Every winter, the Detroit Film Theater plays the Oscar-nominated shorts in its beautiful, historic theater. It’s become a tradition for me to go with a few friends and discuss our favorites as they roll (quietly and subtly, of course). For me, it’s all about the animated shorts. I love illustration and the way animation plays with sound and color to tell a story. But, I have to say, for as much as I look forward to the shorts, I ultimately find them disappointing. Year after year, the same types of stories seem to be selected. Often, they’re steeped in sentimentality and tend to focus on the intimate struggles of family discord. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for stuff like this. And the animated shorts that are selected truly do it well. However, they tend to feel like fun, well-crafted pop songs, using the best tech to construct Pixaresque characters who, even in their exaggerated features, all end up looking similar. Animation is dominated by Disney and Pixar, and the Oscar-nominated shorts could be a chance to give smaller, independent voices a mainstream platform that may not be available elsewhere. And yet, this year’s winner was a Pixar production. Domee Shi’s Bao was funny, cute, and the animation was charming (the food had that Miyazaki vibe where the illustrated dumpling’s visual appeal is somehow more appetizing than any real-life iteration). I’m not saying that it’s a bad short. I am saying, however, that it feels like many other Pixar animations. Why should a film that relies on well-forged paths win first place when there is no dearth of creative, brilliant, storytellers in the field?
Domee Shi’s Bao (Pixar)
In 1962, a Yugoslavian film titled Surogat won an Academy Award. It came out of the Zagreb school of animation, which was a part of a larger, soviet-bloc trend in storytelling that challenged Disney’s monopoly on the artform. The films that came out of this movement were not solely focused on romantic or familial relationships and the sentimental weight they carry, as many Disney movies tend to be. Instead, they explored philosophical questions and played with the imaginative liberties that are unique to illustration. Hungary’s Ruben Brandt, Collector, which was released earlier this year, is an example of the beautiful surrealism that animation can offer when it’s not confined to Disney’s lovely but, frankly, overly-polished structure. As much as I rely on animated films to offer comforting narratives, comfort alone is not enough. Memorable animation opens a space for the viewer to feel tension, fear, and awe, and to sort through those feelings through linework and color that appeals to the hungriest parts of our imaginations.
Milorad Krstic’s Ruben Brandt, Collector
In that vein, I want to recognize Trevor Jimenez’s Weekends, which was nominated for an award this year. Jimenez is an illustrator for Pixar, and his film checks all the boxes of a good Disney/Pixar production: it’s a sentimental coming-of-age story that presents an uplifting message about family and perseverance. However, while watching it, I didn’t feel bored by its familiar plot. Weekends uses nuance and an exploration of the subconscious to articulate the anxiety and loss of divorce. It offers frank representations of the violence that can be a very real part of children’s lives without succumbing to a cynical or bleak worldview. Ultimately, it leads us to a resolution that is beautiful and optimistic, but not simplistic enough to constitute a fairytale happy ending. The protagonist’s dreams act as benchmarks throughout the story, and their magic dovetails with his tangible reality, making the monotony of domestic life feel whimsical. Films like Weekends keep me coming back each year, hoping that in between the perfect symmetry of computer animation, the Academy will recognize something that is just off-center enough to feel human.
Trevor Jimenez’s Weekends