There is not a single dramatic animated short up for an Academy Award this year. Not a single instance of animation defying the seemingly perpetual relegation of the medium to comedy — of animation that does not rely (at least in part) on slapstick humor to tell its story. Why?
Granted, I may be more insulted by this than most, but my reasons are legitimate. It helps to begin with an assessment of past trends: namely, how animation has never really been given a fair shake by the Academy. Yes, I understand that Pixar’s “Up” has just received a Best Picture nomination, but if we are speaking truthfully we can in all likelihood attribute this to the augmentation of the Best Picture category from five to (an excessive) 10 nominees. Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” rapidly approaching its 20th birthday, is the only piece of animated filmmaking to be recognized by the Academy as one of the year’s five best films. In the almost two decades that followed “Beauty,” even exceptionally enthusiastic critical acclaim for animated fare including Disney’s “The Lion King,” Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away” and Pixar’s “WALL-E” would not be enough to propel an animated film into the race for Best Picture.
The growing cognizance of this largely unspoken discrimination against animated films presumably played a large role in the establishment of a Best Animated Feature category. Because animated films are children’s films. Because animated films clearly cannot convey stories with the same intensity or severity of live-action films. Because animated films aren’t actual films — they’re animated films.
It is also important to note that, contrary to popular belief, dramatic animated filmmaking does exist and when done properly, it is exceptionally powerful. (For instance, if you have anything that even mildly resembles a heart, the Japanese film “Grave of the Fireflies,” a tale of two siblings in WWII Japan, will break it.) While I understand that the films I have referenced earlier are not dramas, there is a weight to their content that elevates them. “The Lion King,” although loud and immature at times, convincingly retells “Hamlet” — with cats no less! “Spirited Away” develops an understanding of fanciful childhood reality through analyzing a young girl’s emotional evolution. “WALL-E” uses caricatured egg-shaped human beings for the sake of conveying a grander social satire. I don’t need an animated film to be dramatic in order for it to be successful, but I need it to have substance. And I don’t need the Academy to acknowledge only dramatic animated films, but I need them to acknowledge that such films do exist and that they are deserving of exaltation.
In turning our attention to the five animated shorts nominated for an Academy Award this year, we are left limited by the Academy’s narrow understanding of what constitutes endorsable animation. “French Roast,” the story of a wealthy business man who stalls in a café after realizing that he has lost his wallet and “The Lady and the Reaper,” the tale of Death leading a woman into the spirit world only to find herself returned to the land of the living numerous times, are ultimately forgettable endeavors undeserving of Academy approbation. Their greatest strength is their full-out, Bugs-Bunny-esque slapstick nature, but this strength elicits only an ephemeral response. The next two entries in this category — “Granny O’Grimm’s ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ” an old woman’s odd retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fable and “Logorama,” a short that functions as a mini-action movie (profanity and all) except that everything (and everyone) is a corporate logo — are also fairly forgettable comedic fare. This is not to say of course that comedic animation cannot be done well, as is evidenced most clearly by “A Matter of Loaf and Death,” Nick Park’s latest installment in the adventures of Wallace and Gromit. Park’s short film should have no problem picking up the Academy Award in this category, for it is the only short that makes the effort to create a story worthy of our time. It uses humor, but it is conscious of ensuring that we are constantly invested in what is happening. And we return the favor by giving a damn.
If you go to see this year’s batch of Oscar-nominated animated shorts at the Criterion, you will also see three other “highly commended” pieces, one of which was the best of the entire lot of them. Poland’s “Kinematograph” is a self-reflexive piece on the nature of cinema — a beautifully animated story sans any comedy at all that is wholly deserving of the Academy’s recognition. That this piece was not nominated is perplexing, especially given the weak showing of the majority of the nominated shorts — shorts that in many ways cater to the Academy’s perception of animation as a vehicle for playing only with the visual, yielding fragile comedic shells with hollow interiors.