I’ve always had a fondness for animation, primarily because of its ability to transcend the limitations of gravity or genre. From the incipient stages of cinema, animators have shown that their work can tell a variety of stories, from adventure to horror and even avant-garde experimentation. Despite there being a fair number of animated films aimed squarely at adults, however, the majority of audiences in the western market still view them as strictly “family fare.” This makes the lineup this year a bit more interesting as the majority of them are about families, but they cover surprisingly weighty themes on loss and change.
We start off with the latest Pixar short, Bao, first shown to the public last year with Incredibles 2. It presents the aforementioned themes and takes the lightest approach to them out of all the nominees, although being a Pixar film, it does tug at your heart strings. The film centers on a lonely Chinese-Canadian woman, spending most of her time at home while her husband goes off to work. But all that changes when one of her homemade dumplings unexpectedly comes to life. Although its appearance is akin to an Asian Gingerbread Man, complete with arms and legs, it cries like a human infant, and the woman’s maternal instincts compel her to raise it as her own. What follows is a montage showing their life together as mother and doughy son, how tight knit they are as she feeds him, takes him on outings, makes sure the dog at the park doesn’t try to eat him. But the mother’s overbearing nature causes a rift between the two and the little dumpling starts having a life of his own. This leads to a pair of twists, neither of which I will reveal, but I will describe the first one as a shocking but effective visualization of the mother’s inability to let go of her child, a fear all too relatable for many parents. The second twist changes our perceptions of the preceding events somewhat, and ends on a heartwarming note that won’t leave a dry eye in the house.
Next we have Late Afternoon from Cartoon Saloon, the production company behind feature-length films like The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. It opens on Kate, an elderly lady sitting on her couch while her caregiver is wrapping up belongings and storing them in boxes. In between her packing, the caregiver makes Kate a cup of tea with biscuits. A piece of the biscuit breaks off, triggering memories for Kate as she literally sinks into the whirlpools of her mind (displayed in beautiful bubbles of technicolor while she remains a monochromatic outline), back to key moments of her life. The simple character designs, with black dots for eyes and lines curved in geometric positions, are given deep humanity by the talented artists with just the slightest shift in movement or the smallest of lines to convey profound emotions, particularly when it comes to Kate as she struggles, in her dementia-riddled mind, to make sense of what is happening around her or the meaning behind these memories her mind keeps flashing back to. One particular early flashback sequence where she’s a little girl ends with her sitting on her couch, still at a young age, asking innocently for another biscuit. As her caregiver walks past her, Kate turns into an elderly woman again. Behind the wrinkly, weathered face, is a little girl lost and uncertain of where or who she is. As we follow the chapters of her life, we get a reveal that audiences may see coming, but nevertheless delivers an emotional gut punch in a visually lyrical tale.
Our third short focuses on a very different kind of family. Entitled Animal Behaviour, the film depicts a group therapy session where all the patients, and even the leading health counselor are, as you have probably guessed, creatures of the wild. Unfolding like a comedy sketch, we watch as everyone comes face to face with their insecurities and issues when a new patient, a disgruntled giant ape who keeps his problems close to the chest, joins the group. The comedy, which stems from the type of animals portrayed, reflects the personal demons everyone struggles with. One is a pig who always breaks from the group to get himself a bagel, another is a single mother praying mantis looking for a boyfriend she won’t decapitate. The biggest laugh came from a bird coping with a childhood trauma and the horrible choices he made when faced with having a brother. Even the counselor, a dog, is not immune to his animal instincts during this particularly harrowing session. It only gets crazier as the story progresses, but it’s a jolly good time.
Next, we have, I feel, the best nominee in this category. Weekends, directed by Trevor Jimenez, a story artist from Pixar, contains an emotional impact which lies in its quiet understanding of three major characters and their respective arcs. The film centers on a boy living with his divorced mom. They have just moved into a new house; his room needs a coat of paint. The boy spends his weekends with his affluent father. They spend their time together having fun in his luxurious bachelor pad, admiring Dad’s collection of samurai armor and watching old martial arts films. As the days and months pass, we experience a series of changes alongside the boy as his parents begin seeing new romantic partners. The boy copes with these new changes in his life through surreal nightmare sequences including an unnerving one where Mom’s boyfriend arrives at the door, except the top half of his head is replaced with a birthday candle. His attempts to blow out the candle result in the half-headed figure turning into a flaming monster that torches everything he touches. Jimenez draws upon his own childhood experiences to evoke the process of growing up, seeing life through curious eyes and witnessing events which one at such a young age may not fully comprehend yet is able to respond to on an emotional level. By revisiting his youth, Jimenez permits his younger self to dictate the film’s distinct aesthetic. The characters may have dots for eyes yet they contain an abundance of soulfulness in them, similar to the characters in Late Afternoon, and the backgrounds look like a mix of watercolor and crayon drawings. He even gives his parents distinct identities through their own musical themes of preexisting material. The mother’s sad loneliness and humble existence is reflected in moments where she plays Gymnopedie on the piano while the father, as he picks up his son every Friday, is blaring Money for Nothing on the car radio, accentuating his life of excess, which the boy finds may not be enough to sustain a relationship with him. This is a powerful, haunting film whose simple approach never compromises the struggles and pain coming from drastic changes in a young person’s life. We are not only shown the difficulties the boy experiences in adjusting, but also how the family carries on and moves forward as the film ends on a sad yet beautifully hopeful image.
Lastly, we have One Small Step, another film designed to move and inspire its audience, although its narrative structure is a bit lacking, especially in comparison to the narrative execution of the other nominees. It opens with a little girl watching a live broadcast of a rocket launching into space, and from the moment her eyes are glued to her television set, she vows to become an astronaut. She becomes so enamored with the subject she has her room decorated with various space-themed posters and has her ceiling adorned with glow-in-the-dark stickers shaped like the moon and stars. Her shoemaker father even manages to save enough money to buy her space boots. We then cut forward a number of years as the girl is now a college student studying astrophysics in the hopes of realizing her dream of becoming an astronaut. But schoolwork proves rigorous, and her steadfast dedication to her studies puts some emotional distance between her and her father, similar to the rift that developed between the woman and her dumpling son in Bao. While by no means shoddy in its storytelling execution or its animation, there are no surprises that make it really distinct, especially in comparison to the way some of the other nominees took similar stories but whose elements helped made the characterizations more fleshed out and distinguished. It doesn’t have the unusual concept of a piece of dough serving as an emotionally resonant parable to the way parents view and love their children, much to the latter’s chagrin at times, nor the subtle, yet emotionally charged presentation of events like Weekends. Even the 3D animation style, with a cel-shaded, 2D look to it, is well done, but all too reminiscent of works we’ve seen before, particularly the Disney cartoon Feast. It’s an earnestly told film with a sweet heart at its center, but it’s a story we’ve seen told time and again in more resonant ways.