The Oscars simultaneously stands as the most important, prestigious, and decisive event of the year, which remains doubly true for animation. Although the Annie Awards may hold higher regard for some animators, it can be hard not to get swept up in the glamor of the Academy Awards. The lights, the stars, sketches that always go on for just a bit too long— and of course, seeing your favorite films and filmmakers get the recognition they and their art deserve. Since 1929, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has persisted as an exciting celebration of the medium of film, and with the 2022 Academy Awards coming up later this month, there’s no better time to talk about this year’s nominees in animation. Moreover, in a tradition nearly as old as the Oscars itself— my hubris of watching all of the best animated short and feature films nominated by the Academy each year. However, this year has a catch— I now have an outlet to publish my ramblings about the funny cartoons. So join me as we discuss the beginnings of the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film category, as well as its current nominees.
So join me as we discuss the beginnings of the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film category, as well as its current nominees.
Now you may be thinking, “surely, this option piece won’t have any brief yet overly expository recounting of the history of the Best Animated Short Film category, right?” The 1920s stood as a pivotal decade in film history. The medium of film finally had begun developing from a perceived novelty to a proven art form— worthy of the adoration given to other fine arts. To further exhibit the sophistication of film, various members of the film industry agreed to form the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to award the achievements of filmmakers (and also lowkey in an attempt to prevent the creation of unions within the film industry, but don’t worry about that it was a bad plan and didn’t work). Nonetheless, the Academy and its influence have persisted into the modern-day to celebrate the continued innovation in this artistic field.
However, the medium of animation didn’t receive recognition from the Academy Awards until the 5th ceremony in 1931 introduced the Short Subject, Cartoons category, later retitled to Best Animated Short Film in 1974. In part, this latency to appreciate animation reflected the point at which the art form resembled at that time. Although animated short films have existed for nearly as long as the film itself, the cartoons of the early and mid-1920s often came from smaller studios who did not necessarily have the attention of the Academy— let alone were the animators at all considered for a seat in the Academy itself. Moreover, feature-length animated films— an animated film with a run-time exceeding 40 minutes— were rarely even attempted at the time. The first-ever feature-length animated film was the 1917 Argentine satire El Apóstol, while the first from an American studio was twenty years later with the 1937 Disney classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, both of which were very much exceptions to the norm. Although film generally existed in its infancy when the Academy first began, animation especially was still finding its footing as a sophisticated art form.
That said, Disney did exemplify the pivot that animation had started embarking on going into the 1930s. With creatively ambitious and financially successful cartoons throughout the 20s— premiere of which was the first animated film with sound, 1928’s Steamboat Willie— Disney, both the artist and the growing studio, had set the standard for both the creative and financial potential of the animation art form. This innovative spirit would find acclaim when the 5th Academy Awards established the Short Subject: Cartoons category. In its first outing at the Oscars, Disney received two of the three nominations for Short Subject: Cartoons and won for the film Flowers and Trees, in no small part because of how the film pioneered three-strip technicolor in cartoons. Disney remained the golden child of the Academy throughout the coming decade, winning— without exaggeration— every single Oscar for animation in the 1930s while also often being double nominated in the category. Specifically, the 11th Academy Awards in 1938 had Disney occupying four of the five nominations, with— get this— Disney winning for the short film Ferdinand the Bull.
However, that isn’t to say that Disney lacked competition. Conversely, other studios like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and Warner Bros. responded to the success of Disney by setting up and/or expanding divisions of their studios that specialized in animated short films. Moreover, animators like Max Fleischer and Tex Avery gained prominence for their exceptional work and talent. This escalating climate would culminate in the 13th Academy Awards in 1940— where, for the first time in the history of the category, Disney did not receive a nomination. Instead, Warner acquired a nomination for the (Tex Avery directed) first Bugs Bunny cartoon, A Wild Hare, and MGM occupied the field with the first Tom and Jerry cartoon, Puss Gets the Boot, and ultimately won with The Milky Way. And, yes, Disney did resume his winning streak in 1941. Nonetheless, the 13th Academy Awards still exhibited how animation had effectuated an initiative to continue pushing the art form forward that had expanded beyond just the artistic vision of Disney— and this would persist throughout the 1940s and 50s as wins from other studios became more and more frequent.
However, the 1960s and 70s would see animation making another radical pivot as Hollywood studios produced less and less animated short films, leaving a vacancy later occupied by a new generation of animators and filmmakers. The aforementioned white whale of the American animation industry, the feature-length animated film, had been achieved by this time and began essentially eclipsing the short film in terms of relevancy. Audiences changing their sensibilities towards films by favoring features over shorts led to studios throughout the 60s and 70s dismantling their animated shorts divisions to focus on other ventures, whether that be features or the growing medium of television and relying on their back catalog for theatre showings. Disney went from producing 66 animated shorts in the 1950s to only 2 in the 1970s; Warner went from releasing 278 theatrical Looney Tunes shorts in the 1950s to none at all in the 1970s. The landscape of Short Subject: Cartoons had evidently and drastically changed from their Disney-dominated roots. As such, the Academy needed to adapt.
A symptom of such adaptation first occurred during the 33rd Academy Awards in 1960 when Munro won the category, becoming the first animated short film made outside of America to win the award. Furthermore, Munro also exemplified the proliferation of stylized, message-driven animated short films receiving acclaim from the Academy. As the big Hollywood studios continued to pull away from animated shorts, the Academy focused more and more on independent, boundary-pushing, and often non-American films to promote in the coming years. Later, prominent studios would return to making shorts, starting in the late 80s and early 90s, typically showing them before their feature films, but the field had already changed. For one, the name of the Oscars category had finally changed, which is a shame because Short Subject: Cartoons is frankly an adorable name that every time I read conjures up the mental image of a small dog named Cartoons. But more importantly (debatably), these lower-key productions had already demonstrated to the Academy that they deserved their attention and could compete against and even outclass the major American studios. Some studios— including Pixar, Blue Skies, and Armand Animations— had Oscar-winning shorts that catapulted their level of exposure in the industry and helped land them future opportunities to do feature films. The Best Animated Short Film category acts as a reflection and celebration of animators of all styles and backgrounds who each seek to pivot the art form of animation in new and exciting directions.
Which brings us to the 2022 nominees! These films reflect an eclectic, eccentric, and forward-thinking view of animation today. Also, at times a brutal view, with all of the nominees except for Robin Robin being very R-rated— which is lovely to see in animations, but also something to mention before I recommend anything. Maybe don’t play Bestia at the function; dare I say, it’s a bit yucky. That said, I’ll be giving a light description for each film, and then some general thoughts and impressions.
Robin Robin (dir. Dan Ojari and Mikey Please)
From Armand Animations, Robin Robin follows a little bird raised by a family of mice who ventures off to prove herself as a mouse herself by sneaking into a Who-Man house to retrieve the star of a Christmas tree.
Absolutely lovely! The film exudes a playful charm and wit that never ceases to entertain. Additionally, Armand’s signature stop-motion animation remains as amazing as ever. Their character acting and design sensibilities have always been delightful, but particularly in this film the sets and lighting were done exceptionally well. Granted, it stands out as a ray of sunshine in the tobacco shop that is the other nominees in the category, but nonetheless Robin Robin emits such a wonderfully cheerful atmosphere that was thoroughly refreshing to watch. I highly recommend this one!
BoxBallet (dir. Anton Dyakov)
From Melnitsa Animation Studio, BoxBallet tells the story of a gruff boxer and gentle ballerina as the two navigate their blossoming feelings for each other.
This film brought such a smile to my face and watching these two do their best to express affection for the other remained consistently adorable. The visual style interestingly accents its narrative, as well. The environments and characters intentionally have this scuzzy, ugly quality to their depictions that is not only visually compelling but also elevates the film’s themes of the tenderness found underneath our built exteriors. I’d recommend this one too! It’s idiosyncratic but comfortable.
Affairs of Art (dir. Joanna Quinn and Les Mills)
From Beryl Productions, Affairs of Art impressionistically tells the story of Beryl, an eccentric woman fixated on having a career as an artist, as she ruminates on her life, her family, and the idea of obsession.
I enjoyed how this film conveyed itself. The visuals have this deliberate sketchiness to them, evocative of the figure drawings Beryl works on throughout the film. This artistic choice also allows for the character acting in the animation and performance to shine. As well, the structure of the narrative is intriguing in how it mimics Beryl’s stream of consciousness which also procedurally mimics her art. The film often left me feeling as if I were just along for its ride, but it was a pretty fun ride.
The Windshield Wiper (dir. Alberto Mielgo and Leo Sanchez)
From Pastel, Leo Sanchez Studio, and PinkmanTV, The Windshield Wiper is a collection of vignettes all meant to answer the question: what is love?
This film stylistically displays some of the best of what animation today has to offer, utilizing this mesmerizing art direction evocative of Feast and Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse. However, I think if I say more about the film I will be mean to it; I just didn’t click with it.
Bestia (dir. Hugo Covarrubias and Tevo Díaz)
From Maleza Studio, Bestia is a film exploring the fractured psyche and inhumanities of a police agent during the Chilean military dictatorship in 1975.
Bestia makes me so utterly uncomfortable and I think it’s brilliant. The best way I could describe this film would be: haunting. It left me wanting to stare at a wall for hours after it finished, but I still kept coming back to it. The film is animated in such a cautious but precise way where the hand of the animator is always present, but so is the level of calculation that goes into creating each motion. It’s a film that is deeply symbolic, cold, dehumanized, sad, very disturbing, but incredibly made. If it interests you, I’d highly recommend it.
Overall, the showing from Best Animated Short Film category remains as strong as ever! I personally would be happy to see Robin Robin or Bestia take the award, but I would predict Robin Robin to win. The Academy consistently loves Armand Animations’ output, and this film just radiates the expert cleverness they’re known for. But let me know what you think, if you have a favorite, or if there’s a film you think should have been nominated.