The time is almost near… The nominations for the 89th Academy Awards ceremony will be out soon…
I’ve talked a great deal about the Best Animated Feature category in the past, but this year – more so than any past year – I’m a bit conflicted about two mainstreamers. Now, before we go any further, let me start by saying what my predictions are.
In the recent years, the people who nominate the animated features have been nominating more and more independent films. Sometimes, that upsets the apple cart, and how! When picking five out of many of 2014’s animated crops, the pickers completely snubbed The Lego Movie. Arguably the best animated film of that year, and one of the best animated films of all time, it was closed out. Three mainstreamers got in; Disney Animation’s Big Hero 6, DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon 2, and LAIKA’s The Boxtrolls. All good-to-great films, but to me, The Lego Movie was better than all of them. I myself would’ve swapped out Boxtrolls, a fine and quirky romp that doesn’t sit with the studio’s three other masterworks, and put the brick picture in its place. The other two slots went to two very worthy features from across both oceans, Ireland’s Song of the Sea and Japan’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
Long story short, the Academy’s animated features branch – the people who nominate the films, that is – tries to pick a more diverse batch for each year. 2015’s contenders outside of Inside Out and Shaun the Sheep Movie were foreign or tiny indie productions like Anomalisa, When Marnie Was There, and Boy & the World.
I feel things won’t be different for 2016’s animated film line-up, and surprisingly, many of the mainstream animated films released this past year were above average. See, 2015’s big-time animation fare was mostly disappointing outside of the two Pixar films (Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur, yes fight me on the latter) and The Peanut Movie. 2016’s crop was mostly interesting.
We know the two locks for 2016: Disney Animation’s Zootopia is easily getting into the race, as is LAIKA’s Kubo and the Two Strings. One is the legendary studio at their best in the post-Walt world we live in, the other is the much younger studio’s newest marvel. LAIKA and their commitment to stop-motion is on the Academy’s good side, so it was probably a lock the minute it was announced.
How many slots will go to independent films, though? I’m not too sure about that one, honestly. What other mainstreamers got strong critical reception in 2016? Disney Animation’s other picture, Moana, got great reviews and the soundtrack (from the beloved Hamilton creator himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda) has gotten acclaim. Pixar’s Finding Dory was no slouch either, getting the best critical reception for a Pixar sequel since Toy Story 3, hitting the coveted 90s on Rotten Tomatoes’ be all-end all scale, on top of being a gargantuan box office success.
I bet there’s a good amount of debate over which one is better? Is it Pixar’s fish sequel? Or Disney’s Oceanic epic?
Let’s just say the Academy nominates three wide-release/mainstream animated movies, and fills two slots with Zootopia and Kubo and the Two Strings. What film gets the third slot? I think we can rule out everything else, and narrow it down to Moana and Finding Dory. Behind those films, in terms of critical reception, is Kung Fu Panda 3. That out of all the non-Dory/Moana heavies, I think, has the best shot at getting in. Everyone else? Probably not, not even audience favorites Secret Life of Pets and Sing. Though the Academy did nominate a middling Illumination film over a solid Pixar movie once… You never know with these guys!
So, Finding Dory or Moana?
Let’s get one thing out of the way. In terms of the whole package, Moana is the better film to me. Not by far, though. Finding Dory is fantastic in parts, but the pacing is off in many areas, there are a few beats that essentially say “hey, remember that part from Finding Nemo?”, and the third act is a bit of a headscratcher. Finding Dory‘s themes, however, were meatier than Moana‘s. Moana really is just another 90s Disney Renaissance musical epic with some minor variations, that familiar story of self-discovery, going against norms and doing what’s right, and so on. Finding Dory attempted to show audiences what it’s like living with a disability, and how it doesn’t make one a burden. It’s a film that subtly challenges everyday casual ableism that people like me often face, and creating a beautiful and emotional backstory for the funny side character from the first film.
That alone makes it so special despite its shortcomings, but Moana doesn’t have those aforementioned problems, it’s very tightly-structured. Finding Dory sometimes suffers from trying to have too much “plot”, instead of letting the story gradually progress. Moana on the other hand is so straightforward, it’s kind of refreshing in a day and age that demands that animated movies *have* to have complicated plotting, and mindscrewing ins and outs. Moana, while a good distance away from excellence, also has a lot of verve in a few of its musical numbers, producing surreal moments that thrilled me more than any photorealistic rendering of sand, foliage, or hair. Very little of it is ham-fisted, and the emotional moments hit me very hard as well.
Tighten Dory up a bit, it’d be neck-and-neck with Moana, or maybe even better. My heart says the film that tackled disabilities, my brain says the somewhat better movie about a girl and a wisecracking demigod. Hey, it’s just like the short that was attached to Moana! Inner Workings!
What to pick, what to pick! I’m not an Academy voter, so that frees me from the burden… However, those nominations will be inked soon. It’ll be something of a loss if they nominate Moana over Finding Dory, but at the same time I’ll be somewhat satisfied with Moana being in the race and not Finding Dory. It’s a hard pick, but maybe things will be even easier. Maybe the Academy will only nominate Zootopia and Kubo and the Two Strings… If they snub one of those two and let Moana in, then I’ll be kind of miffed!
I don’t want them to fill four slots with mainstreamers either, that would be a great disservice to several indie films that rocked the boat this year: April and the Extraordinary World, Phantom Boy, My Life as a Zucchini, Your Name., The Red Turtle, and so on.
What do you think?