Oscar Blitz 2023 – Animated Feature

I’ve mentioned this before, most recently on a new episode of No Rest for the Weekend with my friends over at Behind the Rabbit Productions, but 2022 saw a real resurgence in the quality of animated films. Three of my personal top 10 pictures for the entire year were animated, compared to one from 2021 (which didn’t even get nominated). Of the nominees in the Animated Feature category last time around, Flee and The Mitchells vs. The Machines were the clear standouts, but even they fell to Encanto, which won basically by default. I very much enjoyed it, but the fact that Disney/Pixar got three of the five nomination slots despite two of them being of subpar quality was beyond the pale. There were many, many things that went wrong with last year’s Oscars in the name of appeasing Disney, and this was just one of the bigger misfires.

But thankfully, the artform had a major comeback last year, to the point that I made only my second attempt ever to clear all the submissions in the category. And I think I did a pretty good job, falling only one movie short of finishing (we’ll get to that in a bit). The quality was just off the charts. I gave more A and A- grades to animated films last year than there are places to nominate (eight to five). Even films that I didn’t particularly care for usually had something to recommend, and the sheer volume of the output made it so that we had two animated entries where the villain was a guinea pig. TWO!

There’s a clear favorite in this year’s field, but the win isn’t nearly as guaranteed as it is in some other categories. Disney only has one representative this time, and it’s not the best in the bunch. Stop motion nearly asserted itself as the dominant form, with two nominations to three for the now commonplace 3D CGI, and there could have easily been a third or fourth had fortunes swayed a bit differently. No anime films made the final cut, but there were some spectacular stories that came out of Japan. Indie fare stood toe to toe with franchise entries and blew them out of the water in quality, box office, and prestige. Films took risks, told stories with heavier themes (even in the ones meant for younger viewers), and dared to be something different than standard-issue distractions for children.

This is what animation is supposed to be. Yes, you can certainly argue that the five nominated films this time around are all “family-friendly,” but that doesn’t mean they’re kiddie flicks. There are dark stories, awkward conversations, brushes with death, and an array of different ways for characters to cope with trauma. The target audience may not be fully adult, but these movies are far from “safe,” and that’s what matters most.

This year’s nominees for Animated Feature are.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio – Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson, Gary Ungar, and Alex Bulkley

In a year where there were three separate Pinocchio movies, this is the one that allows you to forget that the other two exist (the horrid Disney remake that’s up for several Razzies and an inexplicable Russian animation where the English dub stars Pauly Shore). Shifting the timeline up to the era of fascist Italy, del Toro uses Mussolini’s iron grip as a framing device for his story, illustrating how easily hatred can transform an entire nation, and how pure goodness can be its own form of rebellion.

This version of the little wooden head is created in an act of anger, violence, and extreme grief, as Geppetto (voiced perfectly by David Bradley) loses his son in a random bombing of his village, and years later drunkenly cuts down a tree growing from the boy’s grave. He creates a half-formed puppet in a misguided stupor where he thinks it can replace what he lost, with only one ear, splintered limbs, and a hole where his heart should be. The symbolism is obvious, but still handled about as well as can be done.

Meanwhile, the stop motion animation is absolutely gorgeous. The darker elements are basically a given, but that doesn’t stop them from making your eyes water through their sheer beauty. If anything this may be the perfect medium for a Pinocchio story, because the modelers are literally creating puppets and manipulating them frame by frame. From a meta standpoint, I’m amazed it wasn’t done sooner.

But most of all, as I’ve brought up several times, the true achievement here is in how del Toro tells the story. Just about every Pinocchio adaptation concerns the puppet’s quest to become a real boy. Here, however, del Toro tweaks the motivations so that Pinocchio instead learns the value of life through knowledge, experience, and empathy. As the film sets up, he’s for all intents and purposes immortal, so he can never be a “real boy,” but in exchange, Pinocchio, perhaps more than anyone else in this world, gets to be a “real person.”

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On – Dean Fleischer-Camp, Elisabeth Holm, Andrew Goldman, Caroline Kaplan, and Paul Mezey

“You want to know why I smile? Because it’s worth it.” If you’re not hopelessly in love by the time our title character utters that pithy truth, then I don’t know what to tell you. Adapted from a short series of YouTube videos from a decade ago (where the line was first uttered), Marcel the Shell condenses the human condition expertly into the smallest and most unexpected of protagonists. Combining stop motion with a few live action shots, Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate bring audiences one of the sweetest and most profound stories in all of 2022 cinema, regardless of format, done in a manner so simple and straightforward that it almost beggars belief.

Marcel is a cipher for every insecure child (or child at heart) in the audience, speaking his tiny mind and processing trauma in real time. His family is gone, hastily packed into a suitcase as a former tenant moves out. His only other relative is nearing the end of her life. He’s facing the prospect of being alone in the world at such a young age, and yet the fact that he can muster the strength to not only keep going, but find the humor and positivity in it all is astounding. The simple act of talking back and forth with Dean becomes interactive therapy. His resolve to get busy and come up with solutions to all of his problems, no matter how complex, is inspirational. The vulnerability he shows as he powers through is enough to make you try to reach into the screen and hug him. His ability to observe the world for what it is and imagine a better version of it is a message that every viewer, young or old, can appreciate.

And I’ll just say it, I cried. When I saw this in the theatre, I damn near broke down. I had to check myself while the credits rolled to make sure I didn’t look like a mess leaving the auditorium. I still can’t listen to “Peaceful Easy Feeling” without welling up. A fucking SEASHELL made me do that!

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish – Joel Crawford and Mark Swift

There are myriad problems with this spinoff sequel. There’s the painfully obvious Donald Trump villain. There’s the fact that the animators were essentially under orders to rip off the comic book layering style of Into the Spider-Verse for the action sequences, because Dreamworks thought it looked cool. Puss somehow grows a beard while the rest of his fur stays the same length.

But once you get past that, there are some legitimate joys to be had. Puss actually has to confront his own mortality, both emotionally and in literal form, forcing him to take stock of his behavior, ego, and past actions. While some of the jokes are really lazy (cat lady’s got lots of cats, yo), a good amount of the other ones not only land, but have a degree of poignancy to them, particularly the dark runner about how disposable Jack Horner’s underlings are. Despite the derivative animation, the set pieces are occasionally exciting. Perrito by himself is as instantly great of a side character as Puss himself was in Shrek 2. The idea of Florence Pugh cosplaying as Goldilocks in real life makes me feel tingly.

Did we need this movie? Not in the slightest. It is the very definition of inessential. But as franchise entries go, you could do a whole lot worse (and we have just within the submissions for this year’s award). It wouldn’t get my vote, but I’m glad it exists, which I wouldn’t have thought possible back in November.

The Sea Beast – Chris Williams and Jed Schlanger

This film’s nomination is 100% down to the designs of the sea monsters, which are just phenomenal, from the Red Bluster at the center of the adventure to all the smaller fauna that are just as creative. The level of detail and scale on these massive creatures is amazing, evidenced by the lengthy sequence where Maisie removes the numerous spears, harpoons, and arrows the Bluster has accumulated over years of being hunted.

Not to be outdone are the water effects. The animation industry still hasn’t figured out how to draw realistic-looking people through CGI, but water is a longstanding challenge that’s been solved at this point. I think The Good Dinosaur was the first to really do it justice, making it the one good aspect of one of Pixar’s worst films, but other projects have improved on it even further, especially The Sea Beast, to the point that the ocean looks like a separate, live action texture that’s been composited onto the frame.

The story and characters leave a bit to be desired, as the solutions are served up on platters for Maisie because, as a young girl in a kids movie, she’s not allowed to be flawed in any way. The Moby-Dick parallels are laid on a bit too thick, and the opportunity for legitimate commentary on class warfare was largely abandoned in favor of more obvious moralizing. But in the end, those are more mature elements than this film was ever really meant to handle, so it’s forgivable that they’re not handled in the best way, especially when the visual spectacle succeeds in keeping your eyes glued to the screen.

Turning Red – Domee Shi and Lindsay Collins

Coming off her Animated Short victory for Bao, Domee Shi got the chance to make the feature film she always wanted to, exploring the relationships between women in Asian families, and Pixar ensured that she could make the most of it. The design on Mei as a red panda is superb, immediately becoming one of the hallmark images of a studio filled with them. The puberty metaphor it represents is so well done that it feels like one of those ideas that’s instantly obvious the moment you hear it, and can’t imagine how no one thought it up before now. The way Mei and Ming both handle their generational trauma is one of the most beautifully nuanced discussions that mainstream animation has ever taken on. The dedication that Mei and her friends have to each other (save for the third act conflict cliché) is endearing in the extreme.

Those are all very high points for the film, enough to outweigh the shortcomings, which are glaring. As I just said in the last entry, drawing humans in 3D CGI is still somehow a major problem across the industry, and here every non-panda character looks like a plasticene reject from Aardman Studios. The overall characterization of Mei is not all that strong, as she spends most of the film being annoying and obnoxious as fuck. And as I’ve mentioned countless times, the boy band bullshit almost torpedoes the entire film. I don’t begrudge the fandom, I begrudge the leap in story logic that anyone could be considered the heroine when she’s willing to risk cataclysmic destruction to see a fucking boy band concert. There are hormones, and then there’s just being wrong.

All that said, I still really like this movie, and given the downturn that Pixar’s on right now, it may be the last bright spot we get for a long time.

My Rankings:
1) Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
2) Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
3) The Sea Beast
4) Turning Red
5) Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Now, as I mentioned earlier, I was successful in seeing 26 of the 27 films submitted for the category this time. The one entry I couldn’t track down, Run, Tiger, Run! never got released stateside in a way that I could find. I’m not even sure it got an eligibility run, as the only information I’ve been able to find is a few isolated screenings in October and November, with no weeklong engagements to satisfy Academy rules. So it’s possible that I may have still cleared the list on a technicality. Either way, I’ll have a recap post for the final two entries in due time, and I’m satisfied with how much I was able to get through. With that in mind, here are my overall rankings for the entire field.

1) Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
2) Wendell & Wild
3) Inu-Oh
4) Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
5) Lamya’s Poem
6) Goodbye, Don Glees!
7) Little Nicholas: Happy As Can Be
8) Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood
9) New Gods: Yang Jian
10) My Father’s Dragon
11) Drifting Home
12) Eternal Spring
13) The Sea Beast
14) The Bob’s Burgers Movie
15) DC League of Super-Pets
16) Charlotte
17) Turning Red
18) Mad God
19) Puss in Boots: The Last Wish
20) Lightyear
21) Strange World
22) Luck
23) The Bad Guys
24) Oink
25) Minions: The Rise of Gru
26) Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank

For context, the films I consider mediocre to bad start at #21. That’s how good this year’s entries were overall.

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Up Next, we end Week 3 of the Blitz with one of the biggest categories of the entire ceremony… or at least, it would be in most years. This time the field is a lot weaker than usual, but there’s still legitimate intrigue in the contest. It’s Best Actor!

Join the conversation in the comments below! How many animated films did you see last year? Which ones would you have nominated? What’s your favorite animation style? Let me know!

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