The animated shorts program is always one of my favorites every year, with a great mix of big studio talent and up-and-comers — you’ll also see experiments with animation styles — like the 3D cell-shading that was done with Into the Spider-Verse — years before they filter up into big movies.

A program of these shorts opens nationwide tomorrow, Feb. 8 — or New Yorkers can see them right now. To find a theater near you, check https://shorts.tv/theoscarshorts/theatrical-release/.

A mother cradles her baby bao

“Bao” (8 minutes)

A bao is a Chinese dumpling and this PIXAR short follows what happens when a woman begins to treat a bao that she has made like her child. There is a gasp-inducing twist in the story. While the twist has been a bit controversial, I have to say that it worked great for me personally. This film definitely captured some of my own parental joys and frustrations.

A girl runs down a beach dragging a stick

“Late Afternoon” (10 minutes)

Coming out of Ireland, thus unsurprisingly evoking the 2D illuminated style of films like Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, “Late Afternoon” uses the power of animation to take you into the mind of an older woman who suffers from dementia. While the animation wasn’t as smooth as some of the other films, it was definitely visually impressive, transitioning like magic between reality, memory and fantasy. I caught some strong emotions with this one.

Cartoon gorilla looks grumpy in a group therapy session

“Animal Behavior” (14 minutes)

This comedy short from Canada drops us into a world where a dog therapist is running a group therapy session with other animals. There’s a leech with attachment issues, a pig with an eating disorder and an ape with an anger problem, among others. The visual style reminded me of a cleaner Ren & Stimpy. While I liked the style, I wasn’t a fan of the writing. The animal jokes were pretty much what you would expect from the premise.

“Weekends” (16 minutes)

Set in 1980’s Toronto, this short written and directed by PIXAR Story Artist Trevor Jimenez follows a boy from a divorced home who sees two separate lives develop as he shuffles between parents. The style is 2D rough lines and blocks of color, almost like notebook doodles come to life, a definite descendent of Walt Peregoy’s work on 101 Dalmatians. It feels very personal, like stepping into someone’s childhood memories. Jimenez has a Vimeo channel with some nice documentaries on the making of “Weekends” that are well worth checking out.

I will say that the animation looks to be about 4 fps, i.e. very jerky. I don’t blame the filmmakers. This is how productions conserve their time and money — but the contrast with the smooth motion of the other shorts on the program is jarring — and that probably won’t help with Academy voters.

“One Small Step” (8 minutes)

Out of U.S. & China’s Taiko Studios, this incredibly-polished short follows a young girl who dreams of visiting the moon — and her father’s gentle support of that dream. You could say this story is a metaphor for chasing any dream ad astra per aspera, to the stars through difficulty. That’s something that might appeal to Academy voters if they see it in terms of chasing a dream of making movies.

The level of animation and the emotional storytelling are on par with something from PIXAR. Taiko was only founded in 2017, so this is a team that is probably working on something incredible that we still won’t see for a few more years. This short has me super hyped to see whatever they release next!

My Best Animated Short Film Oscar Predictions

While “Animal Behavior” and “Weekends” have their merits, I think the Academy voters are going to be looking hardest at “One Small Step”, “Late Afternoon” and “Bao”. All three do a fantastic job at tugging the heartstrings. My personal choice would be “Late Afternoon” — it made me blubber the hardest. I also love the way the medium of animation is used by the filmmakers to transition through time and space in a way that makes dementia seem natural and less frightening.

It is notoriously difficult to beat PIXAR in this category and “Bao” is a strong entry even among PIXAR shorts, both fresh in its concept and with all departments working at the highest professional levels. So while I think “One Small Step” and “Late Afternoon” have an outside chance, I would bet on PIXAR to take the statue again this year.

This is an incredible bunch of films and there two additional bonus films on the program that I was not able to review. All filmmakers, even ones without a particular interest in animation, will get something out of these films. “One Small Step” alone has me ridiculously excited about Taiko, a new animation studio that could potentially rival the titans we have now. Wow, this is an incredibly exciting time for the medium of animation!