Like many who grew up during the Disney Renaissance, I have long believed that Animated Films can be just as important as your run of the mill dramas. I also believe that films like “Big Hero 6” or “How to Train Your Dragon” can be more impactful for young filmmakers than “oscar bait.” Animation teaches the artist about patience, about seeing things through to the end, and long hard work. After all, most animation projects take about 3 years to complete. Meanwhile, many Oscar contenders complete production in less than a year. It’s one of the many reasons I feel so disgruntled by the lack the animated films that get a shot at a Best Picture nomination, let alone a shot to win it.
Compared to many, I would consider myself overly eager for an animated Best Picture winner. Since the 1990s, a handful of animated movies have pushed hard for Picture nominations. Among them, we’ve had three nominees and many near misses. “The Lion King” came out in 1994, one of the best Oscar years of all time. “Shrek” was well received by BAFTA, but Oscar didn’t love it as much (it received two nominations). “How to Train Your Dragon” has produced two great films, but neither even won the Animated Feature race. Critical darlings like Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” or Brad Bird’s “Ratatouille” couldn’t get traction. Pixar’s also missed with “Toy Story,” “Wall-E,” and “Finding Nemo.”
So even with all those great and impactful films, it’s sad to look at how the Academy treats animated fare. Last year, we even had two true contenders. I thought “Inside Out” had a real chance until it was inexplicably left out of the Best Picture lineup. It was praised by child psychiatrists, was the highest grossing original animated film, and was in many ways the essence of an animation studio that’s dominated Hollywood for over twenty years.
On the flip side, Charlie Koffman’s “Anomalisa” deserved equal consideration with the extremely adult story it told through stop-motion. Two years before that, I thought “The Wind Rises” deserved a seat at the table as well. A biopic fused with a Japanese folk tale from the legendary Hayao Miyazaki was a worthy candidate for inclusion. The sheer spectrum of what you can create through animation can showcase a wide range of artistic merit. So why hasn’t the Academy bought in?
If we’re being honest, only three animated features have had a real shot at the feat. “Beauty and the Beast” was likely the closest as the only nominee in a year of five. The Disney animated classic also took home the Globe for Best Comedy/Musical that year as well. It was heavily inspired by Broadway, and is the most theatrical animated film to date. The film had a soaring score and incredible showtunes from Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman. Yet, “The Silence of the Lambs” won the big five Oscars to stop “Beauty” from making history.
“Up” became the second ever nominee in a year of 10. The film also scored a win in Score, and nominations for Sound Editing, and Original Screenplay. Despite this, the film stalled with voters, winning exclusively in score and animated feature.
However, Pixar’s second nominee presented the best case for voters to give Best Picture to an animated feature. It won the Rotten Tomatoes “Golden Tomato” reward for highest reviewed film of 2010. It was the highest grossing movie of 2010, and the 5th highest grossing movie of all time when it was released. It made $1 Billion worldwide in the box office. It also got nominated for Song, Screenplay, Sound Editing. Yet, the film lost Best Picture to “The King’s Speech.” “Toy Story 3” is my best picture of 2010, and I continue to wonder why it never got the momentum it deserved.
With the upcoming release of “Finding Dory,” the conversation surrounding animated features in the Best Picture race has started again. “Dory” is the sequel to a snubbed Best Picture nominee, and the sequel looks to have a strong conservation message. However, with the voting rules in place, it seems like the Oscars may be further away from giving a Best Picture win to an animated film than ever before.
When the academy moved it’s best picture nomination to a sliding scale, they significantly punished animated features. After all, it’s reasonable to put a films like “Inside Out” or “Anomalisa” on a ballot with 10 spots. Metacritic did just that, and they finished in 4th place and 7th respectively. However, combined they finished with 13 first place votes, or only one more than the foreign film “The Assassin.”
Since the change to nominate for Best Picture on a sliding scale, there hasn’t been a year with an animated nominee. With #1s votes as the only factor to get the nomination, it is harder than ever for an animated film to get into Best Picture. It may take a truly transcendent film to get into the race, but that still might not be enough. The Academy also should return to a straight 10 lineup for Best Picture to give these films a chance at a nomination.
A few things would likely need to happen for an animated film to truly contend. First, we need an animated director(s) nominated for Best Director. None of the above nominees got director nods, and only two BP winners since the 1980 have won without the directing nomination. Second, the Academy needs to take voice acting seriously as a category. Amy Poehler’s Joy wasn’t taken seriously, but had more levels than many nominees last year. Eddie Murphey’s Donkey in “Shrek” picked up a BAFTA nod, but didn’t convert to Oscar. With so many great vocal performances, the Academy needs to look hard at including the category in future years. Until the Academy addresses these concerns it’s going to be difficult to find an animated Best Picture Oscar winner.
This year, “Zootopia” was well received, but I don’t think it was strong enough to warrant Best Picture consideration. With the teaser for “Moana” we may have seen the next Disney film to take a shot at history. However, the team behind “Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid” and Lin Manuel Miranda, it certainly isn’t unfathomable.
The animation so far looks gorgeous, and with a November release date, it is in prime position to make a run. If the film is equal to “Zootopia” it could be Disney’s strongest potential nominee since “Beauty.” “Finding Dory” could make a play, but if current reviews hold, it will likely fall short.
The hurdle animation must clear is greater than any genre other than horror or Documentary. However, animation is far more accessible to the general public than either of those genres. Until things truly change in the Academy, it is doubtful we’ll get a Best Picture winner from animation. But if the Academy announces a return to a Best Picture field of 10 in the coming weeks, the chances improve. If talented directors like Wes Anderson, Brad Bird, and Charlie Kaufman bring their unique visions to animation there’s hope. But until there’s true change in how the academy looks at animated films, they’ll struggle to find sure footing.