Saturday, March 2, 2024

Here’s How Jared Hess Could Win An Oscar – Exploring The 2023 Best Animated Short Film Oscar Shortlist

Humans as salmon. A dog apartment. Woodpeckers at a funeral. It’s just another year on the Academy Awards shortlist for Best Animated Feature. With 15 shortlisted shorts, there’s a wide variety of styles and stories: humorous, emotional, and truly bizarre. With precious few precursors, knowing how the Academy will narrow the list down to just five nominees is always tricky. Let’s dive into the shortlist – the good and the bad – and try to anticipate the nominees.

Back in 2004, I would’ve bet every dollar I had that Jared Hess, the director of “Napoleon Dynamite,” would one day be an Oscar winner. I should also note that I was twelve years old in 2004. I probably had twenty dollars to my name, but I knew Hess was going places. That twelve-year-old’s dream could become a reality this year, thanks to Jared and Jerusha Hess’s “Ninety-Five Senses.” This melancholic, introspective short film sees a man reflecting on his life, recalling memories from each of his senses. It’s funny and observant but genuinely moving, thanks to the brilliant narration performed by Tim Blake Nelson. The animation shifts styles throughout as each sense is highlighted, making it a captivating experience that’s head and shoulders above the rest of the list. The best short doesn’t always win, but the Hesses should clear some space on their mantle.

While Hess might be one of the more well-known filmmakers on this list, he’s up against a much more popular name: Mickey Mouse. As Disney celebrated its 100th anniversary, it released a special short, “Once Upon a Studio.” As the animators leave for the day, animated characters from the past 100 years all come to life, gathering for a crowded group photo. The short is a charming reminder of all the magic that Disney’s brought into our lives over the years, no matter how old we are. Iconic favorites appear alongside oft-forgotten characters, clamoring together for a nostalgic moment. It’s adorable and enjoyable and certainly could tug on heartstrings, but it’s clearly a promotional piece for Disney. Will the voters want to recognize the short, especially after Disney’s had a tough year? It doesn’t seem likely.

Competing for a spot against Disney is a legendary Disney director, John Musker, director of “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “Moana,” and more. This year, he wrote, directed, produced, and animated the short “I’m Hip,” about a jazzy cat dancing through the world to show everyone how hip he is. Though this isn’t a problem for voters, “I’m Hip” is one of the harder shorts to get a hold of and is, in fact, the only one of the 45 shortlisted short films that Next Best Picture wasn’t able to see before publishing. That makes it a little bit more challenging to analyze. Still, with Musker’s credibility with the Academy and as an animator, it’s easy to imagine this having a solid shot at a nomination.

Other animators formerly from the House of Mouse also made their way onto the shortlist. “Pete,” Bret Parker, an animator at Pixar, directed “Pete,” a short film inspired by her wife’s childhood. It’s a story of gender identity and wanting to fit in as a kid. The story is undeniably heartwarming and plays out like a hazy childhood memory. Sadly, the animation is a bit rudimentary, without fleshed-out environments, so it feels a bit unfinished.

Dave Mullins was nominated in this category in 2017 for the Pixar short “Lou” and returns this year with “WAR IS OVER! Inspired by the Music of John and Yoko.” Mullins co-wrote the short with Sean Lennon, who also executive produced with his mother, Yoko Ono. As the title explains, the concept stems from the John Lennon song, “War Is Over,” and features a chess game played via messenger pigeon in World War I. The animation is shockingly good. It’s stunning to look at, with beautiful imagery depicting everyday life and war sequences. The message is pretty schmaltzy, and you know where it’s going right from the start, but it works nonetheless. If nothing else, this is undoubtedly the most impressive computer animation on this list, and with Peter Jackson’s Weta behind it, it’s easy to see this making the lineup.

Another shortlisted film, “Boom,” feels reminiscent of early Pixar shorts. It’s a simple premise told entirely without dialogue – unless you count the squawks of dodo birds. A volcano begins to erupt violently, forcing the dim-witted dodos to scramble to safety in the ocean. It’s a cute, funny little short. “Boom” doesn’t have much staying power, but it certainly accomplishes what it set out to do, which isn’t true of all the shorts.

Every year, the Animated Shorts Shortlist features a handful of genuinely absurd films, and 2023 is no different. “Koerkorter” or “Dog Apartment” is about an apartment that’s, well, a dog. A man lives in an apartment that barks at him and tries to bite him, and he must constantly soothe it with raw meat. The stop-motion animation is undeniably impressive, and the world is fleshed out quite well, but this is a strange one.

“Eeva,” a film about the relentlessness of grief, takes a similarly bizarre direction. The hand-drawn animation is stylized in a way that creates an emotionally flat ambiance with straight-faced characters. Between the odd character design and recurring woodpeckers, this one just didn’t work for me.

Even stranger is “Wild Summon.” Animated like a nature documentary, the computer animation is unbelievably good. The lifelike style works almost flawlessly, though the animals and environments work better than the humans, which are firmly in the uncanny valley. In this short, humans are salmon. That’s the actual premise. The narration describes the spellbinding life cycle of salmon, but the salmon are portrayed by animated humans in scuba gear. It’s supremely bizarre but kind of enthralling by the end. If viewers can get over the strangeness, which is no easy task, they might be wowed by the concept.

“A Kind of Testament” takes a slightly more disturbing route but to fascinating effect. It’s narrated as if it were a documentary, with a woman recalling how she discovered strange animations online based on her social media photos. The 2D animation is creepy, but intentionally so, fleshing out a voyeuristic story. It takes some discomforting turns, but it’s difficult to look away—a very interesting short.

This year, as is the case most years, a handful of shortlisted shorts tell stories of the Holocaust. “Letter to a Pig” utilizes an extraordinary blend of animation styles to tell a story of survival. Live-action footage, rotoscope, sketch work, and line art come together effectively, making the imagery feel connected to humanity in a unique way. The story itself is moving, connecting the story from the past to today’s youth. It’s genuinely well done, and I believe the branch will respond positively to the animation styles.

As strong of a Holocaust story as “Letter to a Pig” is, “Humo (Smoke)” is even more devastating. Told entirely from a child’s perspective, the design of these stop-motion characters is haunting and disturbing. Using paper materials to create a flimsy world of a concentration camp, it follows a mother and child trying to survive. No other film on this list is as deeply compelling. It’s tough to predict which films could snag a nomination, but this could be in it to win.

Another haunting coming-of-age story, “Pachyderm,” isn’t quite as purely devastating as “Humo,” but it’s indeed somber. “Pachyderm” is a masterclass of storytelling, bringing the viewer into the melancholic world of a young girl who just wants to melt away into the wallpaper. The narration is brilliantly written, poignant, and tragic, with stunning animation that captures the childlike ambiance perfectly. This is extraordinary.

The female experience is a clear subject of interest within this short list, and “Our Uniform” has a unique perspective. While it’s certainly a touchy subject, “Our Uniform” talks about an Iranian girl’s experience with being forced to wear a hijab. The film has a disclaimer up front to make it clear that the film isn’t in opposition to those who choose to wear a hijab, just to it being mandatory in Iran. The writing of the narration is terrific, but the animation is a knockout. Using fabric, chalk, and other similar materials to illustrate this story is a perfect example of using the medium of animation to amplify a story’s themes. It’s inventive, surprisingly light-hearted, and genuinely engaging.

Already with a prestigious win under its belt, “27” is the most adult film on the list. Flóra Anna Buda’s Cannes-winning short follows Alice, a 27-year-old still living at home. She’s frustrated and tired of living with her parents but feels stuck. A drunken accident just might be the thing to help her grow up. The psychedelic animation works well and pairs with the sexual themes of the coming-of-age story. Still, the short format didn’t feel like it had enough time to flesh out the tale. Winning Cannes is a big deal, but there’s almost no overlap with the Academy at all. Only one short film this century, 2016’s “Timecode,” won Cannes and went on to an Oscar nomination. Before that, the last film to do so was in 1999. That said, more mature themes often go a long way in this category. “27” could be in the lineup.

What will the voters go for? Three of the films feel more certain. First, “Humo” is undeniable, from its stunning animation to its haunting themes. “Ninety-Five Senses” also seems like a potential winner, balancing a light-hearted tone with a sense of importance and meaning. With the brilliant animation in “Our Uniform,” paired with some timely themes, I think it’s solidly getting nominated.

After that, it gets trickier. As silly as this sounds, some of the more memorable short film titles seem to always pop up as nominees. Don’t believe me? Just compare the shortlisted film titles last year to the eventual nominees. There aren’t too many goofy names here, but “Dog Apartment” seems like the biggest beneficiary of that. Plus, it would fill the slot as the “weird” nominee, which also finds a way into Best Animated Short each year. Finally, “Letter to a Pig” could round out the category nicely with some weighty themes.

Below are my favorites on the shortlist and my predicted five nominees.

Predicted Nominees:

  1. Ninety-Five Senses
  2. Humo
  3. Our Uniform
  4. Koerkorter (Dog Apartment)
  5. Letter to a Pig

My Personal Favorites:

  1. Ninety-Five Senses
  2. Humo
  3. Our Uniform
  4. Pachyderm
  5. Letter to a Pig

What do you think will be nominated for Best Animated Short Film at this year’s Academy Awards? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out our latest Oscar nomination predictions here.

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Daniel Howat
Daniel Howat
Movie and awards season obsessed. Hollywood Critics Association Member.

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