Negative Space

A young boy bonds with his father over packing for business trips in "Negative Space."

PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA FILMS

The five films nominated for the 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film have the requisite numbers of cute kids and cute animals.

But it’s the inanimate objects that get to you. You might be surprised to be moved to tears by the plight of driveway weeds, the items in a schoolyard lost and found box, and especially a battered old suitcase. Such is the power of animation, able to bring life to lifeless things, and make us look at our own non-animated world a little differently.

All five animated shorts, along with three other not-nominated but acclaimed animated films, are screening as an 83-minute anthology starting Friday at AMC Madison 6. It's a particularly strong collection of films this year.

My favorite of the bunch features that suitcase. “Negative Space,” by animators Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata, is based on a poem by Ron Koertge. The film looks at the bond that develops between father and son over the suitcase the dad packs whenever he goes on a business trip. As the son learns the father’s packing rituals — socks balled up, shoes placed on top at the end — a private connection is formed that leads to the film’s devastating final image.

Objects also gain power in “Lou,” Pixar’s entry into this year’s awards. The film (which played in theaters before “Cars 3”) presents a lively battle of wits between a schoolyard bully and the school’s lost-and-found box, which comes to sentient life as an anthropomorphic figure made of toys and sweaters. In typical Pixar fashion, the struggle is resolved gently, with a feel-good ending that suggests everybody loses something.

Discarded items also feature in the not-nominated “Lost Property Station,” a fanciful tale of the subway employee who runs the lost-and-found office, and what he decides to do on his last day of work. More striking than the story is the animation, which looks like it was cut out of corrugated cardboard.

A couple of this year’s entries are definitely not for kids. “Garden Party” initially seems kid-friendly, as we look at the frogs who have taken over what looks like an abandoned mansion, hopping through the kitchen looking for food. But there’s a strange air of menace as the frogs roam the house (where did the people go?), culminating in a grotesque final image that will have parents hastily covering their children's eyes if they got suckered into thinking this was family-friendly fare.

“Revolting Rhymes” isn’t really for kids, despite the fact that it’s based on beloved fairy tales. This time, though, it’s from the wolf’s perspective, as he grouses about the cruelty of Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White. It’s cute, and has strong voice talent from Dominic West, Tamsin Grieg and Rob Brydon, but at a half-hour it wears out its welcome.

The most distinct film of the bunch is “Dear Basketball,” a collaboration between basketball star Kobe Bryant and veteran Disney animator Glen Keane. As Bryant reads a farewell letter of sorts to the game (“You asked for my hustle, I gave you my heart”), Keane’s hand-drawn animation seems to explode out of his notebook, Bryant’s figure going from NBA star to eager child and back again.

Of the other two not-nominated films, "Achoo" is a derivative tale of a plucky dragon with a cold, but "Weeds" is a poignant little tale of a weed on a parched driveway who yearns to go next door, where the grass is literally greener. Gardeners might boo, but I thought it was cute.

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.