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‘2024 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animation’ Review

Short subjects willing to tackle tough subjects made the final cut with the Academy this year. That means audiences buying tickets to the “2024 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animation” program should brace themselves for poetic treatments of uncomfortable topics, ranging from incest to the Holocaust. Since the toon shorts tend to run short (just an hour to get through the noms), ShortsTV’s theatrical roster includes two additional “highly commended” titles, ending on a musical up note with “The Little Mermaid” co-director John Musker’s “I’m Hip.” (Conspicuously absent from both the ballot and the show is Disney’s centennial “Once Upon a Studio,” featuring most of Mickey’s extended family.)

Hailing from Iran, Yegane Moghaddam’s “Our Uniform” finds a fitting style for a sartorial commentary: Using clothing as her canvas, the young director recalls how it felt to grow up in a country where girls were required to wear the hijab, or headscarves. She creatively experiments with various techniques, manipulating garments to suggest motion and drawing directly onto different fabrics (as when a sweatshirt unzips to reveal the thoughts inside a young girl’s head). What strikes one person as funny may seem sad to others, as she contrasts the strict dress codes of her home country with the varied colors and styles worn by Westerners. In America, graduates of Catholic schools may find the restrictive behavior reminiscent of their own uniforms. Buttons and pins double as props, as Moghaddam makes the case that one’s choice in clothes is a vital means of expression, the limiting of which amounts to oppression.

As it happens, Israeli director Tal Kantor’s “Letter to a Pig” also refers back to classroom memories from its own helmer’s childhood, except in this case, the film deals with a student’s response to hearing from a Holocaust survivor named Haim. Using a nearly monochromatic mix of black ink and photographic stills, Kantor imagines the moment when Haim escaped a group of Nazis by hiding in a pigsty. Looking back, the Jewish man appreciates that this non-kosher animal saved his life, though his story sparks laughs from some students (just as watching “Schindler’s List” reportedly did in its time). The 16-minute short shows how the incident — as well as reactions by her peers — marks a girl named Alma, expanding into something nightmarish as Haim’s memory takes hold in her own imagination. “Letter” works on an expressionistic level, as opposed to a logical one, imprinting itself on audiences for them to process and personalize as well.

“Pachyderme” does something similar, exploring how the mind processes and suppresses childhood trauma, though the full-color, seemingly hand-painted style could hardly be more different from the stark visions of “Letter to a Pig.” Visually, Stéphanie Clement seems to be inspired by the comforting drawings of preschool picture books, suggesting amid the golden memories — a redheaded girl recalls visits to her grandparents’ house in the country — that a threat could be lurking just off-screen. The narrator recalls monstrous eyes staring back at her from the knots in her ceiling, but can find nowhere to hide. Her memory has buried whatever inappropriate behavior she suffered, though she acutely recalls the way such abuse made her feel, as the short shows the girl trying to blend into the wallpaper or imagining herself washed away underwater. It’s an evocative use of animation, though the naive style proves an odd match for the hindsight-centric narration.

A playfully profound twist on vintage Disney educational shorts, “Ninety-Five Senses” boasts an appealing mix of animation styles — which was not-so-secretly the project’s raison d’être. Two decades after “Napoleon Dynamite,” co-directors Jerusha and Jared Hess hatched the project as a way to showcase a handful of emerging filmmakers, who each contribute a different sequence. Voicing an affable old Death Row inmate named Coy, Tim Blake Nelson ladles his Southern-fried twang over everything like so much gravy, his folksy narration providing continuity across a range of distinctive yet complementary visual approaches. Coy claims never to have used a cell phone. It takes a while for the reason to come out: He’s spent most of his life behind bars. By the time we discover the source of this condemned man’s remorse, it’s virtually impossible not to be charmed by his colorful way of looking at — and feeling, touching, smelling and tasting — the world.

Two soldiers on opposite sides of battle play an implausible game of chess, communicating each move via carrier pigeon in “War Is Over: Inspired by the Music of John & Yoko.” Hatched by Sean Ono Lennon as a novel way to deliver his parents’ message, this glossy computer-generated short looks far more polished than the competition, but makes hardly any sense. How did the two chess rivals start their game? Ordered into combat by their respective commanders, they refuse to kill one another on the field. Cue the song “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” and suddenly everyone is throwing down their weapons. But is it Christmas? The Lennon connection attracted all kinds of high-profile collaborators, from director Dave Mullins (Oscar nominated for “Lou”) to Peter Jackson, who put Weta to work on the project. With John and Yoko, love made peace possible. Cartoon pigeons don’t carry nearly the same power.

Rather than leave audiences on that awkward note, the ShortsTV program includes two bonus shorts. The first is even more heavy-handedly issue-oriented than Ono Lennon’s birdbrained peace protest. Co-directors Karni Arieli and Saul Freed’s photoreal, computer-generated “Wild Summon” traces the life cycle of a female salmon, depicted not as a fish but a creepy humanlike water creature with bloated lips and tiny diving mask. A woeful-sounding Marianne Faithful describes all the threats to the species. It’s grim, gross and weirdly misjudged: Replacing the fish with freaky-looking water-people is an anthropomorphic step too far, implying that salmon eaters are unfeeling cannibals.

Luckily, the show wraps with a more upbeat offering from animation legend John Musker, who didn’t let his Disney retirement keep him from making a retro-styled toon (“hand-drawn,” with help from digital tools). Winking at what it’s like to feel out of step with the latest trends, “I’m Hip” is set to a jazzy old parody song by Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough, as a cool cat sporting indoor shades and a pork pie hat tries to convince the world he’s still got it. Meanwhile, Musker packs each scene with visual jokes to the contrary. The short feels oddly out of sync with the moment, but brings some much-needed laughs to a somber program.

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