In our family we have an Oscar tradition: On a cold and wet March afternoon, we all troop downtown to watch the nominees for Best Animated Short in our local art-house theater. Yes, the Oscar shorts are playing on the big screen! This year’s nominated animated shorts, as well as the live-action short films and, in some cities, the documentary shorts, open Friday, Feb. 25. Thanks to this tradition, for nearly a decade our kids have been entertained, delighted, and puzzled by short films from around the world. And they’ve been reminded that animation is not simply an art form for children—that animation can tell grown-up stories as well.
The short films that get nominated usually run the gamut from charming children’s fare to complex, somewhat intense adult stories. That means that in addition to watching the adorable Pixar short Bao or the cute BBC adventure Room on the Broom, our kids have also gotten the chance to see a comedy about neurotic animals in therapy, a sensitive drama about divorce, a heartfelt stop-motion portrait of Alzheimer’s, and a depressing school-shooting story. And I’ve been OK with that, especially as they’ve moved into their teens. Truly, the sound of my children screaming in horror at the final reveal of the French short Garden Party is one of my all-time parenting triumphs.
But this year’s press release for the animated shorts package includes a somewhat dire warning:
The Animated program is FOR ADULTS ONLY. It is NOT a kid-friendly release like it’s been in previous years. THE WINDSHIELD WIPER features male and female nudity, sex, and adult themes. BESTIA features disturbing imagery, animal abuse, bestiality, and rather extreme violence. These films are not intended for children.
Well! It seems the Academy’s Short Films committee has gotten dark this year! In the spirit of being prepared, I thought maybe I should give the nominated shorts a pre-watch.
This year’s slate of nominees features fewer for-kids-only selections than usual. There’s really only one, and it’s the weakest of the lot: the blandly inoffensive Aardman Animations stop-motion story “Robin Robin,” about a baby bird adopted by a family of mice. The Russian “Boxballet” is a grimly funny beauty-meets-beast romance with a little bit of a #MeToo twist. I loved its somewhat grotesque hand-drawn animation, reminiscent of the cartoons of Gahan Wilson. My favorite was the totally hilarious “Affairs of the Art,” in which a British woman of a certain age finally indulges her desire to be a painter. It features some wonderful middle-aged nudity and a really gross taxidermy scene. I would be totally fine watching any of those films with my kids.
I would also be fine with “The Windshield Wiper,” which, though noted in that dire warning, is actually not that big a deal. Directed by Alberto Mielgo, it’s a collection of music-video-style vignettes circling around the question, “What is love?” It’s handsomely made and narratively empty, a sizzle reel showing off how gorgeously Mielgo can animate the magic hour. The brief scenes of nudity and sex would be faintly embarrassing but, to any red-blooded movie-going teenager, basically fine.
And then there’s “Bestia.”
“Bestia” (“Beast) is based, according to its director Hugo Covarrubias, on Íngrid Olderöck, an infamous torturer of Chile’s Pinochet regime. It’s an immaculately made, nasty piece of work. It maintains its even tone and reveals its horrors gradually over its 16 minutes, befitting the inexpressive, porcelain-doll faces sported by its characters. Olderöck lives alone, eats breakfast with her beloved dog each morning, and then takes her dog to work, where they both commit terrible atrocities. There is, indeed, graphic violence, a dream sequence of the dog’s murder, and a very explicit bestiality scene. The whole film is (appropriately, for its subject matter) quite shocking.
It’s also remarkable—a grueling portrait of impassive institutional cruelty and the damage it causes. By all means, steel your courage and head to your art-house theater to see it, along with the other Best Animated Short nominees. But I think I might let my kids sit this year out.