It's a cliché, though no less true for being one, to say that what the short story is to fiction, the short film is to cinema. Each is a somewhat niche medium. (Who sees short films? Who reads short stories outside of a classroom?) And each can too often be dismissed as somehow a lesser art form, or patronizingly viewed as no more than a training ground for "real" work.
Like most people, I never see short films except during awards season. When I do, however, I realize they are—like short stories—a stunningly concentrated form of storytelling, requiring absolute technical control and ruthless emotional concentration. A feature film can be flawed, flabby, and meandering, and still make an impact. But a good short has to trim every ounce of fat and pare itself of every extraneous moment: they require a purity, clarity, and precision that—when it works—is dazzling to behold.
This year's Oscar-nominated animated shorts—once again playing in theaters courtesy of Shorts HD—makes for a pretty solid display of the craft. The five nominees range in scope of intention from heart-wrenching simplicity to mind-blowing complexity, but they all feel like they accomplished exactly what their creators had in mind.
SANJAY'S SUPER TEAM
Perennial nominee Pixar's entry is the directing debut of longtime studio animator Sanjay Patel. Sanjay's Super Team is a fancifully autobiographical account of a moment from Patel's childhood, when he found himself torn between the spiritual demands of his religious father and the more secular pleasures of cartoons on the TV. It struck me initially as a short and simple piece, though its vivid colors and imaginative animation make it as visually impressive as all of Pixar's work. But the more I thought about it, the more I found its apparent simplicity deceptive: in finding an imaginative synthesis between gods and superheroes, Sanjay's Super Team finds a lot to say about fathers and sons, and generational differences, and the tricky balance immigrant families find between tradition and assimilation. It's a brief, fun, crowd-pleasing piece that—like the best of Pixar's work—has a surprising heart and wisdom at its core.
Chilean director Gabriel Osorio Vargas works impressively complex technical, narrative, and emotional layers into his wordless 11-minute film Bear Story. It is the story of a bear (rendered in computer animation), who tells his own life story through a mechanical nickelodeon (which plays out in lovely stop-motion). The bear's life has not been a happy one—in fact, you may as well reach for your tissues the moment Bear Story begins—but Osorio's mixed-style story within a story achieves a deep layer of hope that balances its profound sadness. Without knowing anything about Vargas's life, one can't help but imagine the man, making a cartoon about a bear, who makes a machine, to tell the story of another, slightly happier bear. Bear Story is undoubtedly a tear-jerker, but, in its exploration and transformation of sadness, it quietly becomes a rich and evocative celebration of how storytelling itself may be enough to sustain us.
WE CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT COSMOS
Konstantin Bronzit's hand-drawn We Can't Live Without Cosmos is a technically simple but surprisingly affecting story. Two men—best friends since childhood—are training to become cosmonauts: we watch them go through the training and testing process, sharing the enthusiasms and joy and humor of the experience. One of the funniest entries, Cosmos, coming halfway through a mostly dark program, feels at first like a refreshing bit of animated fun. But it ultimately deepens into something richer, sadder, and more ambitious: a moving exploration of the fundamental love between these two men, and the dream they share so completely that neither can imagine living it without the other.
Veteran animator Richard Williams' Prologue is perhaps the most breathtakingly impressive piece of work from a technical standpoint: a gorgeous hand-drawn masterpiece mixing bold lines and robust action with the most delicate shadings and nuances of motion and expression. But the problem with Prologue is that that's all it feels like this is: a brief demonstration of (admittedly stunning) skill. There is very little story: it depicts a fierce, gory battle between two Athenian warriors and two Spartan warriors, which is witnessed by a young girl and an old woman. (The brutality of the fight—and the nudity of the Spartans—means this short is not for kids: it is the last film shown in the theatrical presentation, and there are several on-screen notifications along the way that parents with young children should depart the theater before Prologue begins.) As its title implies, Prologue is not so much a self-contained short film as it is the opening few minutes of a much longer and more ambitious feature Williams is undertaking. I'll be excited to see that movie, but this teaser/proof-of-concept piece fails to completely satisfy.
WORLD OF TOMORROW
My absolute favorite among the nominated shorts—by a considerable margin—is Don Hertzfeldt's World of Tomorrow, which manages in 17 minutes to be funnier, smarter, more imaginative, and more evocative than any full-length science-fiction movie I've seen in years. Most films would take longer than 17 minutes to explain the concept alone: a third-generation clone, from hundreds of years in the future, has reached out through time to communicate with her own genetic ancestor, a four-year old girl named Emily. Depicted in stick-figure drawings against brilliantly abstract backgrounds, the adult clone takes Emily on a virtual tour of time and the universe, telling her progenitor her strange life story along the way. In the clone's narrative, World of Tomorrow casually lays out enough brilliant ideas to power a dozen feature films: we meet a brainless boy who was allowed to grow old and die as an art installation; we see the clone fall in love with a shapeshifting alien mass she hatched from an egg; we encounter moon-mining robots who have been left with nothing but their despairing fear of the dark, and transmit depressing poetry back to Earth in response. Hertzfeldt moves quickly and effortlessly between these (and many more) concepts—simultaneously amusing and haunting—dropping them like perfect eggs to sprout in our imaginations long after he's moved on. And all of this is anchored emotionally by the fascinating, delicately strange relationship between these two characters: an adult who is looking back at her life with deep regret, trying to warn a delighted, oblivious little girl who neither understands nor needs the lessons. (The adult is voiced by illustrator Julia Pott; the child is voiced—with, one suspects, some improvisation—by the director's four-year-old niece, Winona Mae: both are funny and moving and absolutely wonderful.) I've endured more two-and-a-half- or three-hour movies this year than I care to remember, but I enjoyed World of Tomorrow more than any of them, and I will think about it for far, far longer. It's undoubtedly the best animated short of the year, and I'm not at all sure it isn't the best movie of the year.