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Release Date: February 8, 2019 (Limited)
Directed by: Various (Animal Behaviour by Alison Snowden and David Fine; Bao by Domee Shi; Late Afternoon by Louise Bagnall; One Small Step by Andrew Chesworth & Bobby Pontillas; Weekends by Trevor Jimenez
MPAA Rating: NR

It was Sergei Eisenstein who, while writing on Disney, claimed the only true relief from reality would not come from live-action cinema but, instead, animation, and do this year’s nominees for animated short film ever affirm this statement. After taking in the bleak, dramatic reflections of reality that were the live-action and documentary short categories, the color, craft and intoxicating emotional warmth of this year’s animated shorts felt like the sweetest respite one could ask for.

Even when I was (frequently) moved to tears by the artistic beauty or hefty sentiment, I almost always found myself enraptured by these nominees. It’s a weird space to be in where it is abundantly clear why each short was nominated.

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If I were to pick a low point, it would come from the opening short from Canadian animation legends Alison Snowden and David Fine (Bob’s Birthday, George and Rosemary). Produced through the National Film Board, Animal Behaviour is a wry, anthropomorphic take on the world of group therapy that has the heavy-handed, punny humor of a New Yorker cartoon.

Within seconds you get the one joke that structures the short, which is that therapy is preventing its animal patients from being their natural selves and have to be carried through its length with Snowden and Fine’s usually charming, flat style of animation. For people who have fond memories of Comedy Central’s Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist this might be right up your alley, but for the rest of you, this was the one potential stumbling block of the program.

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As this year’s entry from the prestigious Pixar company, Domee Shi’s Bao gets the distinction for being the one nominee most of the population has actually seen being, having been attached to the tentpole Incredibles 2. Continuing the company’s recent emphasizing of its internal team’s diversity, with films like Sanjay’s Super Team and La Luna, Bao is a about a Chinese-Canadian woman (modeled after the director’s own mother) whose empty-nest syndrome takes a turn for the surreal when one of her baozi comes to life.

Told whimsically through its montage and silent presentation, the film plays on that emotional reverberation that food (dumplings in this case) has for the immigrant experience and elegantly universalizes the trials of separation every mother inevitably goes through. Though delightful doesn’t begin to cover the enjoyment it gives, Bao further cements Pixar’s uncanny ability to tell simple, lovely stories of tremendous emotional impact.

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The maternal pangs of distance were elevated further with Louise Bagnall’s mesmerizing Late Afternoon. Produced by the rising star of independent animation, Cartoon Saloon, it takes the form of oneiric exploration of one elderly woman’s ongoing battle with dementia as she explores her fragmented memories while her live-in caregiver packs up her belongings.

Using the structure where each household items sparks a new memory for her, the film’s graceful presentation of these dreamlike scenes, using beautiful water-color and surrealistic proportions, perfectly mimics the dwindling point of view of our protagonists. The true appeal of Bagnall’s film, one of the more “heavy” films among the nominees, is the masterful manipulation of form it represents nonetheless.

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In a lot of ways, One Small Step is very similar in theme and prospect to Bao. Both are about Chinese immigrants and their children; both are told through dialogue-free montage; both are universally appealing through their exaggerated wonderment for parents; and both made me cry and want to call my parents.

By far the simplest and most predictable story of the program, it tells the life story of Luna  who dreams of becoming an astronaut and lives out her life with her ever supporting father trying to make that dream a reality. I don’t like calling films emotionally manipulative (because what else are they supposed to be?), but there is something unfairly calculating in how directors Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas can harness childlike awe to such tear-extracting potential.

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Finally, the program concluded with the most ambitious film, Trevor Jimenez’s Weekends. An abstract expression of the rootless pains of separation that come with being a child of divorce, Jimenez clearly pulls from lived experience to get his audience into the mindset of a child bounced between parental households every weekend. The hand-drawn aesthetic and discordant color pallette make Weekends a visual feast for the eyes, but it’s the subtle way Jimenez approaches that feeling of disconnection and in-betweenness through his protagonist that makes this film truly something special.