The Oscars… The Best Animated Feature category… Who is in the running?
I think this year, we don’t have too many definite answers.
This is a bit premature, because four more major animated features are left, one of which comes from the on-a-roll Walt Disney Animation Studios. The features are Warner Animation Group’s high-flying comedy Storks, DreamWorks’ colorful romp Trolls, Disney Animation’s sure-to-be-sweeping musical epic Moana, and Illumination’s critter jukebox musical Sing.
A lot has changed with the Oscars when it comes to the way they look at animation. When the category – the subject of a debate on whether it’s a token category or if it’s actually good for the medium – was launched in 2001, it was mostly shambles. The at-the-time-cool Shrek won over Monsters, Inc., 2003 saw a Disney Animation low point (Brother Bear) being nominated, 2004 put The Incredibles up against… Shark Tale and Shrek 2, while better films were sitting on the side. Their rules on motion-capture films always changed, one year it was fine (Happy Feet was nominated, and won in 2006), another year it wasn’t (Tintin didn’t make the 2011 race)…
Then it was discovered, via leaked voter ballots, that the voters weren’t even watching all the films, many of whom weren’t even showing any interest! Others even wrote animation off entirely, one anonymous member saying that he never attends animated films and drops his/her kids off at them instead, taking phone calls in the lobby. Yes, a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences… Abstained from nominating an animated film because he/she is completely ignorant towards them. It gets worse… In 2014, one anonymous member lamented about mainstream films losing out to nominees Song of the Sea and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which he/she called “obscure f*cking Chinese things”…
But overhauls suggest that things could get better… 2014’s Oscar line-up was interesting, diverse, and divisive. The films that battled for the lead were Disney Animation’s Big Hero 6, LAIKA’s The Boxtrolls, DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon 2, and the two aforementioned smaller-scale films. Many were very upset at The Lego Movie, the best mainstream animated movie of that year, getting snubbed. Reports say that it wasn’t nominated because the voters wanted to squeeze in stop-motion (Boxtrolls) and traditional animation (Song of the Sea, Princess Kaguya)…
Lego Movie‘s snubbing was a bigger trend on Twitter than the Oscar nominee announcement itself. That says quite a lot…
Anyways, it was great to see a mostly strong line-up for 2014, a far cry from 2013. 2013’s line-up was kind of an embarrassment: While you had Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song The Wind Rises and the traditionally animated Ernest & Celestine, you also had The Croods (!) and Despicable Me 2 (!!) getting in while something far better like Monsters University got snubbed. Frozen was obviously nominated, and won because it’s the only one the voters watched. No different from 2012, when Brave easily won even though the four other nominees were superior films.
2015 lacked on the mainstream front, so that made plenty of room for smaller fare. Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep Movie easily got in, as did the adults-only stop-motion drama Anomalisa, Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There, and the then 3-year-old Brazilian film Boy & His World. Inside Out was the only big-time film, and it easily won.
This year… Well, I think it’s going to be harder to predict what will make the five slots…
The mainstream output has mostly been good-to-great. On the simply good end were things like DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda 3 and Illumination’s Secret Life of Pets. Their reviews give them a 50% chance of getting into the race. The previous Kung Fu Panda installments were both nominated in their respective years, and Despicable Me 2 got nominated in 2013, which has about the same critical reception as The Secret Life of Pets. Seth Rogen’s raunchfest Sausage Party has very strong reviews too, but I doubt something like that has a chance at getting into the race.
That being said, we already have some easy locks… Disney Animation’s Zootopia is easily getting in, no two ways about it. Finding Dory also seems likely, given that it’s a highly praised Pixar film and a great sequel, but it too is about something and is quite timely. LAIKA’s Kubo and the Two Strings is also a permanent lock, for obvious reasons. It’s LAIKA, it’s stop-motion, it also got excellent reviews.
So I think right now that Zootopia and Kubo are bona fide locks. Finding Dory could *possibly* left out.
Why is that?
If Zootopia, Finding Dory, and Disney Animation’s Moana get nominated… That only leaves 2 spots for smaller fare, and there’s a lot of great and universally acclaimed indies that hit US theaters this year: Oscar mainstay GKIDS has plenty of them, too: April and the Extraordinary World, Phantom Boy, and the upcoming Miss Hukosai. Netflix gave The Little Prince a very limited theatrical release, so it’s qualified to run. Sony Classics intends to get the Studio Ghibli co-production The Red Turtle out in January 2017, but I suppose a one-theater release could occur before the year closes so that it’s eligible.
I think they’ll ultimately pick one Disney, and one Pixar… But if Finding Dory is relatively weak, it could be pushed out of the race. This could also occur because the Academy might object to having a sequel in there over a strong indie, even if the sequel is very good or great. Or, if Moana is relatively weak, then they’ll go with Zootopia and Finding Dory. If Moana doesn’t have something grand to say, it could also lose.
The new Oscar staff, and the revised animation branch, seem to want more diverse picks, so the mainstream will see some blowback. But the problem is, a lot of the output is so good, how do they compromise? Can they expand it to six slots then? 3 mainstreamers, and 3 smaller films? But what will we be saying if Trolls surprises (you never know!) and gets the best reviews for a DreamWorks movie since How To Train Your Dragon 2? What if Sing is considered a hands-down instant classic?
Now this is nothing to get stressed over… If anything, this is a great thing. It further proves that 2016 has mostly been a watershed year for feature animation. May the best films make the cut!