The Oscar shorts may be a fraction the length of their feature counterparts, but that doesn’t diminish their quality or the excitement of the competition.
The animated short category is particularly thrilling because of the wide range of visuals, storytelling, and studios that compete for the prize. While the newer Animated Feature category tends to skew towards big American studios — specifically Disney and Pixar — the Animated Short category has a long history. Disney and Pixar have won this category a lot, but so have Tom and Jerry cartoons, international shorts, and smaller independent studios.
This year, the nominees make full use of the medium. There are shorts in stop motion, employing papier-mâché, clay, and felt; along with a pivot back to hand-drawn 2D movies on painted backgrounds. But the animated shorts aren’t just visually striking — they’re also exceptional films that just might make you cry. No, seriously. We couldn’t make it through any of them without shedding a tear.
All the Oscar-nominated short films will premiere in theaters starting Jan. 29 and running through the 31st. In case you can’t get to a theater — or in case you want to prepare yourself for what you’re getting into — we’ve rounded up each of the animated shorts.
14 minutes and 14 seconds, directed by Daria Kashcheeva
What’s it about: As her father is on his deathbed, a woman looks on, and they both reflect about the times in their lives where they turned away from one another due to miscommunication.
Why it might win the Oscar: It’s a beautiful story, told with vivid metaphorical imagery that comes to life with the stop-motion animation. No one speaks in this short, but the silence hammers the point all the more. The angles of the characters and the emotion conveyed in the painted eyes all add to the evocative shot. The fact that painted dots evoke that much emotion is a testament to the brilliance of this film.
Why it might not: At the longest of the shorts, Daughter drags along a little. The length, coupled with the hand-held camera effect muddles some of the plot towards the middle.
6 minutes and 48 seconds, directed by Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver
What it’s about: A father learns to do his daughter’s hair, a task her mother, a natural hair vlogger, normally does.
Why it might win the Oscar: It’s heartfelt and family-friendly, sad but not devastating. The father at one point gives up, much to his daughter’s dismay. His guilt afterwards feels realistic — his determination to get the job right, earned. The characters themselves have beautiful designs: The daughter’s natural hair in particular is vibrant in this 2D animated style. The painted backgrounds and warm lighting harken back to the short’s picture book roots. It’s like a storybook come to life, basically. Which, you know, is literally what it is.
Why it might not: While full of heart, Hair Love is pretty linear — not necessarily a bad thing, but compared to its competitors, it doesn’t stand out as much when it comes to using animation to tell a story.
8 minutes and 58 seconds, directed by Kathryn Hendrickson and Rosana Sullivan
What it’s about: A loner stray kitten forms an unlikely friendship an enthusiastic pitbull — and helps him escape from his abusive owner.
Why it might win the Oscar: Pixar has a legacy when it comes to concise, yet evocative short films. The usual Pixar CG is shed for a 2D look, which makes it stand out amongst the Pixar pedigree. The backgrounds make for some powerful atmosphere. When the kitten and pitbull befriend one another, for instance, the dilapidated junkyard looks beautiful and cozy; when the story shifts darker, the junkyard is foreboding. The animals themselves have absolutely adorable designs: The tiny kitten looks like a ball of soot with big eyes, whereas the pitbull is sturdy and blocky.
Why it might not: Kitbull is very cute and the story is short and sweet, but even if it does touch on themes of animal abuse, the emotional gravitas of adorable animal companions finding each other doesn’t hold up to some of the weighter themes of the other shorts.
12 minutes and 2 seconds, directed by Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre
What it’s about: An aging artist slowly begins to suffer from a neurodegenerative disease, warping the world around him to be unrecognizable, as his beloved wife watches on.
Why it might win the Oscar: More so than the other entrants, Memorable makes full, vivid use of its medium in order to tell its story. As painter Louis’ mind deteriorates, his surroundings grow more fantastical, and though his words make sense and his family assumes nothing is wrong, from his point of view the world grows more frightening. It’s beautiful, but also heart wrenching — especially in the final scene, where most of the world fades away for Louis, except for the faint outlines of his wife. Memorable is the second longest of the shorts, but never wastes a beat or a moment.
Why it might not: It gets really sad. Like they’re all kinda sad, but wow.
7 minutes and 56 seconds, directed by Siqi Song
What it’s about: A Chinese man recounts his childhood growing up with his little sister.
Why it might win the Oscar: The felt animation is particularly distinct, giving this short a look that you won’t forget. The use of visual metaphors — such as the baby sister growing to an impossible size to convey how she’s fitting into the narrator’s life — is particularly fantastic in Sister. The story seems straightforward, but has a poignant twist right around the middle. The little details, such as the siblings quarreling over the remote control, really add to the emotional punch at the end.
Why it might not: Sister handles a pretty heavy tale, but sometimes relies more on the narrator’s words instead of through visuals. The short itself demonstrates visual storytelling finesse, but the narration overemphasizes what’s on screen.