Review: Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts Make the Most of a Creative Medium, from the Humorous to the Heartfelt

Making any film is no small task; it can take years from start to finish. Making an animated film only complicates matters, and it's a small miracle anytime the likes of Pixar or Laika release one of their masterpieces. In this year's Animated Short Film Oscar nominees line-up, five films prove that even making short-subject films in this artful approach can be quite an undertaking—and also quite beautiful. From claymation to mixed-media, from the experimental and personal to the wholesome and universal, the nominees offer a glimpse into the wide-ranging capabilities of animation—as well as the value of a great title.

An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe Him is the claymation existential workplace comedy we didn't know we needed. Written and directed by Lachlan Pendragon, this 11-minute gem centers on Neil (voiced by Pendragon), a toaster salesman working in a drab cubicle for a boss who's out-of-touch. When a talking ostrich appears at the office (as one does) disclosing the secrets of the universe, Neil's life is turned upside down. The short film is meta and self-aware, its comedy delivered with a deadpan wit that makes it all the more desperate and hilarious. Neil's journey into actualization doesn't exactly go according to plan, but no matter, it's the trying that matters in this cheeky and sharp nominee.

In Ice Merchants, filmmaker João Gonzalez uses sparse sketches and a flexibility with perspective to bring audiences to the top of a steep cliff, the small village below and the vast and open air in between. Father and son live in a house inexplicably mounted to the side of a mountain, parachuting down to the village every day to sell their ice. It's a dreamy and calm journey, and the two live out a quiet, if precipitous, routine. It's when forces greater than themselves threaten their livelihood and home that the film finds a conflict anyone will recognize, and soon the journey down to the village is far more stressful. With lush ink strokes and a limited color palette, Ice Merchants says quite a lot without ever saying anything at all.

When it was announced during the nominations broadcast last month, My Year of Dicks received audible chuckles from those in attendance, and neither Allison Williams nor Riz Ahmed could keep a straight face. Based on Pamela Ribon's memoir and directed by Sara Gunnarsdóttir, the 25-minute film revisits Pam's attempts to lose her virginity one formative year in her teens, through five animated vignettes that vary in style and vibe. While the film at times feels like a film school student's thesis project trying to show off all the influences of a budding cinefile, it's nevertheless an unflinchingly entertaining examination of young female sexuality—the scene where Pam's father sits her down for the "sex talk" is particularly poignant in that cringe-worthy, crawl-out-of-your-skin kind of way.

Based on a bestselling illustrated children's book of the same name, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse is the year's most heartfelt nominated submission, and it certainly pulls no punches in going straight for the heartstrings. Author Charlie Mackesy co-directs the adaptation of his book with Peter Baynton, featuring the voice talents of Gabriel Byrne (the Horse), Idris Elba (the Fox) and Tom Hiddleston (the Mole); these three forest creatures become companions to a young boy (Jude Coward Nicoll) who's lost his way and is trying to find home. Nearly every other line of dialogue is a life-affirming idiom, as these four gentle creatures navigate a harsh winter's night, and a cynic might say that's reason enough to tune this one out. But we could all use a reminder of our own fragile humanity now and then, and how essential each of us is in this world. Coupled with the film's gentle animation and soft-spoken dialogue, The Boy, The Mole...is a beautiful, if quite simple, rumination on life, love and human connection.

At just seven minutes long, The Flying Sailor is the program's shortest short film, and it takes a more abstract approach to exploring the meaning of life. Based on an incredible true story and written and directed by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, this abstract animated offering considers the story of a sailor sent literally flying through the air following an explosion caused by the collision of two warships in 1917 Halifax, Nova Scotia. Though the real experience must have been traumatizing, the film imagines the journey of the man who flew 2 kilometers as something more spiritual and undefined. He sees his life flash before his eyes, he sees nature come and go, he sees the universe and all its secrets. There are certain stories that can't be told well in any medium besides animation, and The Flying Sailor is absolutely one of them.

The Animated Oscar Nominated Short Films are now playing in select theaters, including the Music Box Theatre.

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Lisa Trifone