Oscar Gold 2020 – Animated Feature

I will admit that I was quite surprised when the nominations for this category were announced. Part of the reason I went on the mini quest to see as many submissions in the category as possible was to see which independent and foreign films would make it into the final field, as I was assuming that three of the five slots were already claimed by Missing LinkToy Story 4, and Frozen II.

Lo and behold, Anna and Elsa got the shaft! This is a very rare rebuke to Disney, as even when it’s clear they won’t win the category, they’re nevertheless almost automatically given a nomination slot. Since the category first expanded to five films 10 years ago (now a permanent allotment, as ratified by the Academy in 2019), only three times has the core House of Mouse been shut out of the category, and only once (2011) were both Disney and Pixar snubbed. So you could imagine my surprise when Frozen II got left out in the cold.

However, that omission is likely the reason we have even one outside contender, and that’s I Lost My Body. In the Annie Awards, the list for Animated Feature is the same as the Academy’s, except for that one switch (with I Lost My Body up for Independent Feature). The Golden Globes list is similarly reflected, except that Klaus was left off in favor of The Lion King, which I like to think is them calling bullshit on the whole “live action” thing, but really it was probably to get more attention for Beyoncé.

So after all that running around, we’re left with a fairly innocuous and Hollywood establishment-friendly group of five. Pixar claims their spot by birthright, as does Laika. DreamWorks gets one, and two go to Netflix, with one being their own production and the other a case where they have the distribution rights. Really, there wasn’t much room for independent content this time around, which is a real shame, as I saw a lot of great films over the last two months (Weathering With You gets its full release this weekend, see it if you can).

The nominees for Best Animated Feature are…

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World – Dean DeBlois, Bradford Lewis, and Bonnie Arnold

The first film in the Dragon trilogy was nominated for this award, where it lost to Toy Story 3. Could history repeat itself? Obviously it’s possible, but in a heads-up comparison between the two, it’s hard to deny that DreamWorks got the better of the equation this time. Over the course of the last decade, the quality of the animation for Dragons has grown by leaps and bounds, while there’s really no marked improvement between the last two outings for Pixar’s flagship franchise. The titular “Hidden World” of dragons is a dazzling sight just by itself, to say nothing of the detail added to the other locations and characters.

From a story perspective, there’s not much new to tell with this latest tale of Berk and their dragons. Just like in the last two, there’s some asshole who wants to capture/kill all the dragons, especially a rarity like Toothless, who may be the last Night Fury in the world (our generic baddie this time looks like Sacha Baron Cohen, but is voiced by F. Murray Abraham). Where the film enters new and interesting territory is in the idea of growing up and beyond pre-existing roles and forging new relationships. This is played to hilarious, ever-increasing returns as Toothless haplessly courts the “Light Fury” sent to seduce and eventually lure him to his demise. It’s less effective in the constant needling for Hiccup and Astrid to finally tie the knot and start pumping out some little Vikings.

All in all, this is a nice, harmless capper to a nice, harmless trilogy. We get a proper farewell for all the characters and dragons we’ve grown to love over the last decade, along with a few laughs. The bond between Hiccup and Toothless is eternally solidified, even though they go their separate ways, which is both very mature and just plain beautiful.

Somehow, though, I see DreamWorks ruining the whole thing with another entry in about nine or ten years. Call it a hunch.

I Lost My Body – Jérémy Clapin and Marc Du Pontavice

This movie is a wonderfully surreal mind fuck, and arguably the best piece of pure animation out of the bunch. A young man named Naoufel loses his hand in an incident that’s not fully revealed until the end. While he recovers, the actual disembodied hand comes to life in a medical lab and goes on a quest across Paris to find its former owner. Along the way it has to survive any number of obstacles, from vehicles to animals (including killing a pigeon using its sheer weight), scurrying along like Thing from The Addams Family having a panic attack. As it travels, a series of flashbacks tell Naoufel’s life story, from the tragedy of losing his parents in a car crash, to growing up as an Algerian in France and being discriminated against as an immigrant, to the melancholy and drudgery of his young adult existence as a delivery boy. His life only starts changing for the better when a botched delivery turns into a meet-cute over an intercom with a young librarian named Gabrielle.

A lot of this film is, for lack of better phrase, quintessentially French. Naoufel and his hand’s existential crises fit right in with classic French cinema and nouveau ennui. The ambiguous ending also serves the trope. At the same time, the joie de vivre and passion of the characters shines through in ways that American films sometimes can’t properly grasp. Add in the animation itself, an almost nightmarish splash of color and lighting, and you get a film that could be held up by anyone as a true mark of what a French film truly “is.”

Klaus – Sergio Pablos, Jinko Gotoh, and Marisa Román

Sergio Pablos is most famous for creating the Despicable Me franchise, but here he goes for a bit more sentimentality in this Netflix origin story for Santa Claus. The animation is fine, and the voice work more than adequate (even though Jason Schwartzman at times sounds more like David Spade in The Emperor’s New Groove, and the rest of the time he sounds like Ed Norton), but honestly, this film just didn’t really do it for me. It’s perfectly inoffensive, but I just didn’t think it brought anything new and innovative to the table.

The basic story concerns a spoiled son of a postal company mogul being punished by having to work as the sole mail carrier for a remote northern island, threatened with being financially cut off if he doesn’t make a delivery quota that hasn’t been met in years. This leads to him meeting an old toymaker who lives as a hermit, and making an arrangement to deliver his toys to the children of the main town. The deliveries escalate and a legend grows about an old man who makes kids happy, and thus Santa Claus exists.

If this all sounds familiar, it should. It’s basically the plot of the Rankin-Bass Santa Claus is Coming to Town special from 50+ years ago, only without the charming songs and stop-motion aesthetic, instead focusing way more on the postman character, and making him into a selfish dick. Also, instead of Burgermeister Meisterburger, you have a Hatfield/McCoy-style pair of feuding clans that bathe the island in outlandish cartoon violence, in what turns into the only mildly new concept of the film, as the two sides set aside their war to stop the toys.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with this film. I liked it just fine. But in Oscar terms? No. It’s too mundane, too by-the-numbers, and way too safe. The whole thing seems completely manufactured by focus groups, and doesn’t introduce any fresh ideas into the tales that have gone on for centuries. It’s perfectly adequate, but you have to be more than that in this contest. Every year Academy voters seem to waver between voting for the best story told through animation or the best achievements in the technological and artistic form of animation. This is neither.

Missing Link – Chris Butler, Arianne Sutner, and Travis Knight

Laika Studios has released five films to date, all of which have been nominated for this award, but none have gotten the win. While Missing Link may not have as rich or deep a story as some of its darker predecessors like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, it is nevertheless a simply brilliant piece of animation. One of the fun joys of watching a Laika film is seeing the assembly of a scene in time-lapse during the credits, a testament to the insane degree of artistic and cinematic talent necessary to pull these films off. And in that context, Missing Link is in very good company.

The story is fantastical while still grounding itself in very relatable themes, which is why Laika films are so good for children. Previous entries have dealt with very mature and dark material like death, because the filmmakers and the studio know how to engage with kids on their level, knowing they’re smart enough to handle the weightier moments if they’re presented properly. Missing Link doesn’t go to such extremes, but the concepts of loneliness and wanting to find a place in the world to fit in are universally understood by children around the world, and thus the film can resonate. This is also arguably the silliest and most slapstick of Laika’s output to date, which gives the kids plenty of lighthearted laughs along the way.

And just like every film that’s come before it, the character designs in Missing Link are just extraordinary. While they’ll never fully conform to human dimensions, the characters are wildly imaginative from a cartoon perspective, allowing for that much more expression, which gives kids the ability to project themselves into the scenarios that much easier.

Toy Story 4 – Josh Cooley, Mark Nielsen, and Jonas Rivera

The latest entry in Pixar’s longest-running series contains the high quality animation the studio is known for, as well as some interesting character development (including the first sympathetic villain in series history), good humor, and the return of Bo Peep in a much more kick-ass role than she’s ever had.

This would all be well and good if they didn’t have to undo Toy Story 3‘s perfect ending to make the movie. When we last left Andy’s toys, they had narrowly avoided death, learned to cope with the idea that growing up means they aren’t wanted anymore, and had found a new home with Bonnie, giving them a renewed purpose to go along with the wisdom gained over the years. But then Disney and Pixar had to ruin it by saying, “Hey, you know what? There’s still money to be made off of this, so grab a spork, we’re doing another one!”

It’s not that the new story is bad, or that Forky’s a bad character. If Toy Story 3 had never existed, this would be a perfectly fine standalone film. But we do have that history, and one of the most beautiful and poetic endings to a trilogy ever imagined just got unceremoniously retconned for the sake of a quick buck and some nostalgia. Not only did we have to trade back the brilliant coda to get this film, we also undid all of Buzz Lightyear’s character development, and relegated a beloved ensemble cast to the sidelines for a few brief check-in jokes to remind everyone that they still existed, but have no bearing on the story other than Bonnie deciding she likes Jessie more as a sheriff than Woody. And again, while the movie itself is perfectly fine (if I’m sounding harsher than usual, it’s because I hold Oscar contenders to a MUCH higher standard than normal; you want the gold, earn it!), I just don’t think the Academy should reward such mercenary corporate chicanery.

My Rankings
1. Missing Link
2. I Lost My Body
3. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
4. Toy Story 4
5. Klaus

Next up, the pen is mightier than the sword. Hehe, I wrote “pen is.” It’s Original Screenplay!

Join the conversation in the comments below! What’s your favorite film on this list? Did you see any of the other entries? What act of true love will it take to melt the Academy’s frozen hearts? Let me know!

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