Tuesday, January 27, 2015

One Category at a Time: Animated Feature

Guys, we need to talk about Best Animated Feature. Most years, this is one category that hardly requires discussion at all. If it isn't a slam dunk victory for one obvious frontrunner (which it almost always is), then it can at least be boiled down to a two-horse race with the also-rans far in the distance. This year was shaping up to be another easy call you could use to inflate your prediction accuracy, until the biggest shocker of nomination morning. Everyone enjoys griping about presumed snubs that ultimately don't affect the outcome of the awards race, but this is one snub that has truly blown the category wide open.

The cast of The LEGO Movie is stunned by its Oscar snub!

The LEGO Movie, having cleaned up with the regional critics groups all December long, seemed poised to take the Oscar in a walk. Pre-nominations, most pundits viewed this category as a six-way rush for just five slots. One was going to be left out, but no one imagined it would be this one! Could it be that the animation branch didn't feel like nominating a 100-minute toy commercial? (You could argue that Big Hero 6 feels more like a toy commercial than this one!)

Whatever the case, it's a whole new ballgame now, and I've never seen a Best Animated Feature race in which all the nominees felt like they had a realistic shot at winning. Which, quite frankly, is awesome! Still, some of those shots look slightly better than others, so let's start from the bottom up.

Back in the 2011-12 season, indie-toon distributer GKIDS pulled off a major coup by landing not one, but two nominations in a weak field that saw a Pixar feature (Cars 2) left off the ballot for the first time ever. Perhaps that should have tipped us off to the fact that this branch is somewhat resistant to the sort of flagrantly commercial films that come to mind when we think about American animation.
I never thought GKIDS would be able to pull it off again, although the prospect of such topped my pre-nominations wishlist this year. Needless to say, I was majorly thrilled to see both The Tale of Princess Kaguya and Song of the Sea in the mix.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya may be running in fifth place just by nature of the fact that it's probably the least widely seen of the group. Even if it had a larger viewership, its patient flow and cultural specificity, however artful, would likely prove a hindrance to it winning. I suppose it will get some votes out of respect for the director and the studio. With Studio Ghibli closing its doors, this may be the last chance the Academy gets to honour the beloved Japanese animation house, and certainly the last chance they'll get to honour its co-founder Isao Takahata. But the Academy at large doesn't really vote that way, and will probably never elect a foreign title in this category unless it's an international phenomenon like Spirited Away. No, in this case, the nomination is the honour. And a special honour at that, as it makes an Oscar nominee out of the man who made Grave of the Fireflies, a film that's always been very near and dear to my heart. I could not be happier about his inclusion here.

Son of the Sea makes me pretty happy as well. I realize I'm in the minority when I say I love this film! Most people admire its beauty (which could earn it some votes, to be sure), but not everyone connects with the story, which, in fairness, is aimed more at kids than adults. Not that that should detract from the artfulness with which Tomm Moore tells it. It may be geared towards children but it never feels childish, and I can't wait to see what Moore comes up with next. This is his second Oscar nomination in as many tries, after The Secret of Kells surprised everyone in 2010, effectively announcing GKIDS as a force to be reckoned with in this category. Alas, by similar extension of the 'under-seen' factor plaguing all GKIDS movies, it's likely running in fourth place. In addition to the problem of a small audience, the distributor now has to try and juggle campaigns for both of their films. It sure doesn't look like a winning formula.

Trying to sort the remaining three becomes trickier, as they all represent American studios who have been regular fixtures in this category of late. Just a hunch, but I would guess that the second runner-up is Disney's Big Hero 6. On paper, there's no reason to believe that it hasn't got a decent shot at taking home the gold. The sweet story of a boy and his robot learning the hard lessons of life and death has plenty of charm and wit and "awwwww" moments to fill the footprint left by many recent winners. Not to be reductive, however, but what holds it back might be that the footprint of the most recent winner is just too big to fill. The cultural blizzard that was Frozen was always going to be a tough act for Disney to follow, and memories of how amply the studio was rewarded just a short twelve months ago may dissuade voters from ticking Big Hero 6's box. It shouldn't really be nominated anyway, but if nothing else it's nice to see a film whose cast is as nonchalantly diverse as this one earn some recognition, especially considering the whole #OscarsSoWhite controversy.

The first runner-up, to my mind, could be The Boxtrolls from the Oregon-based stop-motion animation studio Laika. Laika has only produced three features to date, but they've all been nominated here, and each one seems to earn more and more critical admiration for their meticulous hand-crafted aesthetic. One of these days they're bound to actually win, but could it be sooner than we think? I have some narrative quibbles with The Boxtrolls myself (and I'm not alone on that front), but its technical merits are so impressive that they just might convince enough members that now is a good opportunity to congratulate the upstart studio. It helps that there's a bit of a David-vs-Goliath narrative to be found in Laika going up against Disney and DreamWorks. It would certainly be a well-earned honour for producer and Laika-CEO Travis Knight, who actually gets to share in the nomination (and potential win) since the animation branch now recognizes the director(s) and producer.

The Oscar you're looking for isn't out there, DreamWorks. It's right here.

In fact, one of the people who lobbied for that rule change is Bonnie Arnold, the producer of our final nominee -- and predicted winner -- How to Train Your Dragon 2. Writer-director Dean DeBlois was nominated for the original How to Train Dragon which became a sleeper hit in 2010, and probably would have won if it were up against anything besides the Best-Picture-nominated Toy Story 3. Residual love for the first film in the series may be what pushes Dragons 2 over the top. It's an easy one for adults to love because it approaches its story with far more class and substance than anything else in the DreamWorks' oeuvre.
The studio hasn't won since Shrek took the crown in the category's inaugural year (no, Wallace & Grommit doesn't count), but this dramatic-leaning fantasy adventure is their best opportunity to break that losing streak.

Will win: How to Train Your Dragon 2
Runner-up: The Boxtrolls

Should win: Song of the Sea
Should have been nominated: The LEGO Movie


  1. This is my favourite category.

    As a big kid at heart, I will say that if you replaced Big Hero 6 with The LEGO Movie, it would be perfect. Sadly, LEGO Movie is one of the biggest snubs in recent years (Lincoln out of Makeup and Affleck out of Director included).

    I loved How To Train Your Dragon 2. It's one of my Top 5 favourites of 2014 and I thought it was doomed to lose to LEGO Movie, but its snub has made me excited that this film to win. It's a fantastic film that deserves to win in every respect and I will be really excited if they announced its name, but I would be happy with Boxtrolls, Song of the Sea or Princess Kaguya wins too (Big Hero 6... not so much).

  2. Phew... I'm thrilled the Academy went for Song of the Sea and Princess Kaguya over Lego... They had so much more artistic credence. Rocks in my Pockets would've been a bold substitute for Big Hero 6. But I guess that one was just too obscure.

  3. I really hope HTTYD2 doesn't win. It was the film that disappointed me the most and I don't think it's legacy will be that great in the coming years. I will be despondent but not surprised should it win the Oscar.

    Boxtrolls would be worthier, but it will be seen in hindsight as a weak winner given its minor story.

    I actually would put Big Hero 6 in the 3rd spot. I liked that film, even though it does admittedly go by-the-numbers in the latter part of the film. Still, I'd rather go with a story that succeeds in a tried-and-true narrative path and begins with a strong character bond and love of science versus HTTYD2's risky and misguided narrative choices that didn't take off and land properly alongside cookie-cutter hero vs. villain tropes that don't register emotionally at all, despite the good animation.

    Now that I think of it, the two films that "displaced" the Lego Movie are my top 2. Song of the Sea, while slight on story, is simply GORGEOUS. The Tale of Princess Kaguya, on the other hand, is arguably the BEST animated film of 2014 and should win the Oscar in the Lego Movie's absence. Don't think that'll happen, though. But I will hope. How awesome it would be to have the director of the indelible Grave of the Fireflies win an Oscar! ^_^

    *Fingers crossed*