The Academy has a reputation for pleasing itself as often as it can, and for good reason. Films like The Artist, Birdman, and La La Land make up just a few examples of movies about the magic of movies that walked away with plenty of gold statues, so does it come as a surprise that they would nominate something as self-indulgent as Dear Basketball? Kobe Bryant’s vanity project sees the now-retired athlete hiring legendary Disney animator Glen Keane and composer John Williams to visualize a poem he wrote to announce his retirement. On its own, Bryant’s poem is fine, but in this context it’s a laughable act of stroking one’s ego. Williams’ soaring strings sound like a parody of his work, and Keane’s animation can’t overpower the sheer gravitational pull of Bryant’s ego. Dear Basketball is only inspiring in the way it shows how limitless one’s own vanity and sense of self-importance can be.
Thankfully, Dear Basketball only lasts for five minutes, and almost all of the other shorts in the category follow suit, offering up brief run-times and small bursts of storytelling. Pixar makes its inevitable appearance with Lou, where a pile of miscellaneous items in a school’s lost and found come to life and teach a bully a lesson. You have to admire Pixar for how well they’ve weaponized their ability to prey on nostalgia through anthropomorphization. Here, the cutesy pile of knickknacks is a cross between Wall-E and Inside Out’s Bing Bong, and while the short is transparent in its manipulation, it’s executed well enough to remind us of why Pixar remains a cartoon juggernaut.
On the more ambitious side of things, Garden Party has six (!) directors creating a lifelike playground for amphibians, who find themselves enjoying the pool in an abandoned mansion. The short looks nice, but there isn’t much to say beyond that (this is the graduation project for the film’s half-dozen directors, which might explain why it feels more like a demonstration of skills than anything else). A grim twist ending puts a darkly comedic capper on the short, but it’s a punchline that doesn’t really justify the set-up. Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer’s Revolting Rhymes stands out from the rest of the nominees due to its length, as it’s a half-hour, half-adaptation of Roald Dahl’s subversive take on popular fairy tales. Schuh and Lachauer take three of Dahl’s poems (The Three Little Pigs, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood specifically) and mash them up into a single tale as narrated by the Big Bad Wolf (Dominic West), and the results are as serviceable as can be. Given the familiarity of the source material and how played out “dark” spins on fairy tales have become, Revolting Rhymes plays it too safe to be anything more than adequate.
All that said, the likelihood of Bryan’s ode to himself or Pixar’s adorable lament of childhood innocence taking home the award is high, although neither hold a candle to Max Porter and Ru Kuwuhata’s Negative Space. Adapting a poem by Ron Koertge, Porter and Kuwuhata use stop-motion animation to explore a father and son who bond through packing luggage for business trips. In five minutes, Negative Space comments on the different ways families can forge connections, displays a metric ton of creative energy in its visuals (highlights including a tidal wave of clothes and a car turning into a suitcase zipper), and ends with a punchline that stings. The best animated short nominee by a country mile, Negative Space would be a deserved win if it beat out its two flashier competitors, and a sign that the Academy might not always be up its own ass when deciding what deserves to be the best.