2024 Oscars Embrace Depth: Animated Shorts Dive into Serious Themes

Short Summary:

The 2024 Oscars mark a significant shift in the animation category, showcasing a collection of animated short films that delve into profound and serious themes, a stark departure from the usual entertaining fare. Among the nominees are documentaries and narratives exploring diverse, heavy topics ranging from Holocaust survival and war to personal traumas and the complexities of human emotion. This year, films like "Letter to a Pig" and "Ninety-Five Senses" not only entertain but challenge viewers to reflect on the depth and breadth of the human condition. This move highlights animation's growing role as a versatile medium for storytelling, capable of addressing significant global and personal issues.

This year, 2024, the Oscar nomination for "Best Animated Short Film" includes two documentaries (Letter to a Pig and Our Uniform) and three others that convey the feelings of a death row inmate (Ninety-Five Senses), a girl who survived sexualized violence in childhood (Pachyderme), and about two World War I soldiers who play a game of chess using a carrier pigeon (War is Over! Inspired by the Music of John & Yoko). Not a single film is of the trick, entertaining kind. Although the last film is sweet, and, sorry, made by people who believe in pink unicorns. The final credit states: "War is over if you want it." If only it were that simple…

I was curious about how often Oscar-nominated films discuss serious, complex, important issues. Frankly, I was convinced that Oscar was all about "let's hold hands and sing a merry song". And I never expected to see such an amount of non-entertaining animation. Throughout the history of the short film category, since 1932, there are no more than 10 years in which not a single serious film made it to the shortlist. In this review, I'll talk about the films that, in my opinion, are most emblematic of their era.

Up until the 1950s, it was an era when everyone indeed sings and dances, even in war films. Starting from 1939, there were many military cartoons, including propaganda like How War Came by Columbia Pictures, and various comedic cartoons about military service. I want to detail three in particular.

Firstly, the 1939 film Peace on Earth by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The title comes from a Christmas carol sung by adorably cute animals in a sugary post-apocalyptic world. "Peace on Earth, good will to men" - only there are no people left. As a grandfather squirrel tells us, humans were monsters in iron pots, with sparkling eyes, long faces, and shooting sticks, who fought each other for various reasons (for example, vegetarians against meat-eaters), and eventually killed each other off. The animals built a new world on the ruins, full of love.

In 1955, the studio remade this plot under the name Good Will to Men. Here, it's mice, not squirrels, with much less sugar and tricks, more religion, but overall identical to the frames. Here, the war is World War II, and it all ends not with a confrontation between the last two soldiers but with two nuclear explosions. If the first version's animal and human parts were made in the same style (though humans weren't as cute), the second version's animal world remains as sweet and old-fashioned in drawing and animation, while the war world is more expressive, careless, expansive. And the animal world looks outdated. Apparently, it's not about a beautiful future, but how things used to be better.

In 1943, Tulips Shall Grow by Paramount Pictures, a stop-motion with wooden dolls about a sweet Dutch couple whose tulip fields are ravaged by war, made it to the nominations.

In 1944, Reason and Emotion by Walt Disney Productions, RKO Radio, began like the movie "Inside Out" - about the voices of emotions and reason in our heads, about infants who prioritize emotions, and adults who often don't listen to reason. The story smoothly transitions to how Hitler skillfully appealed to the emotions of Germans and thus won.

Until the late 60s, it was the era of fear of the Big Red Button that launches nuclear missiles. The fear of a new war and the annihilation of humanity literally in everything. The most vivid film of this time, in my opinion, is The Hole by Storyboard Inc. and Brandon Film, director John Hubley, which won in 1963. The idea came from long daily observations of roadworks in front of the director's house. This pit became the setting. The characters are workers discussing who's to blame for accidents. They start with a glass one of them accidentally breaks in the morning, and end up discussing a topic that literally everyone was concerned about then - what's the likelihood of using nuclear weapons?

Another distinctive film is the 1967 Hypothèse Beta by Films Orzeaux, Pathé Contemporary Films, director Jean-Charles Meunier. The setting is a punch card inside a computer (for those unaware - at that time, computers were controlled with special punched cards, which were the programs). The main character is a hole in the punch card. Due to the willfulness and stupidity of one of the holes, an error occurs, leading to a person deciding to press that very big red button.

The 70s and early 80s were a time when everything accelerated: technology developed even faster, society changed rapidly, and we produced and consumed more. A vivid example: the 1982 film Crac by director Frédéric Back. To show how society changed, it used the unifying sound of "crac". It's the sound of a tree being cut down, the sound of a rocking chair, the sound of broken lives.

The next stage is quite long - from the late 80s to the 2010s. Personal stories come to the forefront.

1984 - Sound of Sunshine - Sound of Rain, director Caroline Heyward. We see what a blind African American boy hears. In the park, he talks to an ice cream vendor who gives him balloons. And to the boy's question about which color is the best, he answers: "All colors are the same." A good film without slogans and pathos. Everyday, but with a very clear statement.

In 1995, the winner was Bob’s Birthday, directors David Fine and Alison Snowden. Bob turns 40 and suddenly thinks, maybe he's lived his life wrong? Funny, sad, lifelike. At the end, Bob quotes American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: "But in ourselves are our triumphs and our defeats." The full phrase goes: "Not in the clamor of the crowded street, not in the shouts and plaudits of the throng, but in ourselves are triumphs and defeats."

2000, in the nomination - the documentary My Grandmother Ironed the King’s Shirts, director Torill Kove. The director tells about World War II through the story of her grandmother. She loses her job ironing shirts for the Norwegian king but gains access to the enemy's uniform and the partisan's clothes.

In 2005, the winner was the documentary Ryan (director Chris Landreth), telling about animator Ryan Larkin, who lived in a poor area of Montreal due to drug and alcohol abuse. A life literally falling apart before our eyes.

In 2006, the winner was again a documentary animated film The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation (director John Canemaker). It's an almost half-hour story of an Italian immigrant, told through court transcripts, photographs, home video.

From 2010 to 2024, it was a time of rethinking historical events and our feelings.

In 2016 and 2022, two films about the history of Chile, a country that experienced a military junta, were nominated. The first, Bear Story (director Gabriel Osorio Vargas) allegorically, through the fairy-tale image of a bear, tells about the life of an ordinary citizen who lost his family during Pinochet's rule. The second, Bestia (director Hugo Covarrubias), directly tells the story of the real Íngrid Olderöck, a Nazi's daughter, who was a police major and an agent of the Chilean intelligence agency. Her job was to torture the dictatorship's opponents. But in the end, she's simply fired, thrown away as no longer needed. The film is nightmarish in content, and beautiful in execution.

In the 2020 nomination, the film Sister, director Sun Xun. The film is about the relationship with a younger sister who never existed due to China's "one child per family" policy.

And finally, 2024. I'll focus on two films.

Letter to a Pig, director Tal Kantor - to Israeli schoolchildren comes an old man, a Holocaust survivor. The kids are bored. One of the girls falls into a dream in which she lives both the old man's story and her own unsympathetic attitude towards him.

And the film Ninety-Five Senses, directors Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess. An old man, sitting on death row, recalls his life. Each episode is told with an emphasis on one sense - hearing, sight, smell, etc., and made in its own style. Different artists and animators worked on each part, and the directors also had the task of making it all look unified.

I want to end with a quote. This is what the character from Ninety-Five Senses, Koi, and Chekhov's eternal student Trofimov says: "Who knows? And what does it mean to die? Maybe a person has a hundred senses, and only five known to us die with death, and the other ninety-five remain alive."