I honestly lost count of the number of times last year that I said on this blog that 2021 was a weak year for animation. Out of the 26 films submitted for the Animated Feature category, three were lazy sequels to movies that already weren’t that good to begin with (The Addams Family being the slight exception), three more were just naked cash grabs to sell toys, seven didn’t even see a mainstream domestic release, and one was just a straight up ripoff of Aladdin to appease Chinese financiers. That’s more than half the field.
And then, even sadder, we all knew that three of the five spots on this list were essentially reserved in deference to the Disney/Pixar machine. I understand that they’re the industry leader, but more often than not it feels like a default rather than recognition of actual quality and strength of the product. In the relatively short history of this category, there have only been two years where neither side of the animation juggernaut got nominated: 2005 (Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit beat out Corpse Bride and Howl’s Moving Castle) and 2011, the first year after the category was permanently expanded to five nominees (Rango won that year, which was produced by Paramount and Nickelodeon, so amazingly Disney doesn’t retroactively own it yet). Every other year however has had at least one nominee from the collective House of Mouse, and in the nine years since Rango, four of those times they’ve gotten two.
This year, as if to throw out any semblance of competition, they have three, which stands as a new record. And of those three, I can confidently say that one of them is deserved. Because while this was an off year, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t ANY quality. We got at least two genuinely moving anime films in the forms of Belle and Josee, the Tiger, and the Fish, an innocent bit of slapstick and charm in Ron’s Gone Wrong, and while I didn’t see them, I read and heard really good reviews for Vivo and Cryptozoo. I’m not saying these are all Oscar-worthy, but I’d hazard a guess that at least one or two of them are better than the field we ended up with. It’s as if the Animation Branch saw the same downturn in overall quality and just decided, “Fuck it, just throw whatever Disney bullshit we have in there and find a couple to fill in the gaps to get to five.”
It really is a shame, but what can you do? There’s nothing for it but to throw up our hands and scream into the void that they got this one wrong (it’s not the only category the Academy fucked up this year), and hope for a better slate next year. Unfortunately, seeing as how the biggest announced animated films so far include Pixar ripping off its own IP to sell toys (when said IP was already a toy), a reverse animal heist film that only exists to justify using a Billie Eilish track in the trailers, a Minions sequel, and a movie about Superman’s dog, let’s just say I’m a bit dubious. Hopefully Across the Spider-Verse lives up to its predecessor.
This year’s nominees for Animated Feature are…
Encanto – Jared Bush, Byron Howard, Yvett Merino, and Clark Spencer
I had a good laugh today, as Screen Junkies put up an “Honest Trailer” for this movie on YouTube. Watching Casita start to crumble and having Jon Bailey call it a “crack house” was an easy pun that I was nevertheless not expecting, and I almost did a spit take on my computer. The song parodies are really on point as well. I suggest you take a few minutes and watch it when you have a chance.
As for the actual movie, I very much enjoyed it. The colors are bright and vibrant, the voice acting is superb, the story is relatively simple with no real villain (just Abuela as a situational thematic antagonist), there’s some great visual slapstick, and the overall message is sweet. There are flaws, certainly, like never actually explaining why Mirabel didn’t get a gift (and why she never gets one after the fact), but on the whole it’s pure entertainment, and a far sight better than the other two Disney properties in this category.
It still doesn’t deserve to win, even though it’s the front-runner. Every year I have to balance out my choice between what is the best pure piece of animation, and what is the best story/film that just happens to be animated. Encanto is neither, despite being very fun. Any Oscar wins for this film will be more about what they represent rather than what they reward. This is the first Disney film with an entirely Latin cast, so points for representation. And of course, if Lin-Manuel Miranda wins Original Song it will serve the doubly good purpose of bringing him into the EGOT club as well as making sure Billie Eilish doesn’t get win for a mediocre Bond theme that had a campaign going before the song was even written.
But if we’re being 100% honest, this is just a run-of-the-mill Disney film. The animation is fine, but nothing groundbreaking. In fact, you could argue that the house itself is the most lively character in the film, which is either a feature or a bug depending on your perspective. The songs, while functional, are largely just adequate, except for the nominated “Dos Oruguitas,” which is a goddamn masterpiece. And as I noted when I reviewed this, as catchy as some of the songs are, it’s weird to turn downer themes into a freaking tango with the visuals. I think it’s super cool that “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” became a hit, especially since it did so over the course of months through listener appreciation rather than the Ryan Seacrests of the world forcing it down our throats and insisting that we love it. But it doesn’t change the fact that visually the song is a Latin version of “Be Our Guest,” complete with a table-setting dance number, which is just confusing when talking about the visual tone of the scene.
This is a really good film, borderline great. But there’s better animation, and better animated stories even within this incorrectly populated category. It’s the best of the Disney bunch, and worthy of its nod, but that’s about it.
Flee – Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Monica Hellström, Signe Byrge Sørensen, and Charlotte De La Gournerie
As was anticipated since its release, Flee has accomplished something that’s never happened before. Like Honeyland and Collective before it, this is the third consecutive film to receive nominations for International Feature and Documentary Feature. It then one-ups its predecessors by earning a third nomination in this category, making it the first to get this triad honor. Sadly, it may also end up like the other two, getting recognized for the multiple nominations, but losing all of them, as there’s a consensus favorite in all three fields.
It saddens me, because not only is the film the best pure story put to animation last year, it’s an essential part of our modern discourse, relevant in the extreme in light of international and humanitarian crises. Amin Nawabi’s harrowing journey for a literal safe space as a refugee and a figurative one as a gay man growing up in repressive environments is something that audiences the world over need to see, understand, and appreciate as part of the human condition. More than just about any movie last year, his tale is a testament to the pain and beauty of existence, and gives us all hope for a peaceful and happy ending after long suffering.
This is the only 2D animated film on this list, which to some might discount its quality, but the overall style is unique and compelling, as the story (evidenced on its poster) boasts an absolute slew of distinctive and interesting characters, whether they’re major parts of Amin’s life or someone as inconsequential as an airport security guard. There’s no copy/paste crowd for Amin to set himself apart in. Everyone has their own design and personality, even within a narrow space and timeframe. And because of that, the fact that Amin shines all the brighter and still stands out is even more impressive.
Luca – Enrico Casarosa and Andrea Warren
About eight months ago, I made my first YouTube video, completely off the cuff, where I spend about 90 minutes rating and ranking all 24 Pixar movies to date. If you have an hour and a half to kill, you can watch it here. But for our purposes, I’ll just spoil part of the ending and tell you that Luca is in the bottom tier as the fifth-worst entry the studio has ever put out. I just didn’t care for this movie. I didn’t actively hate it, but of all the nominees here, this is the one that just screams, “Meh. Nothing special.”
It just feels so empty throughout the whole thing. Apart from Luca’s betrayal of Alberto at the end of the second act, which mirrors the fear and insecurity of being outed to a hostile public, the movie is completely without plot or stakes. As much as I love Jacob Tremblay – and really the bulk of the voice cast – I just do not give a crap about a small town bicycle race or Luca’s sudden desire to go to school (one of the few fish puns the film somehow didn’t run into the ground). Half of the film is a commercial for Vespa. Every time someone makes an exclamation that amounts to “Saint Cheese,” my eyes rolled so hard it gave me migraines. The water effects looked terrible. Sacha Baron Cohen’s creepy anglerfish uncle is pure nightmare fuel. The villain is a scrawny Biff Tannen with a 13-year-old’s mustache. The entire first act is a wholesale ripoff of The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo, which is pretty pathetic, because we turn to the animated films to get away from Disney remaking its own movies.
The one thing that was truly on point was the design of the sea monsters (seriously, why not just call yourselves “Merpeople” or something, why would you use the word “monster” to describe yourself). The human designs are atrocious, looking like some unholy hybrid of Nick Park’s characters and rejects from Monsters vs. Aliens. But the detail that went into the more aquatic side of the characters – especially the absolutely gorgeous use of blues and greens – was the only hint of any kind of a continuation of Pixar’s normal magic.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines – Mike Rianda, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and Kurt Albrecht
This is probably the best pure animation of the set, mostly because it’s the riskiest. While done completely in 3D CGI, the team behind Into the Spider-Verse and The Lego Movie made sure to have a lot of fun playing around with different textures and filters as a means to illustrate Katie Mitchell’s creative exploration while going for the biggest, most absurd laughs possible.
There’s something to be said for any movie that’s willing to just go all out on silliness. Throw everything funny you can think of at the screen, and most of it will stick. It’s as true for a heartfelt – if batshit – family comedy like this as it is for some of the all-time classics like Airplane! and The Kentucky Fried Movie.
Part of the reason this film still resonates with me almost a year after seeing it is because it seems to be the result of lessons learned, both good and bad. By focusing on a budding film student who’s obsessed with technology, Sony corrects the massive errors of The Emoji Movie by actually creating a real story around the digital world its exploiting rather than just going for cheap poop gags. After seeing how product placement can be used to insanely creative ends in The Lego Movie, the film gives us one of the most surprisingly effective gags in years involving, of all things, the Furby. There’s effective satire at play in the movie’s caricatures of tech executives rather than just obvious references. And through all of that, they still manage the seemingly impossible task of balancing a genuinely relatable father-daughter relationship with world-ending insanity.
And of course, this film is responsible for the best pure running gag of all of 2021 cinema. I literally cannot hear the words, “loaf of bread” without thinking about it and giggling.
Raya and the Last Dragon – Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Osnat Shurer, and Peter Del Vecho
I mentioned it when I reviewed this film, that as the very first movie I saw in a theatre after a year of them being shuttered for the pandemic, it will always have a special place in my heart. It represented the first step in a return to normalcy, a sense of relief that I had survived one of the worst events in our living history (even though we’re technically still not out of the proverbial woods), and a loving and comforting familiarity as a huge missing piece of my life was back.
And even without that lingering affection, this is still a good movie. It’s just not great. Of the three Disney nominees, this one has by far the best animation quality, particularly in the environments, Raya, Sisu, and Namaari’s designs, and the water effects which are just fucking mind-blowing (how Luca messed it up so badly is beyond me). I also really loved the dynamic between Raya and Namaari as well-meaning antagonists with conflicting goals and ideals while still being good, loving people. It’s always good when we can have that nuance of there not being a real “villain” (the Druun don’t have enough personality to count). Finally, Alan Tudyk as Tuk Tuk is objectively goddamn adorable.
But once you get past that good stuff, the quality drops significantly. The rest of Raya’s Avatar/Power Rangers/Planeteers band of ripoff companions is annoying at best, especially the freaking Boss Baby knock-off. The script is god awful, with not one single original joke and so many issues that could be solved with one simple line of dialogue that never get addressed. And that’s before we get to the exploding butt insects and the insipid “Bling is my thing” blather. The “three-pack-a-day” alleged “blackcent” of Misspelled Bottled Water was so grating that I wished my soda had whiskey in it. While it’s cool that the film at times looks like a massive video game world with different environments for each area of Kumandra, the fact that the story plays like a video game is a massive drawback.
Much like the West Side Story remake, the good stuff is really good, but the bad stuff is really, really bad, resulting in a middling grade overall. This film at least has the plausible deniability of putting a fresh coat of paint on the previous work it’s doing over again, but that’s not enough to earn it the industry’s highest honor. And as much as I have a personal connection to this movie, as a pure statement of artistic value, I would not have nominated it.
2) The Mitchells vs. The Machines
4) Raya and the Last Dragon
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up next, let’s see if we can’t get Lin-Manuel that EGOT he’s been needing for a while now. It’s Original Song!
Join the conversation in the comments below! How do you think the year went in animation? Do you prefer technical and artistic prowess or a great story in these movies? Seriously, is it a dog or a pig? Let me know!