Negative Space

According to the Oscar voting rules, nominees for Best Animated Short Film are judged on the basis of “originality, entertainment, and production quality without regard to . . . subject matter.” In practice, though, short animation has been the kids’ table since the 1930s, when the first eight awards all went to Walt Disney. Occasionally the nominating committee will make room for some dark, hand-drawn vision like Don Hertzfeldt’s hilariously gory Rejected (nominated in 2001) or Daniel Sousa’s haunting Feral (nominated in 2014). But this year’s nominees, screening at Landmark’s Century Centre, are more homogeneous than usual and offer little in the way of an adult swim.

Well, there’s always “entertainment and production quality.” Glen Keane’s Dear Basketball, drawn in pencil and resembling a test animation for a Disney feature, visualizes the poignant letter that basketball great Kobe Bryant wrote in 2015 to announce his retirement, which he reads on the soundtrack to a syrupy John Williams score. Dave Mullins’s Lou, the inevitable Pixar entry, transpires on a school playground, where the school bully meets his match in a creature assembled from clothing and other items in a lost-and-found box. And Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer’s UK short Revolting Rhymes, adapted from a Roald Dahl book, interweaves the stories of Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Three Little Pigs in snarky verse couplets.

The most original is Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata’s French puppet animation Negative Space, the story of a boy who learned how to pack a suitcase from his traveling-salesman father: “Some guys bond with their dads shooting hoops or talking about Chevrolets. We did it over luggage.” The short doesn’t look like the other four nominees: its characters have bulbous heads, ribbon noses, and pasty, irritated skin, in keeping with their constricted modern lives. When the father dies, his grown son looks at him in the casket and thinks, “Look at all that wasted space.” It’s the sort of line kids will take as a snarky joke but grown-ups will recognize as the wisdom of years.

My favorite of the bunch, Victor Caire and Gabriel Grapperon’s French 3-D computer animation Garden Party, begins like a Pixar romp but ends like an episode of Breaking Bad. Precisely rendered frogs hop around the tropical garden of an isolated mansion, then into the house, which is dark, deserted, littered with food, and buzzing with flies. Something’s not right here: a security camera has been shot out, a door forced, a safe robbed. One of the frogs lands on an electrical console, bringing the backyard to life with spotlights, water spray, and blasting music; finally the vibrations bring a putrefying corpse bobbing to the surface of the pool. I hope this sends a message to children everywhere: Get out of the water, it’s our turn.