We are currently waist deep into awards season and the film industry’s night of nights is less than two weeks away. And while the Academy Awards as essentially just an annual showcase of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood where overpaid actors congratulate each other for their greatness, one of the great things about them is when they recognise the smaller or supposed ‘below the line’ categories, such as the shorts. It gives all the nominees the whirlwind experience of a lifetime on the awards circuit with the winners getting their moment in the spotlight (unless the network cuts them from the broadcast in a desperate attempt to increase their ever-diminishing ratings).
Oscar buffs in Australia looking to catch up on the shorts are in luck, as all the nominees from both the Animated and Live Action shorts categories will be screened in over 40 cinema locations nationally over the first two weekends of March prior to the Oscars on Monday March 13 (Australian Time). Fear not if a cinema is out of your reach, as a number of the nominees are readily available to stream online across various platforms and services.
I’ve had the pleasure of viewing all five nominees from this year’s Best Animated Short Film category. Here are my brief thoughts on each nominee, followed by my own prediction for which of these shorts will take out the coveted golden statue.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
This short follows a young boy lost in the snow on a cold winter’s night searching for his way home. In his travels, he meets three animals that help him on his journey and teach him valuable life lessons about courage, kindness and friendship. There’s a mole with an obsession and lust for cake, a cunning but kind-hearted fox and a horse with a secret talent he has kept hidden from the world.
Of the five nominees, this is easily the most high profile and the one with the most money behind it. It’s adapted from a best-selling children’s book (the author Charlie Mackesy co-directed this adaptation) that was released on Christmas Eve and it’s co-produced by Apple Studios, the BBC and J.J Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot. It also boasts an impressive voice cast featuring Tom Hollander, Idris Elba and Gabriel Byrne and features a wonderful score from Isobel Waller-Bridge. It is also the longest film in the category clocking in at 33 minutes.
Much of the dialogue, especially from the mole sounds like cliche, overtly schmaltzy inspirational quotes you’d see your aunty post on Facebook with a picture of a sunset. But what makes the film work other than the beautiful hand-drawn art style from the book transposed to the screen with perfection is the deceptively simple yet poignant message of friendship and how to traverse through life when things get tough. Lines like “Asking for help isn’t giving up. It is refusing to give up” are overly sentimental, but still feels in tune with the tone of the films and presents its morals in a way that children can understand whilst not talking down to them. Perhaps a little overstated and treacly, but it is a wonderful little film that is sure to enter into the canon of popular Christmastime viewing.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is now streaming on Apple TV+.
The Flying Sailor
In December 1917, a ship carrying explosives collided with another in the harbour of Halifax, Nova Scotia, causing a huge explosion that devastated the city, killing 1,782 people and leaving over 9,000 injured. One man however, a sailor named Charlie Mayers was sent flying two kilometres through the air from the blast and miraculously lived to tell the tale. Canadian directors Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby have taken Mayer’s near death experience and asked the question: What was going through his mind while he was soaring through the air?
The Flying Sailor is a chaotic blend of 2D and 3D animation with live action footage to create a collage of manic, absurdist, existential dread. How a film that consists of a fat naked man being launched into the heavens can be an impactful rumination on the fragility of life is astounding and shows just how talented Forbis and Tilby are. At just 8 minutes, it’s the shortest film in the category and it does not waste a moment overstay its welcome for even a second.
The Flying Sailor is available to watch on YouTube in the video below.
Perched high up on a cliff in the snowy mountains lives a man and his son. Everyday, they parachute down to the local town (always lose their matching hats on the way down) to sell ice to the villagers. But when the temperature starts to rise and their water does not freeze, the melting snow puts their house and their lives at risk.
Much like The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, the beauty of Ice Merchants is in its simplicity, however unlike its fellow nominee, it does not overstate its themes and message. Ice Merchants has no dialogue and very expressionless faces on its characters, so for the film to be a very touching depiction of family and grief is a huge testament to writer/director João Gonzalez as a visual storyteller, using the medium to its absolute fullest with remarkable results. My favourite short of the bunch.
Ice Merchants is available to watch on YouTube in the video below.
My Year of Dicks
And now we get to the film that got a chuckle out of Riz Ahmed when he read it out at the nominations announcement. My Year of Dicks follows Pam, a 15-year-old from outskirts of Houston in 1991 as she embarks on a series of misadventures to try and lose her virginity.
Based on writer Pamela Ribon’s comedic memoir Notes to Boys: And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share In Public, My Year of Dicks captures adolescent horniness and awkwardness in equal measure. Watching Pam navigate through this minefield of dicks in both the literal and figurative sense is where director Sara Gunnarsdóttir draws not just the humour, but also the more personal dramatic moments. The rotoscope animation and punk aesthetic makes the film feel like product of the era, as if it was something you would see on MTV in the early 90s.
It’s funny, painfully relatable and has a surprising amount of heart. And it will be worth it seeing it win not just because it is a deserving winner and it is about time the Academy rewards mature adult animation, but also just to hear “And the Oscar goes to…My Year of Dicks” would be something special.
My Year of Dicks is available to watch on Vimeo in the video below.
An Ostrich Told Me The World Is Fake And I Think I Believe It
Read Nick’s interview with writer/director Lachlan Pendragon here.
The pride of Australia rests on the shoulders of Brisbane filmmaker Lachlan Pendragon and his form-defying stop motion animated short (no pressure). In what I for brevity’s sake am going refer to as Ostrich for this piece, Pendragon’s film follows telemarketer Neil, who much like Neo and Truman Burbank before him, discovers the world he inhabits is all a fabricated lie; a completely artificial construction. But instead of a computer simulation or tv show, Neil discovers his world is the set of a stop motion film and he is quite literally just a puppet.
With shades of The Matrix (even to the point of the titular Ostrich acting as Neil’s Morpheus) and a mind-scrambling meta deconstruction of the form reminiscent of the classic Looney Tunes short Duck Amuck, Ostrich is 11 minutes of pure creative insanity. Pendragon cleverly focuses on the tactility and artifice of stop motion and filmmaking more generally with how he frames the images. Moments where the film is playing out on a monitor within the frame and Pendragon’s time lapsed work on the stage in the background are great touches that adds to the film’s meta nature.
It’s a paranoid, existential comedy in stop motion that takes you on a crazy ride and ends with a hilarious payoff. What’s not to love about Ostrich?
What Should Win: Ice Merchants or An Ostrich Told Me The World Is Fake And I Think I Believe It
What Will Win: The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.
This is a very strong line-up. All of these films are good and I would not be unhappy with any of these films winning. Ice Merchants is my personal favourite of the category and you always have to support your fellow countryman so I will be getting right behind Ostrich and hoping it can take the prize. However, given the Academy’s tendency to not even watch many of the shorts and their allergies to anything even slightly esoteric, creatively ambitious or weird, they will reward the most commercially viable and accessible film. Normally that is reserved for Pixar, but with their absence from the category, that film this year is The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. Any of them can win it and they all certainly have cases for why they should, but the pessimist in me can’t really see the big BBC-Apple-Abrams co-production losing it from here.
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