Above is the preview for a little Pixar/Disney animation that was shown in theaters with the “Incredibles 2” movie last year. It is one of the finalists for an Academy Award in its category this evening, and my guess is it will win because 1) it’s from Pixar and 2) more people have seen it.
I saw “Bao” along with the other finalists at a theater on Friday. While I’m not interested in prize competitions — too artificial, too responsive to fads of a given moment — I do appreciate that the Oscar shorts are available for viewing in theaters around this time of year. (A second shorts award is given for documentaries, and a roundup of those finalists still may be in theaters tomorrow.)
But back to “Bao.” It is the fantasy story of a Chinese mother in Toronto who is bereft after her son has grown up and left the house. To her surprise, another child sprouts from a stuffed Chinese baozi roll before she can pop it into the steamer. She re-lives the joy of motherhood until she doesn’t, and then something nice happens to knit the story together in a bittersweet sort of way that, ala Pixar, mixes families, feelings and food to generate emotional nostalgia.
Domee Shi, now of Pixar, made the piece, a nice little 9-minute movie that you can live-stream at home for $1.99.
Late Afternoon (click for Vimeo promo)
This is a simple revery from Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation studio. In it, an older woman has a cuppa tea in her home as she recalls moments from her early life. These are rendered in impressionistic, water color-styled images that start with childhood moments at the seashore and proceed through adulthood in a lovely and moving way. The creator, Louise Bagnall, has said she conjured the piece from memories of her grandmothers.
Yet another personal story, also set in Toronto (in the 1980s) comes from Trevor Jimenez, now of Pixar. It recalls his life shortly after his parents had divorced and when he was shuffled back and forth between their homes. We understand the parents are different because the mom plays an arid Erik Satie piece on the piano and the father lives his life to the guitar riff from the Dire Straits “Money for Nothing.”
The parents are distracted and pay little attention to their small child, who fills his mind with fantasies about riding a large antique horse, imagining the lives of animals he sees outside the window and wondering about another child who waves to him from an apartment far away. Call it a cartoon that feels like truth.
This is the first project from Taiko Studios, a group of former Disney animators from China and the US. Its plot involves a Chinese American girl, Luna, who dreams of becoming an astronaut. Her father, a shoemaker, encourages her fantasies with moon boots, a helmet and a pretend space ship. She grows up and there are disappointments, but as one of the animators has said, “All dreams begin with a single step.”
Because this has a clearer narrative than “Late Afternoon” and “Weekends,” this little feature might appeal more to children than the other two, but it also concerns itself with its main character’s internal experience.
This production from Vancouver, B.C. is a too-witty-by-half story of a therapy group attended by animals with human problems — guilt, OCD, relationship problems, separation anxiety, among them. The group is led by a pit bull named Dr. Clement, who of course shares his own experiences.
Into the group comes an ape with a hot temper. Wackiness ensues.
I don’t particularly mind cartoons that anthropomorphize animals, but the idea is not particularly new (Mickey Mouse, anyone?) and the tensions between animal instincts and human psychology didn’t work for me. In short, this is a pleasant piece that aims for laughs where the other entries were more keenly felt and sincere.
In a film world that has hijacked children’s animation and loaded it up with excess conflict and CGI distraction, the simple honesties of the first four of these movies were a pleasure to watch. After the Academy Awards presentation tonight, perhaps we will have an opportunity to share them with family and friends.