This article may include spoilers. Proceed with caution.
During the past couple of weeks, Amherst Cinema screened a series of the five Oscar-nominated animated shorts along with four additional bonus shorts. Packing nine animated shorts into an hour and a half, the series offers films that are at turns heartbreaking, funny, breathtaking, devastating and, in some cases, utterly ridiculous. It is without a doubt the most captivating hour and a half you’ll spend at the movies.
Matthew A. Cherry’s heartwarming “Hair Love” kicked off the series. The film follows Stephen, an African-American father, as he tries to help his young daughter Zuri do her hair by watching her mother’s beauty blogs. The two of them are overwhelmed, but with patience, love and persistence, they are eventually able to create the perfect look. The film, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, is a sweet ode to familial bonds, being yourself and never giving up.
From the Czech Republic, Daria Kashcheeva’s “Daughter” continued the theme of family on a more somber note. The stop-motion short, which has no dialogue, navigates the complicated relationship between a father and daughter. The short begins in a hospital room, where a father lies in a bed with his daughter nearby. A bird flies through the window and the daughter is reminded of a time when her father was too busy making food to comfort her after she found a dead bird. This is the first of several flashbacks which chronicle the widening gap between a daughter and a father who is trying his best.
It speaks volumes to Kashcheeva’s talent that even without the aid of dialogue or detailed facial expression the film is able to convey heartbreak and the complexity of the characters’ relationship. The film is one of the most powerful and moving in the series and will deeply resonate with audiences.
Siqi Song’s “Sister” serves as an indictment of China’s one child policy. The black and white stop-motion film begins with a four-year-old boy welcoming his new sister in 1991. He narrates with a monotone voice about how annoying his sister was, how she always cried and took his things, how they would argue constantly when they were older, how when the boy was nine he and his sister planted his first baby tooth in hopes that it would grow back.
It’s a heartwarming story that strikes a chord with anyone who has a sibling close in age. But none of it ever actually happened. The narrator explains that when he was four his mother was pregnant with a girl, but because of China’s one-child policy which was in place from 1980 to 2015, she couldn’t have the baby. Instead of growing up with a sister, the boy grew up alone. The boy wonders what could have been as the film shows him growing up alone. The film is dedicated to “all the siblings we never had.”
From France Bruno Collet’s “Mémorable” offers a more colorful and lively departure from the previous short, simultaneously taking on the tragic journey of its main character, Louis, a painter, as he loses his reality to Alzheimer’s. The film shows Louis’ world from his perspective: as the film progresses, scenes become more confusing and frightening as they jolt from one strange scenario to the next. The animation also becomes more abstract, until only a few brush strokes are all Louis can see of his wife. The film is as beautiful as it is sorrowful and brings the viewer into a world which becomes further disconnected from reality.
Rosana Sullivan’s “Kitbull” takes a more lighthearted turn in the series by portraying a relationship between a pit bull and a kitten. An adorably animated, wide-eyed kitten finds itself living in the same junkyard as a pit bull who is chained to a cage. The pit bull is trained for dog fighting and at first the kitten is afraid of him. Eventually, the kitten warms up to playing with him and comforting him after his fights. The two are eventually able to escape, and the kitten’s close relationship with the dog makes people unafraid to approach them both. While not a groundbreaking short by any means, “Kitbull” is still able to give a happy, warm ending after some of the sadder previous shorts.
The final four films in the series are additional bonus shorts, the first of which is Rachel Johnson’s “Henrietta Bulkowski,” one of the funnier films, although it probably did not intend to be. The stop-motion film is about a woman with an abnormal growth in her back that causes her to only be able to look at the ground. But she has dreams of becoming a pilot so she can finally see the world, moving into a local dump so she can renovate a crashed plane.
While there, Henrietta meets a guard who has two prosthetic legs and tries to force her out. But after seeing her struggle, he decides to help her, and the two form a bond. She tries to fly away but crashes and is found by the guard. It is at this moment that her back begins to rumble and small wings sprout out, enabling her to finally fly as a voiceover suggests that she never knew she always had what she needed.
The film’s message is admirable, if a bit underdeveloped, but its execution misses the mark. For example, when in the plane wreckage, Henrietta refuses to let the guard see her failure, and he tries to comfort her, oddly enough, by taking off his prosthetic legs and breaking them, effectively trapping them both. It’s a sweet sentiment but kind of pointless, which could be said for the short overall. It is moments like these, dotted throughout the short film, which overshoot the runway and turn what is meant to be a film about acceptance into more of a cheesy, so-absurd-it’s-funny short.
Following “Henrietta” is Carol Freeman’s “The Bird and The Whale” from Ireland, which chronicles a baby whale that is separated from its family in a storm and finds a caged bird floating in the debris of a shipwreck. The baby whale tries to keep the bird afloat through the rough seas but is ultimately unsuccessful. The bird drowns and its spirit goes to live in the whale just before the whale is reunited with its family. The film is one of the most aesthetically stunning, created from stop-motion canvas paintings and voiced by classical instruments. However, the ending is disappointing as it leaves the audience with an unclear message.
The next short, “Hors Piste,” takes a refreshing break from the previous shorts which convey a deeper meaning (or try to) and does not try to be anything other than an unabashedly absurd comedy. The film follows two mountain rescuers as they attempt to help a wounded skier. Nothing goes to plan, and only a few seconds into the short, the rescue helicopter falls off a cliff, forcing the rescue crew to trek down the mountain on foot. It only gets more ridiculous from here as the rescuers use the wounded man as a bridge, drop him several times and manage to misuse a cabin so badly that they end up in space, all to a soundtrack that can only be described as peppy 80s workout music. By far the funnest short in the series, “Hors Piste” is sure to be a crowd favorite.
The final film in the series is Florian Babikian and Victor Caire’s “Maestro” which is the series’ shortest film. At only two minutes long, this film uses the most realistic and detailed animation in the series for the silliest premise: a squirrel conducts an opera of forest animals in the middle of the night. “Maestro” is a delightfully fleeting short which brings the series to an amusing end.