Thursday, February 13, 2014

One Category at a Time: Animated Feature

Last year saw what many assume to be the closest race in the twelve year history of this category, as Brave edged out Wreck-It Ralph. Even with two great movies like those in play, I still thought at the time that it had been a thin year for animation in 2012. Boy, was I unprepared for the sorry state affairs this year, which claims arguably the weakest list of animated releases to date. Accordingly, the resulting Oscar lineup contains two films that shouldn't be in the awards conversation at all, two films that should be in the conversation but would not have made it in a stronger year, and one film which is still widely unseen!
The aforementioned ghost nominee of which I speak is anime master Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises, an animated biopic of Japanese poet and aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the deadly zeros of WWII. I can't comment too liberally on its Oscar chances because I still haven't seen it, but in a way, that says all there is to be said about it's Oscar chances right there: The film has not been widely seen outside the festival circuit. It doesn't even go into limited release until the weekend before the awards ceremony! You'd think that Disney, who is handling the North American distribution, might have wanted to take advantage of its Oscar nod by getting it out there as soon as its nomination was announced, no? But then again, maybe I just answered my own question. It makes sense that Disney would want to quell the buzz on this prestigious foreign property until it was too late, because they have their own awards hopeful to plug...

And that brings me to the eventual winner, Frozen. This is the nominee that has everything going for it: a heart-warming story that goes down easy, catchy music, technical proficiency, broad critical approval, and killer box office figures (it's Disney's biggest animated hit since The Lion King). To a lesser extent, it also has a small story going about how despite being the cornerstone of the animation industry, no film from Walt Disney Animation has won the Best Animated Feature Oscar, as the category wasn't inaugurated until just after the studio's 1990s hot streak came to an end. I'm sure veteran Disney helmer Chris Buck (Tarzan) and newer face Jennifer Lee (co-writer of Wreck-It Ralph) are counting their lucky stars that the film was released when it was. In a typical year, it may have struggled to even be nominated (that Tangled snub from 2011 still smarts), and it would certainly not have been the frontrunner. But given how thin the competition is, it's hard to imagine any other title being called on Oscar night.
That thin competition includes Illumination Entertainment's Despicable Me 2. There's no denying the popularity of the film, whose gross is just behind Frozen's, but I struggle to see the Academy selecting it on artistic merits. Its nomination might be attributed to the fact that its hugely profitable predecessor just missed out on a nomination in 2011, and all that cash is hard to ignore (although it didn't stop the animation branch from bitch-slapping Monsters University this year). But I won't begrudge the nomination for directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, who're clearly doing something right with these films for them to be as successful as they are.

What I will begrudge is the nomination for The Croods, which is the single worst motion picture I saw in 2013. I expected a nomination for the film based on block voting within the branch, but this was sight unseen. Having now viewed it since nomination day, I am gobsmacked that a filmmaker like Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon) could have produced something as God-awful as this. Him and co-director Kirk De Micco should consider themselves lucky that the field was five-wide this year, or they would not have been nominated at all. The film's abrasive in-your-face design elements and excruciating slapstick humour (I'd call it 'crood' humour, but this film doesn't deserve even my worst puns) are worthy of the March dumping ground in which it was released, but for us to be repeating its title nearly a year later as an Oscar nominee feels like a mistake.
There is a silver lining though to the expanded field of five, and it's the inclusion of the delightful French charmer Ernest & Celestine. Even though, like The Croods and Despicable Me 2, this is a movie made for children, it stands apart for being everything those films aren't. Its gentle whimsy and soft watercolour aesthetic make for lovely counter programming to its fellow nominees. That said, there's no chance it can pull off a win. Its profile is just to small to register with a group as large as the Academy, but the nomination for director Benjamin Renner is reward enough.

Will win: Frozen
Runner-up: The Wind Rises

Should win: Ernest & Celestine
Should've been nominated: Epic

1 comment:

  1. I agree. I hated The Croods. Watching it once was too many times for me. Unlike you, however, I felt that Monsters University was actually quite good, and the fact that they nominated Croods over MU is shocking to say the least.

    Yeah, it's Frozen's to lose. I would be shocked if anyone else's name is called.

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