Explosions to Existentialism — A Review of This Year’s Animated Short Oscar Nominees


Lucas Pinaire

Despite vastly different animation styles, this year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Film Oscar nominees are all visually stunning.

Lucas Pinaire, Staff Reporter

With 24 Academy Award categories, it’s easy to overlook the lesser-known ones. Best picture, actor, actress, supporting actor, and supporting actress get a lot of attention for good reason but it shouldn’t end there. 

Even just watching the Oscar-winning animated short, “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse,” would be a mistake for the others are certainly on par with the Oscar winner and far surpass it in multiple areas.

With a medium that allows for visual experimentation impossible in live-action media, the Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Shorts are each strong in a unique way. Below, I have showcased what I believe to be the most notable strengths and weaknesses of several of these overall stunning shorts.

Ice Merchants 

Ice Merchants” is a 14-minute, wordless — aside from the credits — short following a father and son. 

The father and son, making their living as ice merchants, live alone on an icy mountainside. Each day, the pair parachutes down the mountain to deliver ice to the townspeople down below until the ice begins to melt.

Climate change is undoubtedly a theme of this short, but it’s not the main one. “‘Ice Merchants’ is a family drama about loss and family connection,” the short’s director, João Gonzalez, told the New Yorker.

A third, absent member of the family, presumably the boy’s mother, is symbolized by an unused yellow mug, and the color yellow as a whole, throughout the short.

The father is red and the boy is the secondary color between the two on the color wheel: orange. The warm colors of the people and man-made structures contrast with the shades of blue used to illustrate the ice.

This simple but effective use of color tells the story where perhaps words might have, and allows for an emotional final act.

However, colors aren’t the extent of Gonzalez’s artistic prowess in this short. The striking minimalist animation style against a neutral beige background replicates hand-drawn artwork.

“Ice Merchants” strikes the perfect balance between calm and contemplative. The simple but thoughtful imagery only complemented its melancholic storyline. 

An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe It

An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe It” is a stop-motion animation in which the main character realizes he’s in a stop-motion animation. 

A series of surreal experiences, including the one the short is named after, provoke an existential crisis in the protagonist, Neil, and a search for a way out of the office building set, the only world he’s ever known. 

There is some focus on Neil’s soul-sucking office job, but the short mostly explores absurdity. For instance, as he comes to understand the ostrich’s point, Neil notices a coworker mindlessly typing on a nonexistent keyboard and attempts to remove the face of another.

Whereas the storyline is evocative of the “Truman Show” or the first half of “Fight Club,” the short’s director, Lachlan Pendragon, cited “Wallace and Gromit” and “Chicken Run” as visual inspirations. 

What sets this production apart from other stop-motion productions is its framing. For much of the short, we only see the characters through the screen of the video camera that is supposedly being used to film the stop-motion animation in the context of the story. 

Only when the protagonist temporarily escapes the set does the audience have an unobstructed view of him.

In the same way that the found-footage element of “The Blair Witch Project” contributes to its horror, the similar concept used in “An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe It” drives home the protagonist’s central conflict. 

This short is an awesome combination of tropes. Not much of it is groundbreaking, but it pulls inspiration from strong sources.

The surreal storyline works well with the stop-motion animation to create an entertaining and oftentimes comical experience.

The Flying Sailor

The Flying Sailor” tells the true story of a sailor launched into the air after a collision between two ships off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada causing the largest man-made explosion the world had seen at the time, the Halifax explosion. Amazingly, the soldier survived, landing naked, aside from one boot, two kilometers away. 

Little information is available regarding this sailor, so to create the short, Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby imagined what he might have experienced throughout his flight. The two artfully embellish this perhaps exaggerated story both visually and conceptually. 

Although the story is simple, the themes are difficult to wrap your head around. “This description of losing your physical self and feeling seamless or at one with the universe,” is an idea that always struck Tilby according to an interview with the New Yorker

In the same interview, Tilby stated that the sailor’s near-death experience “is a point that inspires the contemplation of life.”

As another wordless short, this time with a simple plot, “The Flying Sailor” gets its message across with stunning imagery. For instance, as the sailor tumbles through the air, his flashbacks — evocative of vintage postcards — cross many animation styles. Before falling back to earth from a serene space scene, the sailor transforms into a spherical pink blob rather than a humanoid figure.

“The Flying Sailor” doesn’t really make any grand point, but it does something just as interesting. Forbis and Tilby took an already fascinating story and expanded it to explore the introspectiveness that must go hand in hand with such an unbelievable experience.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

An adaptation of Charlie Mackesy’s beloved children’s book of the same name, “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” is understandably simple. It’s the same “boy who gets lost in the woods and eventually learns that home is actually the friends he made along the way” type of story that is in countless children’s books.

It’s not a bad trope, and in this case, the story is enhanced by its clearly “Winnie-the-Pooh” inspired cast of animals.

The greater issue is the dialogue. Although there are doubtlessly quotable standout lines, there isn’t much between them.

As the short plays out, it seems that every minute a character, unprompted, spouts a deep yet largely irrelevant line that you might find in a fortune cookie or at a Hobby Lobby.

Both the book and the short are based on Charlie Mackesy’s captioned watercolor artwork featuring the same characters, and it shows. The entire piece feels like a series of stills with filler scenes in between them rather than a continuous story.

IMDB reviewer warren-87235 perhaps put it best, calling the story “merely an excuse for a series of vague, innocuous, and simplistic platitudes made to appear deep and meaningful through presentation.”

That being said, the watercolor inspiration makes for a beautiful animation. The sketched outlines and soft colors make for perfectly fitting storybook-like imagery. 

“The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” is a generic but calming short that perhaps could’ve taken inspiration from its fellow nominees and stayed silent.