‘2023 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animation’ Review: ‘The Boy’ and His Ilk Mark a High-Water Year

On Oscar night, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” will almost certainly win the Academy Award for feature animation. For many of those following along at home, it will look as though the director of “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Shape of Water” is being rewarded for some kind of secondary passion, as if del Toro had scaled Everest and then set his sights on a smaller peak on which to plant his flag. But that’s not how it happened at all.

Way back in Mexico, del Toro started his filmmaking career doing animated shorts: Obsessed with Ray Harryhausen, the amateur future auteur built rudimentary armatures, painstakingly repositioning the puppets one frame at a time. Decades later, once established in Hollywood, del Toro accepted a side gig at DreamWorks Animation, serving as a story consultant on films such as “Megamind” and “Kung Fu Panda 2” as a pretext for teaching himself the trade. With “Pinocchio,” he put those lessons to work on a stop-motion passion project that’s every bit as challenging as his most impressive films.

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All this to say, animation may be a craft apart from live action, but it’s no ghetto, as this year’s formidable “2023 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animation” showcase attests. (In an era of computer-enhanced Marvel movies and performance-capture “Avatar” sequels, the line isn’t so clear anymore, anyhow.) All five nominees are strong, and at least one is an instant classic, destined to be loved and shared for decades to come. The selection is substantial enough that ShortsTV — the company that packages the finalists for theatrical release each year — didn’t need to flesh it out with bonus offerings. There’s not a rotten toon in the bunch.

The program opens with a Student Academy Award winner, “An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It,” which sounds like the title of a book you’d expect to find on “Reading Rainbow,” but is in fact a stop-motion experiment with an existential twist. Taking a page from the classic Looney Tunes cartoon “Duck Amuck,” in which Daffy dodges the artist’s pencil, Australian director Lachlan Pendragon plays the godlike figure terrorizing a hapless 10-inch salesman named Neil, who’s beginning to suspect that he’s just a puppet in some bizarre project. The poor chap develops a “Matrix”-like complex as the greenscreen backgrounds blink and his co-workers’ 3D-printed faces fall off. While it doesn’t exactly go deep, one can imagine Charlie Kaufman watching the well-executed short and kicking himself for not trying a few of the fourth-wall-breaking meta gags in “Anomalisa.”

Speaking of “Reading Rainbow,” João Gonzalez’s hand-drawn “Ice Merchants” has the rich, colored-pencil look of a beloved picture book (and a story vaguely reminiscent of Esphyr Slobodkina’s “Caps for Sale”). The Portuguese animator also wrote the music for the short, a lovely melody that takes the place of dialogue as we observe a father and his son, who live high above town in a house precariously attached to a vertiginous cliff. It’s so cold up there that their water turns to ice, which they chip into cubes and sell to the villagers down below, parachuting down each day and rappelling back up (this part’s a little unclear). One day, things go wrong, and the short provides first a mama ex machina and then a soft landing, cushioned by a million hats. It may not make sense, but it’s plenty satisfying all the same.

No less surreal is Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby’s seven-minute “The Flying Sailor,” which is based on the rather incredible true story of the Halifax Explosion of 1917, which blew a man more than 2 kilometers through the air. The Canadian co-directors (who were nominated for three other shorts before this one) show the fella, his clothes knocked clean off, cartwheeling through the air — and all the way up into space — as his life flashes before his eyes. It’s not clear why the film was commissioned, but hats off to the National Film Board of Canada for being a world leader in its support of independent animation artists. No country does more to encourage art for art’s sake in the painstaking field (though anthology shows like “Love Death + Robots” and “Cake” are giving fellow weirdos a pretty cool platform in the States).

The true pearl of this year’s collection is “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.” Beautifully adapted from British illustrator Charlie Mackesy’s international bestseller, the half-hour marvel feels like “The Little Prince” for a new generation. Those who know the book — a “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”-esque life preserver for many during the pandemic — will appreciate how the team managed to translate Mackesy’s unique ink-and-watercolor style, with its distinctive blend of thick brushstrokes and loose, unfinished lines. Isobel Waller-Bridge’s gentle score coaxes audiences into a receptive place, while the quartet of Jude Coward Nicoll (the Boy), Tom Hollander (the Mole), Idris Elba (the Fox) and Gabriel Byrne (the Horse) lend sincere voice to various affirmational ideas.

“Asking for help isn’t giving up. It’s refusing to give up,” goes one. Timing and tone are everything with such material. Partnering with Mackesy, co-director Peter Baynton (who worked on the hand-drawn segments of “Paddington 2”) keeps the project from veering into cartoony “Winnie the Pooh” territory. Cynics may dismiss what one acquaintance called its “bumper sticker wisdom,” but they miss how vital it is to plant ideas of this nature in the heads of young viewers: boosting their confidence and unpacking what it means to feel lost — or seen — before social media brainwashes them otherwise. I’m reminded of Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree,” only here, instead of a generous tree giving the boy all its apples, Apple has given us “The Boy,” and we’re all the better for it.

If you’re looking for something with a little more edge, the program wraps with the “mature” hand-drawn offering “My Year of Dicks,” a funny-sad memoir (penned by writer Pamela Ribon) of trying to lose her virginity to a series of less-than-deserving losers in high school. Director Sara Gunnarsdóttir takes those stories and turns them into a crude (in all senses) but relatable portrait of teenage insecurity. The very thing that countless man-made movies have treated as a conquest is more of a burden as teenage Pam (voiced by Brie Tilton) repeatedly falls for the wrong guys. The title refers to a succession of jerks, rather than their junk, as its naive narrator attempts to rush through her own “deflowering” — an outdated term that feels apt here: With each failed attempt, the film blooms into fresh dimensions, shifting its style to reflect how she adapts to each of her prospects, until such time as she finds herself.

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