The age-old rule that Best Picture nominees never lose Best Visual Effects to movies not nominated for the Academy's top prize was bucked last year when three effects-driven Best Picture nominees (plus Star Wars) apparently split the vote and allowed the subtle supporting CG of Ex Machina to sneak up the middle for the biggest shocker this category has ever seen. At least that's one theory.
The point is, I don't think I'll be able to trust my own predictions in this category ever again. Even with a stone cold frontrunner in this category, I suppose anything could happen, but let's start by assuming conventional wisdom prevails...
That would mean an Oscar for Disney's "live-action" remake of The Jungle Book on its sole nomination, and not an undeserved win at that. The effort that the workhorses at MPC and WETA put into those photoreal CG animals and environs is palpable, and the results are stunning. Even detractors of this big studio cash grab (*raises hand*) would be hard-pressed to deny that. Having won five VES honours plus the BAFTA and Critics Choice makes a compelling argument for it winning here as well. Only four other films have achieved that precursor trifecta (Avatar, Inception, Life of Pi and Gravity), and all of them wound up with the Oscar. That said, those four were also Best Picture nominees.
The Jungle Book does not have that added hook, and had Arrival managed to eke out a nomination here, it would not have been difficult to envision the heady sci-fi winning for simply for being more respected. One wonders if that might still happen to any of the other options.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the biggest box office hit of the year, and any populists in the Academy who are still miffed about The Force Awakens losing out last year might decide that an Oscar for this one is the best way to atone. ILM did incredible work at building immaculate CG recreations of ships (and actors) from the original 1977 phenom. But the 'CG actors' issue might actually make this a less popular option than meets the eye. Actors form the largest faction of AMPAS after all, and will all of them be more awed than uncomfortable with Rogue One's ethically debatable resurrections?
Marvel Studios has found a home in this category frequently since the debut of the MCU 8 years ago, but they've yet to win for any of those efforts. Doctor Strange could have been the one to break the losing streak, as it sets itself apart from the familiarity of the Avengers' episodes with its trippy spatial warping and parallel dimensions. I wouldn't write it off, but Jungle Book clearly has more momentum.
A distinct spoiler possibility exists in the year's most unique nominee (and single best nomination in any category), Kubo and the Two Strings, the first animated film to receive recognition here since The Nightmare Before Christmas. While it does face the stigma that uninformed voters may hold about cartoons not being vfx-heavy, those willing to give it an honest chance will see just how much it stands apart from the crowd. This is an effort that puts the "special" back in "special effects", with its inspired blend of hand-crafted props, meticulous stop-motion animation and computer generated embellishments. The Academy has an opportunity to do something really special here, and Kubo's surprising longevity on the circuit this season has given me just the tiniest sliver of hope that they might.
Will win: The Jungle Book
Could win: Rogue One
Should win: Kubo and the Two Strings
Should be nominated: I believe these five are solid as it gets, but if any of them had to be replaced, I would have given that slot to Arrival.