In a year that marks two decades since the release of their cult classic “Napoleon Dynamite,” Utah filmmakers Jerusha and Jared Hess have something else big to celebrate: their first Oscar nomination.

The married couple’s project “Ninety-Five Senses,” which stemmed from a Salt Lake Film Society initiative, is one of five nominees in the category for best animated short at the 2024 Oscars, per The Hollywood Reporter.

The Oscar nod comes during the month that marks 20 years since “Napoleon Dynamite,” the Hesses’ first film, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and became an unlikely breakout hit.

“Getting to Sundance changed our lives forever. It was the place that gave us a career, really,” Jerusha Hess told the Deseret News Wednesday night at the Sundance Film Festival, ahead of a special screening of “Napoleon Dynamite.” “But this is another stepping stone that we never thought we would get, because we make big dumb comedies.

“It was sheer shock.”

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What is the film ‘Ninety-Five Senses’ about?

Ninety-Five Senses” stars Tim Blake Nelson, well known for his role in Coen Brothers films like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” In the 13-minute film, Nelson voices Coy, a philosopher on death row.

“As Coy bids a final farewell to each of his five senses, he reflects on his troubled past and dreams of a vibrant, multisensory afterlife,” per Animation Magazine.

In the film’s trailer, Coy talks about the order in which the five senses shut down when a person dies.

“I read a theory somewhere, it might be that we humans have 100 senses, but we’re only aware of the five,” he says. “Maybe when we pass away, as those five perish, the other ones switch on. That could be the afterlife, enjoying our 95 other senses.”

“Ninety-Five Senses” was a success at the Florida Film Festival, winning the Grand Jury Award for animation that qualified it for consideration for the 2024 Academy Awards, Animation Magazine reported.

The film was produced through the nonprofit MAST program of the Salt Lake Film Society, a program that pairs seasoned filmmakers with up-and-coming talent. It marks the Hesses’ first animated short film — although they did work on the animated feature film “Thelma the Unicorn,” which hits Netflix later this year, per What’s on Netflix.

“Unlike most of the work from the Hess’ catalog, which includes cult hits such as ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ and ‘Nacho Libre,’ ‘Ninety-five Senses’ offers little humor while examining major questions about life and how we perceive it,” Jamie Lang wrote for the animation news website Cartoon Brew.

“The study is observed through the reflections of a long-time death row inmate finishing his last meal. The film is divided into parts, each dedicated to a sense and animated by different artists, creating a constantly engaging visual experience.”

‘Ninety-Five Senses’ gets an Oscar nomination

The short film marks the first Oscar nomination for the Hesses, who have previously said they were surprised by the response it has received.

“We never anticipated the success and emotional response it’s received at festivals,” the pair told Animation Magazine. “The project was funded by a small nonprofit organization in Utah that depends on local donors and volunteers. We’ve had to call in favors and hold fundraisers just to cover the cost of submitting to festivals. So to be mentioned now in the same company as these huge Oscar contenders made by major studios is not what anyone expected.”

Although it’s their first animation effort, Jared Hess said it wasn’t too much of a stretch for them to break into the genre.

“I feel like our live-action movies have always been big cartoons anyway, so given how extreme and strange our characters are, it’s always felt like a good fit,” he told the online animation magazine Skwigly.

Celebrating ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ at the Sundance Film Festival

The Oscar nomination came during the week the Sundance Film Festival held a special screening of “Napoleon Dynamite.” The film, shot in Preston, Idaho, made its premiere at the festival on Jan. 17, 2004.

“That first screening, it felt like people had put nitrous oxide in the vents. I’d never seen a reaction to a film like that,” John Sloss, a producer’s representative for “Napoleon Dynamite,” previously told the Deseret News.

“The movie was so odd, but genuinely, organically odd, like nothing any of the buyers had ever seen before. Jared and Jerusha are such normal, down-to-earth people, and yet they created something that seemed to almost come from another planet.”

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