Oscar nominated Animated movies

Film Review: ‘2016 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Animation’

Even before an unclothed male warrior sustains a gruesome injury to the perineum in Richard Williams’ “Prologue, ” the final selection in this year’s program of Oscar-nominated shorts, it should be clear to viewers to this year’s nominee slate is hardly child’s play. Though proceedings begin with a sprightly, kid-targeted plea for cultural heterogeneity in Pixar’s “Sanjay’s Super Team, ” a more melancholic current runs through its stylistically diverse competitors: Williams’ opaque effort hints at the post-traumatic hauntings of violence; politicized Chilean diorama “Bear Story” and droll Russian astronaut tale “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” offer very different windows on crippling loneliness; and Don Hertzfeldt’s exquisite “World of Tomorrow, ” undoubtedly the class of its field, paints (or stick-figure-sketches, at least) a disquieting picture of dissociated human identity in the future that is mercifully lost on its preschooler protagonist. Alike in formal spryness if nothing else, the five form one of the category’s most sophisticated lineups in recent memory.

If this year’s excitingly off-piste picks in the feature-length animated category — with only one of the five nominees repping U.S. studio animation — indicate a voting branch evolving faster than many of its Academy counterparts in embracing international and independent filmmaking, these sweet-and-salty-teared short films send much the same message. The composition of both categories, meanwhile, is oddly comparable this year: Both feature a glossy Pixar family film, a characteristically cerebral work from an acrobatic U.S. auteur, and three enticing outliers from further afield, with Britain and South America represented in both races. Three of the nominated shorts (as opposed to one of the features) are skewed toward adult viewers, though smaller fry would certainly not be hurt by the humane wisdom on offer in two of those.

Comfortably the most widely exposed of the contenders thanks to its pairing in theaters with Pixar’s winter underperformer “The Good Dinosaur, ” writer-director Sanjay Patel’s autobiographical “Sanjay’s Super Team” kicks off the program on in broadly accessible fashion. Still, it sounds a progressive note by the standards of its superpowered studio, which has hitherto shown limited curiosity regarding spirituality and real-world ethnic difference. Generational conflict, too, comes to the fore in this wordless vignette, played out in an ordinary American living room where westernized pre-teen Sanjay and his devout Hindu father quarrel over a minor issue that points to a larger fight for cultural dominance: Saturday morning cartoons or Saturday morning prayer? Subjected to the latter, the boy finds holy compromise in extravagant imaginings of his religion’s revered gods as kick-ass cartoon superheroes in their own right. It’s an efficient, sensitive life lesson, let down slightly by its fantasy centerpiece: Animated with verve in Pixar’s customary peach-skin-smooth style, it’s a little low on invention and humor in its deployment of Hindu iconography — about which uninformed viewers are unlikely to learn anything specific here.

If “Super Team” winds up a little too pat, that’s certainly not the word for “World of Tomorrow, ” another child’s-eye journey into realms of suspended reality that positively assails the viewer with several features’ worth of unknotted ideas about time, space and ways we exist. If that suggests Hertzfeldt (here at least matching the philosophical reach of 2012’s hour-long “It’s Such a Beautiful Day”) has bitten off more than he can chew, it shouldn’t. This story of a young girl, Emily Prime, visited by her own third-generation clone from 227 years hence is intended to be overwhelming in its implications about the future — a future, according to the temperate-voiced replica, on the brink of an apocalypse that will at least rescue humanity from its own chilling, devalued imitation of life. Even at his most profound, Hertzfeldt never errs on the side of pomposity: The grandiose design of his universe is wittily undercut by the signature naivete of his drawing style, in turn elevated by the digitized iridescence of his shifting backdrops. Likewise, even his most despairing prognoses are cut through with his playful command of irony and human perception; the unaffected, non sequitur-strewn voice work of his four-year-old niece, Winona Mae, is the most endearing of the film’s myriad marvels.

At first glance, the feelings engendered by “Bear Story, ” Pato Escala’s anthropomorphized tale of ursine woe, are markedly less complicated, instead making an effective beeline (or bearline?) for the tear-ducts. Not all auds (and certainly not teddy-toting juniors) will pick up the aching political allegory in this story-within-a-story of a Papa Bear, abducted from his home in Chile and recruited into a traveling circus, seeking a family reunion. Consider the ringmasters instead as the brutal Pinochet regime that destroyed so many lives and families during their 1970s reign of terror, however, and the pic’s thickly laid poignancy turns a shade more bitter than sweet. At either level, Escala’s two-tiered 3D craft is a wow: airbrushed naturalism for the bear’s framing narrative, and forged stop-motion (with a textural hint of steampunk Meccano) for the nickelodeon show he constructs from his tragic backstory.

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