Review: Animated Short Films Nominated for the 2024 Oscars Offer Poetic Solutions to Serious Topics

The five finalists present creative approaches to weighty subjects, tackling topics such as capital punishment, childhood sexual abuse, and beyond.

Letter to a Pig

Audiences attending the “2024 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animation” program should prepare for poetic interpretations of challenging subjects, including incest and the Holocaust. As animated shorts typically have shorter runtimes, viewers can expect to experience a condensed yet impactful exploration of these topics within the hour-long program. In addition to the nominated films, ShortsTV’s theatrical lineup includes two “highly commended” titles, concluding on a musical note with “I’m Hip,” directed by “The Little Mermaid” co-director John Musker. Notably absent from both the ballot and the show is Disney’s centennial “Once Upon a Studio,” which features many of Mickey Mouse’s extended family.

In “Our Uniform” by Yegane Moghaddam from Iran, clothing serves as a poignant medium for commentary. The young director creatively explores the experience of growing up in a country where girls are mandated to wear the hijab, or headscarf. Moghaddam employs various techniques, manipulating garments to convey motion and drawing directly onto fabrics to convey thoughts and emotions. Through contrasting the strict dress codes in her home country with the diverse styles worn by Westerners, she evokes a range of emotions from viewers, blending humor with poignancy. Graduates of Catholic schools in America may find parallels to their own experiences with uniforms. Moghaddam argues that one’s choice in clothing is a fundamental form of expression, and restricting it amounts to oppression, as illustrated through the use of buttons and pins as symbolic props.

In “Letter to a Pig” by Israeli director Tal Kantor, childhood memories resurface in the form of a student’s reaction to hearing from a Holocaust survivor named Haim. Using a nearly monochromatic palette of black ink and photographic stills, Kantor depicts the moment when Haim escaped Nazis by hiding in a pigsty. Reflecting on the event, Haim acknowledges that this non-kosher animal saved his life, despite the story sparking laughter from some students, reminiscent of reactions to “Schindler’s List.” The 16-minute short explores how the incident and the responses of her peers impact a girl named Alma, evolving into a nightmarish experience as Haim’s memory consumes her imagination. “Letter to a Pig” operates on an expressionistic level, leaving a lasting impression on audiences to interpret and personalize.

“Pachyderme” similarly delves into the mind’s mechanisms for processing and suppressing childhood trauma, albeit with a markedly different visual approach compared to the stark aesthetic of “Letter to a Pig.” Stéphanie Clement employs a full-color, seemingly hand-painted style reminiscent of comforting preschool picture books. Amid the nostalgic recollections of visits to her grandparents’ country house by a redheaded girl, hints of lurking threats subtly emerge just beyond the frame. The narrator recounts encountering monstrous eyes staring from the ceiling knots, with no escape in sight. While the memory obscures any explicit details of the trauma, the girl vividly recalls the emotional toll it took, depicted through imagery of her attempting to blend into the wallpaper or imagining herself submerged underwater. This evocative use of animation juxtaposes the naive visual style with the retrospective narration, creating a striking and thought-provoking contrast.

A creatively insightful take on vintage Disney educational shorts, “Ninety-Five Senses” presents an engaging blend of animation styles, which serves as the project’s underlying purpose. Co-directors Jerusha and Jared Hess, known for “Napoleon Dynamite,” conceived the project as a platform to showcase emerging filmmakers, each contributing a unique sequence. Tim Blake Nelson lends his affable Southern twang to the character of Coy, an amiable old death row inmate, whose folksy narration provides continuity amidst a variety of distinctive visual approaches.

Throughout the film, Coy’s anecdotes reveal his unconventional perspective on life, colored by his experiences behind bars. As he shares his regrets and reflections, viewers are drawn into his charming and unique way of perceiving the world through not just sight, but also touch, smell, and taste. It’s a playful yet profound exploration of human senses and experiences, leaving audiences charmed by Coy’s colorful outlook on life.

In “War Is Over: Inspired by the Music of John & Yoko,” two soldiers engage in an unlikely game of chess amidst the chaos of battle, communicating their moves via carrier pigeon. Conceived by Sean Ono Lennon as a creative homage to his parents’ message of peace, this visually stunning computer-generated short film appears more polished than its counterparts but falls short in coherence. The narrative lacks clarity regarding how the chess game between the soldiers originated. Despite being ordered into combat by their commanders, they refuse to harm each other, prompted by the song “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” which leads to a spontaneous cessation of hostilities.

While the project boasts an impressive lineup of collaborators, including director Dave Mullins (Oscar-nominated for “Lou”) and Peter Jackson, who enlisted Weta for the animation, the connection to John and Yoko’s message of love and peace feels diluted. While the real-life couple’s activism was influential, the symbolism of cartoon pigeons fails to convey the same impactful message.

In contrast to the preceding short, the ShortsTV program offers two bonus shorts, the first of which adopts a heavy-handed approach to addressing environmental issues. Co-directed by Karni Arieli and Saul Freed, “Wild Summon” employs photorealistic computer-generated imagery to depict the life cycle of a female salmon. However, rather than portraying the salmon as a fish, the filmmakers opt for a humanoid representation, featuring bloated lips and a tiny diving mask. Marianne Faithfull’s woeful narration highlights the various threats facing the species, resulting in a grim and unsettling viewing experience.

The decision to anthropomorphize the salmon into human-like creatures feels misguided and ultimately detracts from the intended message. By depicting salmon as eerie water-people, the short inadvertently implies a sense of cannibalism among consumers of salmon, which may alienate rather than resonate with audiences.

Fortunately, the program concludes on a lighter note with a delightful offering from animation veteran John Musker. Despite his retirement from Disney, Musker demonstrates his continued passion for the craft by creating a retro-styled animated short using a combination of hand-drawn techniques and digital tools. Titled “I’m Hip,” the short is set to a jazzy parody song by Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough, following a stylish cat donning indoor shades and a pork pie hat as he tries to convince others of his coolness.

Despite the character’s efforts, Musker cleverly incorporates visual jokes throughout the short to suggest otherwise, adding a layer of humor and irony to the narrative. While “I’m Hip” may feel somewhat disconnected from contemporary trends, it succeeds in bringing much-needed laughter to an otherwise somber program, offering a refreshing and uplifting conclusion.

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