by Zach Terrillion
The Film Academy last year decided to cut six awards from its annual telecast. Three of those were the short film categories. These mini-movies, categorized by documentary, live-action, and animated, are often made by independent studios and up-and-coming filmmakers. They can be tasty little morsels of what the medium has to offer. However, in 2022 they were deemed unworthy of the big leagues. In 2023, Apollo held a week’s worth of screenings showing the 15 films nominated for this year. I decided to check out a showing of the animated film line-up because animation tends to be my favorite form of everything. The five pieces shown varied wildly, moving from a watercolor children’s book adaptation to a drug-addled teen sex farce to post-modern ostrich stop-motion. Some were vulgar. Some were cheesy. It was all a time. I outline my thoughts below.
An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe It:
This title! No notes. This stop-motion short from Australia focuses on Neil, your average office worker in an existential crisis. He realizes his entire world is, in fact, the set of a student stop-motion movie. The flick deconstructs the stop-motion process as quickly-timed hands animate characters in the clear frame of a camera. The fourth wall breaks were clever and tonal shifts were handled well. Neil takes apart his own body into various pieces, creating images straight out of a Cronenberg movie. However, the film offered little beyond its strong hook. I would have liked a bit more of a character arc for our lead or as much as the 11-minute runtime could accommodate. The ostrich was pretty great, however.
The Flying Sailor:
At 8 minutes, this Canadian piece is the shortest of the five. It’s also the most experimental. It features a unique rotoscoped style, with bungled curves reflecting the imperfections of our titular character. A cartoon opening straight out of Popeye gives away to a horrific explosion triggering a mini-apocalypse in the sailor’s town. He is flown through the air, clothes shedding as he enters a fetal state. The imagery is bold, with bloodshot linework illustrating the chaos of the sailor’s surroundings. Flashback sequences feature the child version of his character imposed over live-action backgrounds. It’s interesting, but that is much I could say about the film. My wish for more themes and story is a personal preference, but I feel the filmmakers could have added more subtle details that give this airborne marine more of an inner life. The most surprising bit of the short is that it is actually based on a true story. In 1917, a Halifax sailor was flung over 2 km into the air due to a devastating explosion. He lived to tell the tale. Truth is stranger than fiction, and animation is a great medium to show it.
The Ice Merchants:
The shorts picked up starting with this gem, telling the story of a merchant and his son trying to survive in their lonely home clamped to the edges of an ice-coated mountain. The coloring is gorgeous, stripped of anything but red and white, as if the world is bled to show only the refined blurs of the frame. The character designs are simple but personalized, occupying the straight-laced outlines of a New Yorker cartoon. Life is fully granted to this world, down even to the trickling of water and the rolling of a coffee mug. A gorgeous score and soundscape don’t hurt either, with excellent editing coming in for a high-tension climax. The final shot of a pile of hats may be the best, most quietly devastating, and life-affirming visual storytelling I’ve seen this year.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse:
Okay, I have THOUGHTS on this. At one moment, I think it’s my second favorite of the five. The next moment, it’s my least favorite. At 34 minutes, it took up nearly half of the presentation. The loose story follows a boy searching for a home, eventually being joined by a gaggle of adorable animal companions. The watercolor art style was my obsession. The outlines of the characters seem to float like an artist’s brushstrokes. The 2-D animation of character expression combines perfectly with the depth of 3-D. I want all animated flicks to look like this. I’ll advise you to abandon every ounce of cynicism, irony, pessimism, postmodernism, etc., that you hold in your soul. You must be EARNEST. OPTIMISTIC. Or, like me, in a weirdly emotionally vulnerable position. If you’re not, you’ll probably hate this British work. Every other line is something out of a self-help book you find in a counseling waiting room. The emotions are clear. The musical score soars. The found family trope reigns with an iron fist. I did weep a few times even though I could tell I was being manipulated. Sometimes you need a little manipulation. If you need an escape from our cynical world into a sweet little tale of Self Love 101, I can’t recommend it enough.
My Year of Dicks:
Right after The Boy, The Mole, etc.…, the screen showed a content warning for explicit sexual content. Putting something raunchy right after the kid’s book adaptation? My friend and I were curious. Then the title showed up. Roars of laughter erupt from the audience. Explicit indeed. This film memoir has the most traditional narrative of the five, chronicling a teen girl attempting to lose her virginity to various guys (her “year of dicks,” though the type of “dick” being described is up to interpretation). The animation is trippy and near-kaleidoscopic. It mixes and matches styles ranging from 70s LSD to 90s anime. A bold creative decision pops out for nearly every frame. It’s a feast, so much that it could nearly make you car sick. What surprised me was the writing. The script better captured the existential dread and dubious relationships of 15-year-olds in 25 minutes than Euphoria has done in 2 seasons. The humor is edgy, of course, but there’s this lovely sweetness beneath all of it. It’s tender like the last short but in its own way. The teen girl angst is allowed to shine through without cynicism and exploitation. It’s also freaking hilarious.
The Oscars will air all 23 categories again this year, giving the short films time for appreciation. I’m predicting the Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse to take the award. It’s the kind of film that makes most souls teary-eyed, no matter how supposedly manipulated those tears are. Plus, with stars like Idris Elba and backers like the BBC and Apple, it has prestige and influence. In terms of what I want to win the Oscar: unequivocally, My Year of Dicks. It was my favorite of the bunch, and I feel it is the work that most propels the animated medium forward. It shows what animation can do and the diverse stories it can tell. Also, I want to hear a random celebrity announcer shout the title on live T.V. for the whole country to hear.