Parental pangs, the passage of time, and Asian-inflected Canadiana mark the majority of items on the menu for this year’s Oscar-tipped animated shorts.
Maple leaves and CN–type towers, alongside Chinese characters of several sorts, are found throughout a solidly enjoyable program with few obvious standouts. All these threads come together in Domee Shi’s “Bao”, a swift-moving, smoothly contoured Pixar item, widely seen when paired with Incredibles 2. It’s about a middle-aged Canadian whose handmade dumplings—and obsession with one bun in particular—carry her back through memories of motherhood.
Another mother is lost in reveries of a wistfully watercoloured sort in Ireland’s lovely “Late Afternoon”, in which an elderly woman gets lost in a cup of tea while her daughter packs the white-haired mum’s cherished mementos. Irish stalwart Fionnula Flanagan (she was in the 1967 Ulysses) provides the querulous voice, while writer-director Louise Bagnall plays the same lady as a sea-swept child.
Single fatherhood marks “One Small Step”, from Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas, animators on Frozen, Moana, and many other big titles. (They have an American studio with a Japanese name, Taiko.) In this dialogue-free U.S.–China coproduction, a big-city shoemaker traces the progress of his daughter (called Luna Chu) through changing footwear, with her handmade space boots rooting the trajectory from rambunctious child to disciplined astronaut.
A timid young child is buffeted between separated parents in “Weekends”, one of only two nominees to go over the 10-minute mark, and by far the weirdest. In his second solo effort, since 2007’s noirish “Key Lime Pie” (although he’s also worked as a story artist on Coco and other Pixar toons), U.S.–based Trevor Jimenez uses a disorienting hodgepodge of painterly styles to evoke childhood in 1980s Toronto. The dreamlike elements can be hard to parse, but whipsaw moves between Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” and Erik Satie’s gentle piano music provide subtext.
Family dynamics are swapped for critter comedy in “Animal Behaviour”, from Vancouver-based married NFB veterans David Fine and Alison Snowden, drawn in the loosely linear style of their Oscar-snagging “Bob’s Birthday”. The U.K.–born Snowden provides one of the voices for the mismatched mammals and insects who meet weekly for group therapy led by a doggy doctor still trying to overcome his own anal issues. (This bow-wower and “Bao” are probable front-runners.)
As usual, a couple of long-listers fill out the program, and these are welcome additions. A U.S. item from newcomers Wenli Zhang and Nan Li, the piratical “Wishing Box” is the only gag-based toon here. And “Tweet-Tweet”, a debut from Russia’s Zhanna Bekmambetova, rounds things out with a literal lifeline uniting a woman walking through history with a hopeful sparrow following every step. It’s a bittersweet concept perfectly attuned to “interesting” times.