kids and comes to understand her ailing mother a bit better.

The ending is a tad simplistic and predictable. Still, it’s a visually engaging and amusing little journey that teaches kids a wee bit about mood disorders and the mysteries of moody adults.

The Musician - Reza Riahi, France

During a 13th century attack by the Mongols, a musician is blinded and his lover is taken as a servant/escort by Genghis Khan. Fifty years later, the musician is summoned to perform at the castle where she’s being held captive. As the musician plays, the music leads the woman back to her youth and memories of her old love.

A refreshingly quiet and old-school cut-out work that harkens back to older animations by the likes of Lotte Reiniger, Alexander Petrov, and Yuri Norstein, The Musician eschews dialogue and instead relies upon facial and body gestures, lighting, music, and minimal sounds. The result is a heart-wrenching, yet somehow hopeful, tale about the strength and longevity of connection even when it seems everything has been taken from you.

Namoo - Erick Oh, U.S.A./South Korea

2021 Oscar nominee, Erick Oh takes a radically different turn from his more political/historical opus, Opera. Inspired by the loss of his grandfather, Oh traces a man’s existence via his life tree from birth to death. A tree (the title Namoo means tree in Korean) is used to represent the passing years and interests of a man who prioritizes work over happiness. It’s an inspired idea (somewhat reminiscent of Kunio Katō’s 1998 Oscar winner, The House of Small Cubes, and even Chris Hinton’s marvelous, Flux) that reminds us that all we have are moments… breezes that pass just as fast as they arrive.

This is another contender that is quiet, trusting the power of the image to transmit feelings instead of the usual overreliance on babbling, corny music, and brash sounds.

Namoo occasionally loses its punch by trying to appeal to a wide universal audience. It sort of removes the uniqueness of the experience (in this case, Oh’s grandfather) and the ending veers too far down pathos lane.

Still, Namoo is a reminder (with added meaning thanks to these isolating pandemic times) of the importance of not putting stuff off, but also not letting yourself be burdened by the past or future. You’re gonna die either way so you might as well embrace what you love (in this case, art) and roll with it until you can’t.

Only a Child - Simone Giampalo, Switzerland

This collective work is based on a 1992 speech given by a young Canadian environmentalist, Severn Suzuki, at the UN Summit in Rio (fun fact, Severn is the daughter of the famous Canadian environmentalist, David Suzuki, and is related to NHL hockey player, Nick Suzuki).

A passionate and fiery rallying call to children everywhere, Only a Child also, on a somewhat more superficial note, serves as a guidebook to a variety of rich animation designs and styles. That said, the film, for all its good intentions (calling out adults for the hollow ‘children are our future’ refrain we hear from every horseshit politician and business baron), veers uncomfortably into preachy, PSA territory. The images and message are so general and didactic (and, arguably, naive) that younger audiences might turn away with a groan alongside a muffled “don’t tell me what to do.” We are offered powerful words, but in the end, they are just words. What’s needed are specific, concrete solutions more than guilt trips.

Robin Robin - Mikey Please, UK/USA

It’s got Aardman, Richard E. Grant, Gillian Anderson, the animation and design are quite scrumptious. But, honestly, I don’t know what the film is about in the end. Take away the song filler and this could have been a delightful enough 10 minutes short for the newly potty trained post-diaper crowd. Instead, we get a rather simplistic narrative (and a muddy and muffled soundtrack) about a Robin that is found and raised by a family of mice. The Robin isn’t a good mouse nor a particularly good bird, but learns, through adversity, to accept his/her shortcomings. You do your best with what you’re given. There are messages about tolerance and inclusivity, but then in the same breath, the film cautions everyone to avoid cats, cause their predators! I take great offense to the depiction of cats in this work. This is a catcist film that should cause a revolt in feline nations. All in all, Robin, Robin is refreshingly subdued (compared to the babbling nature of many studio animation films) and a pleasant diversion from the global maelstrom.

Souvenir Souvenir - Bastien Dubois, France

An autobiographical tale about Dubois’ grandfather who fought in the Algerian war but refused to ever speak of his experiences. Dubois, because he likely suspects his grandfather’s complicity in some brutal treatment of Algerians, struggles to let go of the story. He even tries to make his own “cartoony” tale of the grotesque nature of war but realizes it’s too simplistic. When Dubois’ Algerian grandmother recounts how she was almost raped by French soldiers as a child, Dubois again tries to convince his grandfather to speak, but with no success. Finally, during a family meal, his grandfather hints at the atrocities committed.

The chalky, translucent drawings aptly mirror the fragility and uncertainty of the characters, their memories, and life in general. A powerful and brutally honest work about the complexities of war and the trickiness of navigating the murky landscape of a past that some simply want to forget.

Step into the River - Weijia Mi, France

During a summer in the countryside with her grandmother, a young girl named Wei spots what appears to be a ghostly infant. She follows the apparition only to discover a young girl, Lu, being bullied by some local kids. The kids think that Lu is an orphan who was abandoned by her parents. Wei immediately rushes to Lu’s defense. Eventually, we learn that Wei's brother died as a baby and that Lu was supposed to have died but was rescued by a man before she was drowned by her parents (who wanted a boy). The ending, which I won’t spoil, is at once haunting, uplifting, and as potent as a right hook to the kidneys.

Step into the River is a deceptive film. You’re lured in with the gentle color palette and sounds of a seemingly innocent childhood summer only to uncover a tragic and chilling ghost story connected to China’s one-child policy. A potent work that uncovers unspeakable horrors.

Us Again - Zach Parrish, USA

It’s got diversity. It’s got elderly protagonists. Even better, there’s no dialogue. Us Again is a musical-inspired short about a grumpy old guy (like me but this guy’s more committed) who has lost the vibe for life. His wife tries but nope, he ain’t getting out of that recliner. But then, he steps out onto the fire escape just as rain cascades down upon his moody self. In an instant, the rain carries him back to his youth, when he lived, loved, and danced (apparently) through public streets. In the end, the rain ends, but that doesn’t mean his spirit does. The past is never past, wrote another old guy (who found joy through words and mint juleps). Us Again is a pleasurable jaunt that reminds us to live before we can’t.

The Windshield Wiper - Alberto Mielgo, Spain

In a small cafe, a man sits, occasionally overhearing conversations from other tables above love. The story then shifts through a series of vignettes related to loves lost, found, and missed. We meet a homeless man who mistakes a shop window mannequin for an old flame; a suicidal woman; an amorous yet detached couple sitting silently on a beach; a man and woman cross paths in a grocery store, but are too busy scrolling on the singles app on their phones to notice that love might be right there beside them.

Inspired by observations, encounters, and personal experiences, Mielgo looks at the futility of knowing just what love means, especially in a world where chance encounters have been replaced by digital swipes and likes. The Windshield Wiper is a visually impressive work that reflects the confusion and challenges of modern love.

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.