Among the most baffling Academy Award decisions of the past decade didn’t occur when someone read the wrong envelope for Best Picture or for a tightly contested performance category. No, the one decision that startled me most was a few years ago when Don Hertzfeldt’s astonishing World of Tomorrow lost in the Best Animated Short category to Gabriel Osorio Vargas and Pato Escala Pierart’s decidedly un-astonishing Bear Story. In a move that beckons a mercy killing, Hertzfeldt’s equally remarkable sequel was denied a nomination entirely at this year’s ceremony, leaving a slate of five nominees that must escape the burden of expectations.
The usual suspects in the category come in the form of Pixar’s Lou and Magic Lights Pictures’ Revolting Rhymes. Magic Lights Pictures’ has secured four nominations in this category since 2009, mostly for their blandly innocuous fairy tale narratives like The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom. Revolting Rhymes, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book, has its moments of verbal wit, but its animation style remains terribly dated with a stale palette of colors and matted visual design that would’ve been obsolete in the early aughts. It’s by far the least interesting of the five nominees, which probably makes it a frontrunner to win the category. Lou, comparatively, meets its modest expectations. It never emerges from its Pixar mold, but it sprints throughout its runtime, telling its cautionary tale on bullying with a sensitivity that we’ve come to expect from the studio. In both cases, we have familiar studios continuing their commitment to their artistic wells, even if both are beginning to dry up.
Elsewhere, there’s Glen Kleane and Kobe Bryant’s Dear Basketball, a saccharine visual rendering of Bryant’s retirement letter that was published in The Players’ Tribune. Its visual schema is different enough from the other nominees to render consideration, but having Bryant’s narration swell in conjunction with John Williams’ noticeable score is terribly cloying. I was more impressed with the Illogic Collective’s Garden Party, a visually stunning exercise that finds various amphibians crashing a pool party as they explore the aftermath of decadence. The swollen carcass that floats within the pool itself doesn’t so much read as a political attack as it does an inevitable punch line to a devilish joke.
Yet my favorite of the nominees, and the only one to rival World of Tomorrow 2, is Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter’s Negative Space. Like Garden Party, Negative Space builds to a devilish punchline, though in this case, the path is dictated by a sense of melancholic urgency. The short details the ritual that a father and son share, where packing a suitcase serves as a reminder of their fragile relationship with one another. It’s the most satisfying of all the nominated shorts, visually sumptuous, narratively economic, and emotionally poignant. But if one can learn from the Academy’s history, it’s that the more challenging and audacious selections tend to fall to more anodyne nominees – Piper over Pear Cider and Cigarettes, Bear Story over World of Tomorrow, etc. Here’s hoping that Negative Space bucks the trend.