by Nadine Whitney

The 2023 Academy Awards has nominated animated shorts from Canada, Australia, US, Portugal, and UK. They range from family friendly tales of unlikely friendship to a frank exploration of teen sexuality in the early ‘90s. The nominations prove that animation is a varied form that is a distinct and important storytelling medium.

My Year of Dicks (USA)

Directed by Sara Gunnarsdóttir and based on the experiences of creator Pamela Ribon, My Year of Dicks has been some thirty years in the making. Documenting Pamela’s quest to lose her virginity at the age of fifteen, the protagonist comes across a lot of guys who are ‘dicks’ and also realises that she’s been a bit of a dick as well.

Mixing real footage, rotoscoping and 2-D animation, My Year of Dicks swings from hilarious, cringe inducing, and sensitive, to tell the story of a Houston based teen who is deeply clueless about relationships and love. There are a couple of recognisable “dicks” – the pretentious ‘90s Goth boy, a sleazy usher at the local arthouse cinema, even a seemingly nice (but very not nice) straight edge guy who turns out to be a skinhead.

There are moments of sheer hilarity, where after watching Henry & June, Anaïs Nin becomes a devil on Pam’s shoulder, talking about sexual liberation. There are also moments of intense sensitivity, when Pam realises that she has been awful to her always supportive best friend Sam. Also, if you ever had to sit through an utterly clueless (and completely wrong) “sex talk” from a parent, the elements of cringe will be recognisable.

My Year of Dicks is utterly honest and deeply relatable. It’s funny but also shows that there is an edge of danger to teenage sexuality, where slut-shaming is always an issue, and basically, many teenage guys are indeed, dicks – except Sam.

An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Believe Him (Australia)

Lachlan Pendragon’s meta stop motion animation is a mixture of Aardman aesthetics, the mysterious world of The Matrix, and the Looney Tunes cartoon Duck Amuck, where Daffy Duck is tormented by an unknown animator who keeps changing his world and shape.

An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Believe Him is about a failed telemarketer named Neil (voiced by Pendragon), who sees small glitches in his mundane office. Pendragon almost immediately lets you know that Neil’s world is indeed fake, by showing the process of animating and moving Neil about. There are screens within screens that have Pendragon creating the animation at the same time as the animation is taking place.

Neil’s world turns into a nightmare when he accidentally sleeps late at the office and an Ostrich (whose real reason for being there would be a spoiler) tells him that none of what he’s doing is real, and everything is fake. Neil finds a room where his face is replicated. He notices that people in the office aren’t fully “made” and the next day when he turns up to work, the office has been completely refitted with new furniture.

Pendragon’s short is highly inventive and more than a little disturbing. Really, at what point is any telemarketer “alive” in their job? Especially, as they are all ultimately replaceable. Pendragon made every figure and used a 3-D printer to create his absurd world. If all we see and all we seem to see is but a dream within a dream, Pendragon makes it clear the last thing you’ll want to be dreaming about is a pointless office job.

Ice Merchants (Portugal)

João Gonzalez’s animation without dialogue, is a tender tale of a father and son who live in a house bolted on a sheer cliff where they daily parachute to sell ice to the villagers far below. At once, it is a metaphor for climate change but also a story about grief, isolation, resilience and about how doing the same thing every day can lead to a crisis point when that routine is covering for an absence that is never going to be healed.

Wonderfully scored by João Gonzalez and featuring gorgeous hand drawn style 2-D animation, Ice Merchants is a gentle film that pulls at the heartstrings. Despite the lack of dialogue, João Gonzalez pulls you into the world of the father and son and makes their precarious life fascinating and immersive.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse (United Kingdom)

Based on the beloved children’s book by Charlie Mackesey and directed by Mackesey and Peter Baynton, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is a gentle and family-friendly animation that stays true to the style of the book. Voiced by an array of talent including Tom Hollander as the mole, Idris Elba as the fox, and Gabriel Byrne as the horse, it is clearly the most expensive of the nominated shorts.

A young boy (Jude Coward Nicoll) finds himself lost in a snowy landscape. Aided by a cake loving Mole, they go on an adventure to find the boy’s family. Small acts of kindness turn a would-be predator, the Fox into a friend and along the way they find a sad Horse. The story is about the power of kindness and the importance of bravery, even if that bravery is being able to ask for help. There is an over-sugary aspect to the film which existed in the book, a kind of allegorical “self-help” for kiddies tale. For young viewers, the message will be important but for older viewers, the simplicity may rub the wrong way. The animation is indeed lovely, and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score is delightful.

The Flying Sailor (Canada)

In 1917 in Halifax, a strange thing happened. Two boats collided, setting off an explosion that rocketed Charlie Mayers over two kilometres into the sky, where he then miraculously landed alive but naked except for his boots.

Directors Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby utilise a variety of mediums to chart Charlie’s improbable but true journey into the sky, and back to the ground again. Interpretive music and animation mix with grainy film footage, as Charlie’s life flashes before his eyes.

The Flying Sailor has some beauty to it, and the fact that it is based on a true story is astonishing, but it is perhaps the weakest of the nominated films. There are parts that are impressive, almost akin to Malick at his most contemplative, but ultimately it does come thudding to the ground.

My Year of Dicks is the most accomplished nomination, but if we were to take a pick at what The Academy will award, it would be The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. The Academy does like its non-challenging entries and The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse certainly fills that requirement. A potential upset could be Ice Merchants.

The Oscar nominated animated (and live action) shorts are in cinemas nationally March 3-5 and 10-12, 2023