hair love

Of all the shorts categories celebrated at the Academy Awards, the animated shorts are what you could probably consider the most popular. Everyone knows animated shorts! They play in front of your favorite Pixar and Dreamworks movies, are brief enough to capture your child’s wandering attention span, and act as a testing ground for new animation techniques and methods of storytelling, often without needing to utter a syllable. However, if there’s one thing to learn from the Academy’s nominations each year, it’s that animated shorts are not always a family affair, often hitting upon very adult themes that complement gorgeously stylized visuals. This year’s nominations are no different in their variety, though for what it’s worth, I think the family fare might have the upper hand this year.

Daughter

Perhaps the most serious of the bunch, Daughter (or Dcera in the original Czech) is the story of a father and daughter as the father lies in his hospital deathbed. The daughter remembers her father’s emotional distance when she was a child and his refusal to do anything to help an injured bird. Realized with stop motion animation seemingly crafted of papier mache and emulated handheld camerawork to highlight the intimate sensations of memory, Daughter is a wordless journey to rediscover love after a lifetime of distance, and the technical achievement of its creation is no small wonder.

Sister

Sister is the narrated remembrance of a Chinese man’s childhood with his sister. Realized through stop-motion animation with fuzzy cloth-skinned dolls, we see incidents of juvenile strife play out between siblings four years separated. The infant sister metaphorically takes up all the space in a room. Years later, the sister suggests planting a lost tooth in hopes of regrowing a tooth tree. To spoil the pointed reveal at this story’s climax would reduce the shock value, but it hits hard as a solemn reminder of one of the bitterest tragedies of the past several decades.

Memorable

Memorable is another stop-motion animation and is the only fully voice-acted entry among the nominees. (The other entries largely rely on character expression and narration to convey story beats.) The male counterpart of an elderly couple has started to lose his mental faculties to neurodegenerative disease, much to the frustration of a wife who misses the talented painter her husband used to be. It starts with forgetfulness and eventually extends to entire memories and abilities being lost to the ether. What makes Memorable unique is that this degradation is portrayed through painterly transitions from representationalism to impressionism to abstraction, reflecting gaps in the memory as the fluttering sticky notes and lines of paint around a missing figure. It’s a tragic and beautiful little film that artfully captures the melancholy confusion of losing oneself piece by piece.

Kitbull

Kitbull is Disney’s offering this year (and is now available on Disney+), and the story of a small stray kitten befriending a domestically abused pitbull is one of the cutest things you’ll see associated with this year’s awards. With adorable two-dimensional animation, heart-breaking, expressive character designs, and a valuable message about how pitbulls are unfairly demonized, this is the film that probably holds the most universal appeal of this year’s nominees. It’s sweet and hilarious, to be sure, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Disney took home the prize based on the studio’s pedigree and that all-important cute factor.

Hair Love

For my money, though, this year’s most deserving nominee is Hair Love (now available on YouTube). Following a young black girl’s struggles to style her hair and her father’s cluelessness in attempting to help her in the absence of her mother, Hair Love visually conveys a father-daughter relationship struggling to find common ground, and the way that the brief short manages to offer surprise after surprise to recontextualize the situation for even more emotional heft is an achievement in writing that works in tandem with the simple and charming animation style. Bright, funny, and touching, Hair Love is a gorgeous film that shows just what an animated short can accomplish in under seven minutes.

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The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts will be released theatrically on January 31, 2020.

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