This year marks a milestone for the Academy’s youngest category. The Oscar for Animated Feature will be handed out for the 20th time next month, which is sort of hard to believe. Animated Short films have been receiving recognition from the Academy since the 1930s, but it took until the turn of the 21st Century for features to get their due outside of the Music categories and Beauty and the Beast‘s surprise nomination for Best Picture. Kind of a mind-blower to think that the genre of films dismissed as “just for kids” for decades will be old enough to drink next year.
While this remains one of my favorites because I love animation in general, I still have two issues with this category. One is that more than any other, it leans towards the major studios. In the previous 19 years this award has been given, Disney and Pixar have combined for 13 of them. Despite submissions from all over the world, both mainstream and independent, the Animation and Short Films Branch at best pays lip service to international art while defaulting to the House of Mouse and its lamp-based subsidiary. That’s not to say the winners are undeserving, it’s just a bit frustrating to see the same grouping of nominees every year, especially as the rest of the industry catches up in terms of artistic and storytelling quality.
The second is that, save for a two-year run at the start of the 2010s, the category has been used as a mollifier to prevent truly brilliant animated films from being nominated for Best Picture. Part of the reason the Best Picture field was expanded in 2009 was because of the outrage that WALL-E wasn’t one of the final five the year before. That led to Up and Toy Story 3 getting into the gang of 10 after that, but other films that easily could have gotten votes, like Inside Out, Frozen, and Into the Spider-verse were left out, turning this category into a token.
This year we have a group with an all-but guaranteed winner, one that is worthy of consideration for the top prize overall. There’s another that serves as the dark horse, the latest entry from an independent studio that’s been nominated in this category with every film they’ve released, but never gotten a win. The rest of the field likely has no chance at all, but they’re all quality, which can’t always be said.
And if nothing else, at least I didn’t have to watch Trolls World Tour. Thank you, Jebus!
This year’s nominees for Best Animated Feature are:
Onward – Kori Rae and Dan Scanlon
The first of two Pixar entries this year, Onward is a bit of an odd piece, combining MCU stars Chris Pratt and Tom Holland on an adventure set in a fantasy game version of suburbia. The animation is fine, but nothing spectacular, which is very out of character for the studio. There’s also a ton of plot that gets glossed over by narrative conveniences and deus ex machina game cards.
The big thing that works in the movie’s favor is that it actually does something with the all too tired Disney trope of dead parents. Ian’s mother Laurel is a widow who actually moves on with her life and finds a new partner, which is very healthy, and a clear departure from the usual motif of the boilerplate tragic backstory our heroes have in place of character. Also, the entire A-plot is about Ian and Barley trying to resurrect their dead father, but only accomplishing half the job at first, leading to some genuinely funny Weekend At Bernie’s shenanigans. You have a realistic depiction of life after loss and characters actually using the death as the quest, rather than just an emotional motivation. It’s enough to overlook the lazier elements of the film and the jokes that sometimes don’t land.
Over the Moon – Peilin Chou, Glen Keane, and Gennie Rin
Of the five nominees, I think this is the one that comes off the most childish while trying to be profound. A co-production of Netflix and Pearl Studios (the Chinese animation wing of Dreamworks), a lot of the heavy lifting in this film is done by some bright, shiny visuals in lieu of a logical story. Like Onward, this film also sees the protagonist’s widowed parent moving on and finding new love through a blended family, but unlike Onward, it’s not treated as a good thing. Instead, the angst and resentment that daughter Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) feels towards her father (John Cho) remarrying after four years alone is the inciting incident that drives the entire lunar adventure, and even that begins with a healthy dose of bullshit physics.
This isn’t a bad movie, but you really do have to turn off your brain and just enjoy the pretty colors, and thankfully, there’s more than enough to go around. If you actually try to make sense out of the little step-brother’s supposed powers or the moon goddess introducing herself via a poor man’s Christina Aguilera pop song, you’ll drive yourself insane. Just focus on the eventual happy ending, the cool lunar designs, and Ken Jeong as a talking neon pangolin.
A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon – Will Becher, Paul Kewley, and Richard Phelan
It’s funny how this movie, which is entirely intended for little kids and aspires to nothing more, ends up telling a better, funnier, and more logical space story than Over the Moon. Using the regular series characters – both animal and human – who only communicate through grunts, this claymation, pre-school version of E.T. accomplishes its goals by remaining as simple as possible. The most difficult thing the filmmakers had to do was to create an alien child that would be adorable enough to sell toys while still feeling different enough to warrant its own story. And in the form of “Lu-La,” they do just that.
The previous Shaun the Sheep movie was nominated in this category, and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is one of the few non-Disney/Pixar entries to actually win this award, so I’m glad to see that Nick Park’s characters get a return to the Academy after Early Man was curiously left off a couple years ago. I’d argue that this film is better than its predecessor even, because not knowing the show, the movie kept the focus squarely on Shaun, Lu-La, and Bitzer the dog, allowing for a much easier story to follow, rather than trying to sort through all the different sheep in the last one. Not only does that make things easier for kids (and non-familiar adults), but it’s just good storytelling in general, keeping the story beats narrow with minimal side-tracks and distractions. This is a sweet, competent, functional movie that either reminds kids that there are other forms of animation besides cell shading and CGI, or depending on their age, introduces them to the concept.
Soul – Pete Docter and Dana Murray
Normally I’d wait until the official prognostication post to declare a winner, but there’s no point in obfuscating the obvious here. Soul is going to win this award, and deservedly so, because it does what Pixar has been able to do from the beginning with very few, automobile-centric exceptions. It spurs your imagination beyond what you’d think possible, and gets you to question the very nature of your own existence, while still being lighthearted and genuinely funny on the surface.
Incorporating jazz music as a living character is not an entirely new concept, and the almost fetishized love of New York City has been done to death, but in tandem here, neither trope has been better executed. Docter et al commit themselves fully to the idea of a city and its music being just as “alive” as the living, breathing characters. A few years ago, Coco was able to nail the love and passion that true musicians have for their craft. Now Soul takes that one step further, supposing an existential process where that love of music becomes a part of the mix that defines you as a person, making you unique in the world. This film is able to build on several high-concept ideas from Pixar’s past. For instance, my head canon now is that the little patches that the infant souls get on their chest turn into the Islands of Personality that develop in your head from Inside Out. The core memories are what triggers that specific aspect that was ingrained in you from before birth.
The quality of the animation is beyond spectacular as well. The cityscape of New York might as well be live-action for as real as it looks. The abstract lines forming two-dimensional people in the form of the “Jerry”s are simple yet inspired, one of those, “I can’t believe no one’s done this before” type things. The diversity of the character designs was very refreshing, particularly in that Joe and several other characters have more realistic body types. And yes, the illustration of music itself feels like it’s straight out of a third Fantasia movie that doesn’t exist yet.
On top of all that, the movie is pretty funny. I have a lot of friends who are fans of the Knicks who felt comically “attacked” by one particular cut-away gag.
Wolfwalkers – Tomm Moore, Stéphan Roelants, Ross Stewart, and Paul Young
Oh, if only this was released a year ago, or a year later. Like Laika Studios, Cartoon Saloon has never failed to have one of its feature films nominated in this category. But sadly, also like Laika, they’ve never gotten a win, and they almost certainly won’t this year, as Soul is just too strong. In just about any other recent year Wolfwalkers would be the odds-on favorite. This year, it’s an extremely well-qualified also-ran.
The conclusion of Tomm Moore’s “Irish Folklore Trilogy,” which also includes The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers is a dazzling display of traditional 2D animation, with the highly angular character design and wide-eyed wonder that’s become a trademark for the studio. The colors, shading, and lighting schemes work wonders in this project, creating stark thematic contrasts that open up endless possibilities for the magical aspects of the story.
Set in 17th Century Kilkenny, the story couches a basic plot about colonialism and English domination of Irish lands in the much more intimate context of a curious hunter’s daughter and her new friend, who can transform into a sentient wolf and lead her pack. The breaking down of cultural barriers, the bravery to commit to the truth, and the ability to change one’s ways and accept those who are different are important lessons for any child, but it’s the way the story is told that really sells it. After being accidentally bitten by Mebh, Robyn’s spirit becomes a wolf herself whenever she’s asleep, allowing the girl to become a part of Mebh’s world and understand her situation first-hand. It’s truly beautiful the way environments change around the pair depending on their form, and how each one approaches a situation both in day and nighttime.
Also, if nothing else, you get that rare movie where Sean Bean doesn’t die, so enjoy that treat while you can.
As I said, there’s almost no way Soul isn’t winning here. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Academy dispensed with the category right at the start of the night like they did last year. The sad part, however, is not that Soul doesn’t deserve to win. It most certainly does. The sad part is that it should also be up for Best Picture, and it is not, despite the fact that the Academy had two spots they could have opened up for it.
4) A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
5) Over the Moon
What do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Next up, it’s action time for the lights and camera! It’s Cinematography!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Which of these films was your favorite? What’s your ranking of Pixar films? When will Laika and Cartoon Saloon break through with a win? Let me know!