The World of Tomorrow
The World of Tomorrow

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Like their live-action counterparts, the Oscar-nominated animated shorts deal with similarly painful subjects—death, grief, children suffering—but their mood is lightened by the whimsical possibilities of their form. Take Bear Story, which imagines the horrors of war, imprisonment, and refugees through a fantastic world inhabited entirely by animals. The protagonist, a bear who lives with his wife and child in a city apartment, is taken from his home and forced to perform with other kidnapped animals in the circus. It’s a poignant story of intersectionality in social justice movements (and it has some lovely things to say about the purpose of art), using gorgeous, tactile animation and visual splendor inspiring enough to make the pain bearable. It’s one of the best films of the year of any length.

So is The World of Tomorrow, the short with the biggest buzz and, thus, the likely Oscar winner. This magnificent, experimental sci-fi epic by Don Hertzfeldt centers on a young girl who is visited by her third-generation self (in the future, it is explained, we will download our consciousness into new bodies as we age). The film spans time and dimension, attacking metaphysical concepts with both humor and empathy. It’s 16 minutes of mind-blowing awesomeness, and while it’s a bit too intellectual to achieve an emotional impact, it’s still the most thought-provoking piece of science fiction in years.

Russia’s We Can’t Live Without the Cosmos could also be considered sci-fi, since it concerns a space mission, but its focus is entirely human. Following two long-time friends as they go through astronaut training together, the film takes a somber turn as one is chosen to embark into outer space without the other. In a lineup populated with eye-grabbing visuals, Cosmos’ 2D, Saturday-morning aesthetic won’t dazzle you, but it’s affecting all the same.

Rounding out the animated shorts are Sanjay’s Super Team, a predictably winning Pixar short about an Indian boy whose love of superheroes conflicts with his father’s piety, and Prologue, a decidedly adult story of war. Sanjay is visually engaging, and it tells a culturally-specific story with authenticity, but if it fails to dazzle, it’s only because Pixar has consistently raised the bar over the years. Prologue feels wildly out of place, however; a graphically violent and lyrical examination of war that includes neck-gouging and testicle-slashing. Its brutal imagery compels the eye but captures neither the heart nor the head. That kind of sensationalism might fly with the Academy—I’m looking at you, The Revenant—but the shorts, as you’ll see, have higher standards.

Oscar Nominated Short Films 2016: Live Action and Animated open Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.