How do you savor what life gives you in the moments before you lose it all? Directed by Jerusha and Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite), Ninety–Five Senses attempts to answer this question in its thirteen minute runtime. Inspired by “exit interviews” with condemned men, the animated short follows an older gentleman (voiced by Tim Blake Nelson) who ponders how his five senses have colored his life as he savors his final moments of living. As the film progresses, the circumstances surrounding his ruminations elucidate and complicate his identity, and the man wonders what he can glean from his final moments and what lies ahead for him.
The film has a slight narrative turn that occurs about halfway through the film, after the man has detailed his relationship with his hearing. As a result, the latter half of the film gains strength, and feels more cohesive. A particularly potent sequence of him imagining another life he could have lived is a bright spot, with the softness of a pink color palette acting as a welcome rest from the neutral and gray tones that stain the scenes of the present. Additionally, the watery animation of the present day is the biggest standout, and feels the most intentional creatively. There are few bold lines in these scenes, a choice which lends itself to the feeling that this individual is indistinguishable from the environment in which he lives. However, some of the animation, while beautiful, tends to wander in the same manner as its narration; individual threads stand well, but can feel ill-fitting when strung together. Each sensorial sequence was created by a different animator, all of whom were chosen by the filmmakers to reflect the sense itself (for example: smell, as a nostalgic sense, was animated in a more old-fashioned manner by Dallin Penman and Jared Matthews). Other sequences, such as that for the sense of sight (animated by Nica Harrison and Scott McHenry), briefly employ creative framing, such as an eye-shaped iris shot of daisies blooming and wilting throughout a day. The rest of the sequence goes back and forth between rectangular frames within frames and standard rectangular frames, and the lack of consistency in such a choice makes it feel slightly unfocused as a result.
Narratively speaking, the film feels extraordinary tenderness for its protagonist, an older gentleman akin to a chatty grandfather or a talkative next door neighbor. The tangential nature of his musings tend to honor the character and hearten the viewers to this man, even when certain recollections lack specificity. Nelson’s vocal work aids in this tremendously, and brings the character to an extremely down-to-earth place. Similar to the visual storytelling, the screenplay is also at its strongest after the narrative shift halfway through the film. There is a relevance to the story that becomes undeniable, and the platitudes against cell phones and recollections of a video store feel less clichèd. There is clearer intent and an urgency for telling the story that colors a rewatch of the film in a completely different light.
Each animator’s style is well-crafted, even when the pieces struggle to fit together perfectly, and the empathetic narrative is provocative of thought in a gentle manner. As Nelson’s character wonders in the final moments of the film “if there’s still time”, Ninety–Five Senses is filled with endless faith that even when present-day life doesn’t provide a person with all the time and second chances one might desire, there is always something beyond to look towards.