Since its creation in 2000, the Animated Feature Oscar category has been a strange reflection of animated films. Shamelessly US-centric, like the rest of the Oscars, now and then it does serve to reflect animation as it is seen worldwide. After all, it brought filmmakers such as Miyazaki, Sylvain Chomet and Tomm Moore to the attention of the world.
This year, the category reflects some great popular animated films, bursting to overflowing, meaning people’s surefire favourite The Lego Movie has had to sit this one out and make do with its cementation as an instant classic and amazing box office and home release success. Maybe the academy thought that was enough. After all, they have a reputation for avoiding the most popular films in a given year. If anything, you could ask why Signe Baumane's Rocks in my Pockets, or Jorge Gutierrez' The Book of Life, a critical and audience success, was overlooked.
As a whole, the category is in impressive shape this year, reflecting a healthy gamut of animated feature films worldwide. There are 2 CG films, 1 stop-motion and 2 hand-drawn features. Whilst variety here is still ultimately limited to a family audience, the range on show in these films is considerable. There are the magical, reflective 2D features, one gruesomely inclined Stop-Motion, a superhero feature, and a fantasy epic. As things go, that isn't bad for a category that has in the past struggled to make the numbers up.
Here is my rundown of the nominees, including The Lego Movie, and thoughts on how things ought to, should, and might turn out on Sunday night.
Speculation as to why The Lego Movie was omitted from nomination seems to point towards the typically white male, ageing demographic of academy voters who would likely balk at the idea of giving praise to what on paper was essentially an advert for a toy. The movie itself has a sustained popularity worldwide, though, and for good reason. Few films nowadays are ever a surprise, even the really good ones.
The fact it is already considered a classic is frankly down to two of the most creative and fun directors currently working: Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Their original story is an amazing meta-takedown of the recent trend of chosen-one movies, superhero flicks and global conglomerates. Which, really, isn’t bad for a film that was very cautiously anticipated, and on paper looked like a desperate advert.
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Big Hero 6 is an endearing, fun film about loss and becoming a superhero, two ideas which do work but struggle to really fly in harmony as the film enters its finale. One of the film's stories seems to want to be about coping with great loss, and the other is trying its best to stick to the superhero source material. The two never quite manage to gel in a way that truly sings with the simplicity either concept suggests. However, Stunning action that uses the animated medium perfectly, and hilarious true Keaton-esque slapstick are the highlights of this confident, heartfelt zag after Disney’s billion dollar Frozen-shaped zig.
The Boxtrolls is a positively gruesome grimy delight. Evoking Monty Python, Roald Dahl, and the social satire of Dickens, children’s films haven’t felt this way for a long time. It includes a wonderful dialogue-free introduction in which you are allowed to breathe in the sheer intricacy of the world, and Daniel Ciurlizza's score. It feels much like a stage play at times, in this respect. It’s very funny and very imaginative, though the fact it’s an adaptation keeps it from working quite in the focused way it should. Thematically interesting, it takes chances and presents children with a truly varied cast, from the downright greedy and rotten, to the struggling, but honest people who are otherwise seen as society's losers. It’s another solid brick in Laika’s foundation as an animation studio who can be relied upon to eschew trends.
How to Train your Dragon 2 is in many ways the most surprising film on this list. Coming 4 years after the success of the first, it builds on the first film in a fashion that Dreamworks sequels tend not to, which is very refreshing.
Allowing Hiccup to mature has allowed for the film itself to do something similar. Dealing with the idea of him being in a relationship, for example, and having to live with the reputation that he built for himself towards the end of the last film. Essentially, the film is very character-driven, and the main relationships are wonderfully acted, in voice and animation. Cate Blanchett's character, Hiccups' mother, is a particular highlight showcasing the artistry in subtle animation performance.
There is a very strange tension, however, between it clearly wanting to be that sort of film, and it being stuck in the stock requirements of a Dreamworks tentpole. Namely, Craig Ferguson’s character essentially being not so much comic relief, as more a comic interrupter when a scene gets ‘too emotional’, and the villain being an equally two-dimensional cardboard cutout. Ultimately, these are minor things and overall the artistry, and the care with which the story was allowed to develop, with true consequences, does so in a way that these sorts of films are rarely afforded the chance.
Probably the least well-known and seen film on the list, Song of the Sea, is Cartoon Saloon and Director Tomm Moore’s second feature film that has been nominated for an Oscar. Wildly different to the American films on this list, and proudly so, it plays out much more like children’s picture book than what many audiences may expect from an animated film. Riffing on similar folk tale foundations as seen in Secret of Kells, Song uses a modern family’s struggles with loss to depict the ways in which history affects us all. Read my full review here.
Few animators have careers as long and impressive as Isao Takahata (For some perspective, he directed his first feature film just a year after Walt Disney produced The Jungle Book). Now, at 79, he may have made his last, and possibly finest film yet, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Not a draftsman himself, Takahata is never really tied down to a house style, and this time has developed the Frederick-Back inspired simplicity of 1999's My Neighbours The Yamadas into a lushly coloured film based on a Japanese folktale.
Despite the apparent simplicity on show, the film is a testament to Takahata’s mastery and experience. The wonderful attention to detail and pure love of nature, courtesy of art director Kazuo Oga, a Ghibli veteran, is stunning. Not to be overlooked, however, is the wonderfully observed character study, as we track the deep psychological connections in Kaguya’s life, and her own struggles against a system that will only accept her on terms staunchly opposed to her own. Ultimately, it offers a kind of simplicity that evokes the best of Disney’s Golden Age, like Dumbo or Bambi, confident in the simple story it is telling. The drawing is expressive, sure, but not for the sake of it — each line is what Disney animator Glen Keane would call a ‘seismograph of the soul' in this case, not of the animators —but of Kaguya herself.
So— who wins?
Really, who cares? Being nominated puts these films in a stead that will ensure they are going to be remembered in the annals of history. Thanks to great traction created by the Globes and the Annies, it’s looking right now that the favourite is How to Train your Dragon 2, although Song of the Sea deserves most to win. Dreamworks, despite recent layoffs, is still a huge company and has no trouble getting into the oscars, or general audience consideration. Song of the Sea is an independent film from a comparatively small studio in Ireland, funded and made by a number of European countries. I have an idea which deserves more support and recognition to ensure the studio's future.
That said, the Oscars can surprise (within reason), so it could equally go to Disney or even Ghibli, as Oscar voters tend to reward veteran directors with “career-defining” awards that just so happen to also be for a single film. Don't be fooled by the critical murmurings of this year being a 'poor' or 'lacking' one for animation, though. The mere absence of a runaway hit, or a Pixar favourite, means nothing. Films exist here that will surely become treasures.