Ninety-Five Senses (2022) Short Film Review

Ninety-Five Senses (2022)
Directors: Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess
Screenwriters: Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer
Starring: Tim Blake Nelson

Filmmaking couple Jared and Jerusha Hess present the Academy Award-nominated short film Ninety-Five Senses, a flip book animation telling of a man’s existential contemplations whilst awaiting execution for murder.

Jared and Jerusha Hess are some of the most reputable names in the Oscars’ short film categories in 2024, the filmmakers named co-screenwriters on the breakout hit Napoleon Dynamite in 2004 (a surprise MTV box office smash that earned $45million from a budget of just $400,000 and became a cultural phenomenon in the process) and Jack Black professional wrestling comedy Nacho Libre in 2006, Jared Hess named as director on both. Their signature irreverence and off-kilter musings made their name across these 2000s films, but in 2024 it has been nine years since their last feature Masterminds, and it seems the filmmaking duo may have used this animated short to shift directions, using the short form to explore new routes to emotional resonance.

The piece isn’t entirely absent of bizarreness, as illustrated by the exaggerated Oklahoman tones of the first-person narration of regular Coen Brothers collaborator Tim Blake Nelson, as well as some well-constructed narrative punctuation that provides twists and turns to their story, but there is a distinct dialling back of the outright comedy that brought the duo to prominence.

This is, of course, apt for the subject matter: an inmate on death row explaining his choices for his last meal, wondering if the universe has something else to offer other than the blackness of death. The title, in this respect, points towards the lead’s contemplation of a theory he had heard about humanity being incapable of accessing the ninety-five senses beyond the five we’re familiar with, and his hope to do so after experiencing his ultimate punishment. There’s a degree of sympathy that comes naturally with the inmate’s perspectives, but this isn’t a piece intent on changing minds, it’s a piece intent on exploring humanity and thus making an often villainised figure in society another person just like the rest of us.

Ninety-Five Senses has some visual similarities to fellow 2024 Animated Short nominee Letter to a Pig in that it uses the contrasts of white on black and black on white to illustrate its particular perspective of its subject, drawing or painting the character in a relatively minimalist fashion that doesn’t illuminate every part of his body but instead uses its contrasts to create shadows and lines that make up his face. Ninety-Five Senses also uses colour to illuminate meaningful objects or moments, though it is much more free to embrace traditional animation techniques than its fellow nominee was.

Proudly animated by whom the filmmakers describe as being “six teams of artists through the non-profit MAST“, the sights, smells, hearing, and taste, are animated by different artists with unique styles, ensuring that the film is both visually interesting and artistically represents the fractured thinking of a man reminiscing and contemplating in his final moments.

This Jared and Jerusha Hess project is also not-for-profit, ensuring that there’s a purity to the message behind the piece as well as the intentions behind releasing it. Perhaps this is why it can embrace a perspective outside of the norm, why it can give a voice to the voiceless, and why it can embrace rising animators with unique styles. Per this filmmaking infrastructure alone, Ninety-Five Senses must be embraced, but the results of this team effort are ultimately worthy of their Best of Year praise from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, this Animated Short a thought-provoking, aesthetically interesting, morally engaged piece that is well worth its 13-minute runtime.

It seems that with Ninety-Five Senses the Hess filmmaking duo have forgone their usually identifiable filmmaking traits to embrace a story deserving of a more earnest interpretation, their work excelling alongside the work of developing animators and its charitable cause to tell a story that isn’t necessarily fresh but is certainly worth taking in. This Animated Short nominee at the 96th Academy Awards is well worth your time.

Score: 20/24

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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