Oscars 2021: The Best Animated Short Nominees, Ranked from Worst to Best

Jude Dry
·5 min read
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ConsiderThis

As the longer-than-usual Oscars race stretches into a marathon, there’s more time than ever to delve into some of the more obscure categories. Though certainly frowned upon, voters may not always have made time to view every nominated short film in previous years, which makes predicting these categories something of a wild goose chase. With the added time this year, Academy voters have little excuse not to do their due diligence. They will find a rich array of socially-conscious short form narratives, from the traditional to the experimental.

The five animated short film nominees vary widely in tone, visual style, and storytelling approach. Pixar and Netflix, which dominate the Best Animated Feature category with two films apiece, both landed a single nominee among the shorts. The other three, two from outside the U.S., blur narrative conventions to offer poetic moments of social critique. Their perspectives range from playful to fatalistic, but all offer moments of delight and provocation.

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Here’s a breakdown of the Oscar animated shorts, ranked from worst to best. Stay tuned for more coverage of the other short film categories.

5. “Burrow” (Madeline Sharafian)

Produced as part of Pixar’s SparkShorts program, which finances independent shorts by young Pixar artists, “Burrow” is the most traditional “kids’ cartoon” of the bunch, though that doesn’t make it any less impressive. Abounding with adorable animals nesting in cozy underground homes, “Burrow” pours charm into every frame, all the way to a sweet ending extolling the benefits of asking for help.

The dialogue-free story follows an independently-minded rabbit who dreams of finding her own burrow (and bathroom disco) to call home. When her first site is discovered by fellow critters, she rejects their offers for communal living in order to dig deeper into the earth. As we discover each animal in their respective homes, evoking the drawings of Richard Scarry, the rabbit finds almost every plot is taken and must accept help from her community. Sharafian, who was a storyboard artist on “Coco,” drew inspiration from her early days at Pixar, when she worked long nights without any help in order to impress. (Needless to say from her Oscar nomination, she did.)

4. “If Anything Happens I Love You” (Will McCormack and Michael Govier)

Drawn in simple black and grey 2D animation, the figures in this mournful meditation on grief hover gloomily over each frame. As a couple eats their silent dinner, an ocean of distance between them, it becomes clear that they are grieving the death of a child, though the cause isn’t revealed until later. Their grief is palpable in the ever-present black shadow figures that follow them, fighting with each other and thrilling at the sight of a children’s t-shirt. Color is deployed sparingly but effectively throughout the film’s 12 minutes, representing the strongest memories of their daughter. When their shared memories show her taking jubilant steps towards school, the cause of her death pulls starkly into focus. As gun shots ring out and children scream, the red, white, and blue of the American flag hangs painfully bright. As the most timely entry among this year’s nominees (and the least abstract), “If Anything Happens I Love You” might be the emotional gut-punch that could win the category.

3. “Yes-People” (Gísli Darri Halldórsson)

This whimsical slice-of-life tale — produced by The New Yorker by way of Norwegian production company CAOZ — feels much like a New Yorker cartoon come to life. Set in an apartment building and exploring various neighbors within, the title comes from the indistinguishable grunts each character uses in myriad ways, whether to convey unexpected pleasure, marital annoyance, teenage boredom, or wintry exhaustion. The figures have an Aardman-esque quality, with their big noses and round bodies that totter around the frame with gusto.

Halldórsson deploys music to great humorous effect, letting a classical radio piece echo throughout the building and morph into one old woman’s pitchy interpretation. There are amusing surprises throughout, like the old couple that still gets it on and the bored housewife who pours liquor into her coffee. It feels apropos for the pandemic Oscars to see these yes-people going about their everyday lives in cramped quarters, each experience shaping the other in unseen ways.

2. “Opera” (Erick Oh)

Former Pixar animator Erick Oh is finding success since striking out on his own. Aptly titled for content if not length, “Opera” reaches grand tragic proportions in just nine minutes. Beginning with an ominous and random tip of the scales, a ball drops ceremoniously down one side of a pyramid containing all of society’s ills, like some giant menacing Plinko game of life. As workers toil away, warriors wage war, and disciples bow in prayer in faceless droves, it’s easy to become hypnotized by this visually dense allegory for capitalism and the history of humanity. Though Oh drew from Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Botticelli, the animation can be played on a constant loop, making it the most experimental of the nominees.

1. “Genius Loci” (Adrien Merigeau)

Using a gorgeous painterly style, this French film renders the terrifying specter of mental illness in dazzling color and artful symbolism. Though it’s the only nominated film to use dialogue, “Genius Loci” remains refracted in abstraction, its watercolor-like images crackling with slight imperfections reminiscent of old celluloid. The film anchors around Reine, a young Black woman plagued by existential unease like the rest of us, and her travails through her own memory. Each frame feels like an art piece in a collective show, toggling between domestic still life at golden hour to star-smattered urban detritus. A scrappy dog gallops ravenously through blue streets; a red apple rings its telephone cry; an orange line of cigarette smoke floats into a geometric face. In the end, Reine returns to herself, transformed but not alone.

The 2021 Oscar nominated short films are available online and VOD courtesy of ShortsTV.

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