Scott Carlton, a Lights.Camera.Binge guest columnist, reviews the animated shorts in our 2017 Oscar blog series!

Perhaps it’s a sign that the Academy is feeling a bit cynical. This year’s crop of Oscar-nominated animated shorts is a surprisingly serious, even depressing, lot. There’s nary a laugh to be had among the nominees, except perhaps for a few chuckles on account of Pixar’s cloyingly cute sea bird protagonist in Piper. Written and directed by Alan Barillaro, that film tells the tale of a young bird who must assume adult responsibilities on its own terms. Piper has been seen by a wider public audience than any of the other nominees, programmed before Finding Dory in its theatrical release. The sleekest of the nominated films, it represents a concerted attempt by Pixar to show off its latest and greatest in photorealistic animation technology. For these reasons, and because of its harmless and un-experimental cutesiness, and because the Academy almost always awards Pixar shorts, Piper is sure to snatch the Oscar.

Borrowed Time

Pixar’s entry is, as you can probably tell by now, not my favorite of the nominees, though undeniably one of the stronger entries in a slate that is somewhat disappointing compared to recent years.  Borrowed Time, a story of cowboy guilt and suicidal tendencies, is told in child-friendly Pixar-esque animation. This is no coincidence, as Pixar artists Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj created it using Pixar resources. The result feels rather underdeveloped and unsatisfying as a narrative.  Pearl, directed by Oscar-winner Patrick Osborne, employs the clever conceit of portraying the relations between a father and daughter from the perspective of the passenger seat of their family car. The film has a messy, rotoscoped appearance (though actually made with VR technology) that provides a fairly distinctive visual style, but ultimately plays out like a somewhat sentimental music video.

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Pearl
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Pear Cider and Cigarettes

The short that seems to be receiving the highest praise, or at least the most column inches, aside from Piper, is an “adult-themed” (the Academy provides an on-screen warning before the film begins so that parents can herd their children out of the theater) autobiographical account of filmmaker Robert Valley’s friendship with a man who goes by the name of Techno. The film, titled Pear Cider and Cigarettes, no doubt sticks out in the program, with a run-time of 35 minutes. All other nominees clock in at approximately 6 to 7 minutes. Valley uses his self-published graphic memoir as a storyboard, such that the film’s visual style feels and looks like many a graphic novel, complete with fade-to-blacks that mimic panel demarcations. We see glimpses of characters and actions rather than continuity.  The film is visually striking, though in a style that feels harsh, dark, colorful, and familiar all at once. But, for me, this ambitious project was entirely undermined by the incessant, machismo, and usually unnecessary narration of the filmmaker, reading from a script an elementary school student might have written that provides little insight into the characters. The visuals and narration coalesce into a quasi-“noir” style that feels rather mismatched to a story about addiction and health decline.

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Blind Vaysha

The final nominee, Blind Vaysha, is, for me, the greatest treasure among the five selected films. Animated in utterly distinctive Germanic linocut-style to resemble woodcuts, this made-up folk tale based on a short story asks the audience to think on an allegorical scenario in which a girl is born with a bizarre eye condition that allows her to see the past and future, but not the present. Director Theodore Ushev provides little in the way of narrative or character development, but is simply content to meditate on time through visually striking images.

For those viewers, like myself, hoping to find more creative whimsy in their animated fare than the severity and self-seriousness that largely characterizes the nominated titles, fear not.  These films have been delegated to the “Highly Commended” section of the Academy-issued theatrical package.  My very favorite film of the program, and one that most certainly deserved a nomination, is Once Upon a Line. Writer, producer, and director Alicja Jasina has made a humorous and narrative, yet cleverly experimental work. The admittedly familiar story of a complacent man who finds his routines upended by romance, employs seemingly simple sketches to demonstrate just how much a line, a curve, or a color can communicate about narrative and character. The film is a fun, clever, and economical marriage of form and function, style and content.