Back Row Thoughts – Animation Nomination, Part 1

Less than two weeks ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences officially released their lists of eligible films in three specialty categories, including Animated Feature, which had a bit of controversy in the run-up. Movies like Marcel the Shell with Shoes On and Eternal Spring were initially going to be left out due to live-action elements alongside the animation, while Apollo 10 1/2 was excluded because it used rotoscoping, even though the flick was 100% animated.

Thankfully, after extreme backlash from fans and industry professionals, the Academy relented, and as such, we have 27 films vying for the prize. Just as I do with Documentary Feature and International Feature, I try to see as many of the candidates as possible. For those other two categories, I’ll have my search narrowed when AMPAS releases the shortlists of 15 films later this week.

However, there is no shortlist for Animated Feature. The Animation and Short Films Branch will simply nominate five from the 27 in the running. As of the date of announcement, I had already seen 14 of them, and reviewed them in this space. For those unaware, here are competitors:

Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood
The Bad Guys
The Bob’s Burgers Movie
Charlotte
DC League of Super-Pets
Drifting Home
Eternal Spring
Goodbye, Don Glees!
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Inu-Oh
Lamya’s Poem
Lightyear
Little Nicholas, Happy as Can Be
Luck
Mad God
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
Minions: The Rise of Gru
My Father’s Dragon
New Gods: Yang Jian
Oink
Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish
Run, Tiger Run!
The Sea Beast
Strange World
Turning Red
Wendell & Wild

As I’ve already seen more than half the field, I figured it was worth the effort to track down the rest. Most of them are available on streaming services or are planning their qualifying theatrical releases. As of right now, the only one that I have no information or access to is Run, Tiger Run! Believe me, I will keep my eyes peeled, because part of the fun of finding these films is the knowledge that so few of them will get the attention they deserve. There are only five nomination slots, so basically 80% of the field will not make the cut, and given Disney and Pixar’s dominance of the category over the years, it’s not unreasonable to presume that three of the spots are already spoken for. This means that whether we’re talking about foreign and independent fare or mainstream projects trying to stand alongside the big boys, we could be looking at every entry apart from Turning Red, Lightyear, and Strange World clinging to 1-in-12 odds.

That’s a real shame for two main reasons. One, I’d argue that based on the half that I’ve seen, none of those three deserve a nod (and only Turning Red comes close). Two, it means that there is bound to be some wonderful, ambitious art out there that almost no one will see to make way for the House of Mouse’s longstanding benefit of the doubt.

So, as ever, my mission is to see as many as possible, and I’ll break them down here, hopefully in groups of three (Puss in Boots will get a full-length review when it starts its main run next week, this move being more for simplicity’s sake than any sort of preference or deference to Dreamworks). Again, as of now, there’s only one that I don’t have access to before Oscar nominations are announced in January. With any luck, it’ll show up before then, but if it doesn’t, I’ll make do and conclude this miniseries with two reviews instead.

Here we go. Be forewarned that some of these films will almost certainly be astounding, while others are all but guaranteed to suck based on critical press to date. All of that is fine by me, as the whole point of the submission process is to give the films their due consideration, whether they pass muster or not.

Oink

Hailing from the Netherlands for a very limited theatrical run, Oink (or Knor in the native Dutch) is at its core a tale about a girl and her pet pig. But if you think this is an adaptation of Charlotte’s Web, think again. Instead, it’s a needlessly preachy story about wagging a finger at people who eat meat, using utterly nonsensical plotting to justify itself and manipulate the young target audience.

The plot centers on Babs (voiced by Hiba Ghafry), a young schoolgirl from a devoted family of vegetarians. Her mother, Margreet (Jelka van Houten, no relation to Milhouse), keeps a vegetable garden in their yard and has trained her daughter in the art of publicly shaming carnivores. When Babs goes on a grocery errand with her friend Tijn (Matsen Montsma), a stop at the local butcher shop is treated as an opportunity to lecture prize-winning sausage maker Smak (Johnny Kraaijkamp) about the family of the poor pig who was slaughtered to make said links.

We’re not even five minutes in, and I’m already rolling my eyes. Look, if you’re vegetarian or vegan, that’s totally cool. You do you. I respect your choice. More steak for me. But you know what we meat eaters don’t do? We don’t go around to Whole Foods and wave bacon in the faces of random hippies to impose our will. I don’t like the idea of raising an animal for slaughter any more than the next person, and factory farms that hurt the environment are a legitimate concern. But so are things like nutrition, protein, and flavor, so I’ve reconciled the conflict in my own mind and eat with a clear conscience. When cloned meat becomes readily available and affordable, I’ll swear off the real stuff for good, but until then, leave me alone with my burger, and I won’t mock you for drinking “milk” that comes from an almond that has no teat.

Anyway, the family’s militant diet is informed in part by the shame and trauma caused by Margreet’s father, Tuitjes (Kees Prins doing a cringeworthy American cowboy accent with the Dutch dialogue). Twenty-five years previous, in his obsession with winning a local sausage competition, he sabotaged Smak in the finals, resulting in a devastating row and the pair of them being banned from the contest until the present day.

Showing up for the first time in years, and meeting his granddaughter for the first time, Tuitjes insists that he wants to reconnect with the family and be a good father and grandpa. He even buys Babs the titular piglet as a pet, since her father (Henry van Loon) is allergic to dogs. Initially resistant – and for good reason – Margreet eventually acquiesces and allows Knor to stay on the condition that he be trained up as if he were a puppy, and that he follows three rules: no coming in the house, no eating from the garden, and only pooping in a litter box like a cat.

This leads to a second act straight out of the “Bart’s Dog Gets an ‘F'” episode of The Simpsons that only serves to pad the runtime to just over an hour. Seriously, without this section, I doubt the film would have even qualified as a feature. When Knor inevitably messes up, Margreet tries to send him away despite Babs’ tearful pleas. Meanwhile, Tuitjes’ motivations become clear (in embarrassingly obvious fashion) as the centennial sausage competition draws near.

Overall, this isn’t too offensive. I like the character designs, particularly Knor, as his blank face allows the audience to project whatever emotions they choose onto him. He even has an animated cloud come out his backside when he farts (which is as tolerable as the toilet humor gets). The stop-motion animation is fairly strong, reminding me fondly of films like My Life as a Zucchini. Also, as annoying as Babs can be when she’s on the vegetarian warpath, the way she calls out for Knor is kind of darling. Finally, the peppy, cartoonish score really aids in your enjoyment, particularly when we get to the Scooby-Doo climax.

Still, it’s hard to get over the posturing, especially when the film outright lies to the viewers. I mean, when Tuitjes’ evil plan is revealed, it’s so over the top as to be pedantic. I’ve seen how sausage gets made. Per the idiom, it’s not the most pretty of processes, but you know what definitely doesn’t happen? LIVE PIGLETS ARE NOT FED DIRECTLY INTO THE MEAT GRINDER! This movie would have you believe otherwise! It’s one thing to want to slaughter a pig to make pork sausage. It’s another to prey on the sentimentality of your own flesh and blood to commit literal animal cruelty. But hey, if it makes the kiddies not want to eat ham anymore, who cares about dishonesty, amirite?

Throw in some very gratuitous scatological humor, and you’ve got a well-meaning but disingenuous dud. It definitely had some good moments, but the bad outweighs the good, and after seeing it, all I could think was how much I wanted to eat some ribs in protest.

Grade: C

Charlotte

A co-production of Canada, France, and Belgium (and available on Hulu), Charlotte uses fairly simple 2D cel-shaded animation to tell the life story of Charlotte Salomon, a young Jewish artist in occupied Europe. For those unaware of Salomon (I certainly was), her major work was a semi-autobiographical book of paintings called Life? or Theatre?, considered by some to be the first true graphic novel. Featuring an all-star voice cast, the film is an important and timely piece, especially as we now live in an age where antisemitism and fascism are back on the rise.

There’s an English and French language version of the film, with Charlotte being voiced by Keira Knightly in the former and Marion Cotillard in the latter. The two also serve as Executive Producers. The story follows a young Charlotte in Berlin as she turns her hobby of painting into an area of legitimate study, becoming the lone Jewish student at a local art school due to her skills. This leads to an affair with musician and teacher Alfred Wolfsohn (Mark Strong), who had been training Charlotte’s operatic stepmother Paula (Helen McCrory in her final role). All in all, she has a good life, and paints just about everything she sees.

After Kristallnacht, Charlotte is whisked away to France on the pretense of taking care of her aging grandparents (Brenda Blethyn and Jim Broadbent). She lives and works at the home of wealthy American art patron Ottilie Moore (Sophie Okonedo), where she helps foster orphaned Jewish children and meets her eventual husband, Alexander Nagler (Sam Claflin). Learning the truth about her family history of mental illness and suicidal tendencies, along with the creeping Nazi threat, Charlotte realizes she might not have much time left in this world, so she sets to work on her masterpiece, painting over 1,000 pieces that would eventually be compiled into her magnum opus.

Most of the story and animation is fairly straightforward, along with the vocal performances, but that doesn’t stop them from being endearing, with a fair amount of good humor considering the setting. There’s also a really ingenious technique where scene transitions are painted onto the screen in Salomon’s style. It’s kind of like a redux version of Loving Vincent, and it really brought things to life for me.

In a normal year, I would call this a delightful but inessential movie, but we’ve had several years of “not normal,” punctuated in recent months by far too many instances in this country alone where antisemitism has crept from the lunatic fringe to the mainstream of one of our major political parties. As such, we need reminders of how bad things got 80+ years ago, and the more creative the better, so that it sticks in people’s minds. Charlotte is a film that many wouldn’t necessarily seek out, but if you do, it will stay with you, and that is beyond crucial in our current landscape.

Grade: B

The Bad Guys

I included the trailer for this entry in the April edition of “This Film is Not Yet Watchable,” mostly because it felt like the entire purpose of the movie was to justify licensing a shitty Billie Eilish “song” while once again shoving a villains-turned-heroes story that we’ve seen dozens of times – especially in animation – down our collective throats. Still, it ended up being pretty popular, pulling in a quarter-billion (making it the second-highest grossing animated film of 2022, just below Minions), and it won over critics well enough, averaging 88% on Rotten Tomatoes. So maybe, just maybe, I was missing something.

Turns out, nope, I wasn’t. It’s pretty much exactly as I expected, mediocre at best, another run-of-the-mill “redemption” story about characters that only need to be redeemed because the script says so (treating them all as inherently bad because they’re predators, so thanks for the Zootopia ripoff, I guess). The animation is also nothing special, invoking the layered comic book approach of Into the Spider-Verse, which was intentional, as Dreamworks decided that for this movie and Puss in Boots, the production teams should outright copy Sony’s art style to try to profit off of that other studio and film’s goodwill.

That said, there were a few genuine surprises. For one thing, I thought the movie was going to be about PR stunts to change the image of the characters like in Hancock. Instead, it’s a heist movie, with all the clichés that come with it, including double-crosses, switcheroos, and flashbacks to said crosses and switches to make the whole thing seem way more clever than it actually is. There’s a great episode of Rick and Morty that breaks down how every heist movie is essentially the same, but this is a kids film, which means its success relies on the target audience’s undeveloped critical thinking skills. Some will eventually see through the bullshit, while the rest will be duped into the genre for life. Some have taken to calling this film a child-friendly version of Ocean’s Eleven, which perfectly illustrates the problem, as one, there shouldn’t be a kids version of people committing open felonies, and two, Ocean’s Eleven sucks. Oh yeah, I said it, come and get me, America. By the time the Big Bad Wolf (Sam Rockwell) decides to go “Full Clooney,” I’m already praying for the sweet release of death.

The rest of the shocks are more pleasant however. The voice cast for the most part does a good job, particularly Marc Maron and Anthony Ramos (the latter of whom I half expected to be the twist villain only because his character, Mr. Piranha, didn’t feature in ANY of the promotional materials despite being part of the core crew, so the fact that he wasn’t an obvious setup is itself a decent subversion). Alex Borstein gets all the funniest moments as the obsessive yet bumbling police chief Misty Luggins (there hasn’t been a more porny sounding name in children’s entertainment since Minerva Mink). I actually like the idea of using the classic Big Bad Wolf as the lead rather than a generic wolf character, because it allows for him to have the angsty trait of being “the villain in every story,” and thus deciding to live up – or down – to what everyone has already dismissed him as. It’s a truly intriguing angle that I wish got more exploration. Finally, while the real baddie was pretty obvious, I do have to chuckle at the fact that two separate animated films this year used guinea pigs as the main antagonists. Does the animation world know something we don’t?

Still, that’s not all that much to go on for a major studio release. The fourth wall breaks are annoying and pointless. The character designs are weird, and feel oddly derivative, like the news reporter (Lilly Singh) who looks like a grown-up version of Mei from Turning Red. I know that she literally can’t be a copy, as these movies take years to make and came out at about the same time, but it still comes off as cheap. Similarly, why give Snake human teeth behind his fangs, or Shark human feet? It makes sense for King Shark to have them in the DC Universe, because that’s how the character has been established, but Craig Robinson’s so-called “master of disguise” (another major flaw is in how poorly everyone hides themselves, yet no one ever notices them until the script calls for it) has no such canon, so he feels like a bad imitation of Ron Funches’ version of the character from Harley Quinn. Further, in a world where a whole shitload of humans coexist with a handful of anthropomorphic animals (how, exactly?), why does the kitten in the tree not talk? What are the rules?

If you enjoyed it, more power to you. It isn’t objectively terrible, it’s just been done so many times before, in so many better ways, that I just shrug my shoulders and ask, “What’s the point?” If you didn’t get a chance to see it in theatres (or skipped it entirely like me), it’s on Netflix if you’re interested. Maybe you’ll find a few surprises yourself to save it from the gutter.

Grade: C

***

That’s all for this first installment. As soon as I’ve checked off three more, I’ll be back with the next recap. And if you have a lead on Run, Tiger Run! please tell me where I can find it so that I can polish off this category entirely for the first time ever!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen any of these films? What animated entries are you most excited for? Are you becoming increasingly suspicious of guinea pigs like me? Let me know!

2 thoughts on “Back Row Thoughts – Animation Nomination, Part 1

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