2020 Oscar Circuit: Best Animated Feature

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2020 OSCAR PREDICTIONS: One of the biggest surprises of the 2020 awards campaign has been the shaky Animated Feature Oscar race. With two-billion-dollar hits, in popular franchises, it seemed like Disney would be walking to another Oscar with ease. Suddenly, the race was spun into chaos when “Missing Link scored a Globe win. The Annies went big for Netflix, “Frozen II” missed an Oscar race, and “Klaus” won BAFTA. We’ve suddenly had a race at what has been one of the most predictable categories of the past decade.

Only two non-Disney/Pixar films have won Best Animated Feature since 2007. Those films, “Rango” pulled off the feat in 2011 in a year where no Disney/Pixar film even made the cut. Last year, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” became a sensation that powered its way into the race. This year, the race features a far more stylistic variety. Showcasing the different styles of animation possible from different corners of the world, voters may have to get outside their comfort zone. Can “Toy Story 4” return the prize to Disney/Pixar? Or has an assembly line of sequels finally burned out the Academy?

And the Nominees Are:

  • How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” (Bonnie Arnold, Dean DuBlois & Brad Lewis)
  • “I Lost My Body” (Jérémy Clapin & Marc Du Pontavice)
  • “Klaus” (Jinko Gotoh, Sergio Pablos & Marisa Román)
  • Missing Link” (Chris Butler, Travis Knight & Arianne Sutner)
  • Toy Story 4” (Josh Cooley, Mark Nielsen & Jonas Rivera)

“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” (Dreamworks/Universal)

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

The first animated feature to be distributed by Universal Pictures came from one of the best-animated franchises of the decade. A decade-spanning trilogy featuring dragons, Vikings, and impeccable animation felt like it checked all the boxes in its last outing. Many of Dreamworks’ franchises feel dated and cynical, but “How to Train Your Dragon” was the opposite. The final story featuring Hiccup, Toothless and friends was highly emotional and extremely satisfying. Dreamworks has not won Animated Feature since “Wallace and Gromit” in 2005. “How to Train Your Dragon” was a worthy franchise to return them to glory.

Unfortunately, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” might be in fifth place. It’s the only major precursor prize that came from the National Board of Review. Out of its five total wins on the season, two were for John Powell’s incredible score that went unnominated. It missed a BAFTA nomination outright, perhaps the most telling miss. The stats do not back up a win for “How to Train Your Dragon,” so if you pick it, you’re hoping for an all-time upset.

“I Lost My Body” (Xilam Animation/Netflix)

Talk about a clutch acquisition by Netflix. “I Lost My Body” filled in the independent animation slot at the Oscars this year and does so with style to spare. The story of a disembodied hand attempting to return to its former owner became a mystical and otherworldly journey. Using stylistic shifts, ever-changing color palettes, and a beautiful score by Dan Levy, “I Lost My Body” is the complete package. The film attended the Cannes Film Festival without distribution, and Netflix quickly jumped on artistic beauty. It was certainly popular amongst the industry, scoring three Annie awards, including Best Animated Independent Feature. It also won the NYFCC and LAFCA, cementing itself as a critical favorite.

Despite its success, “I Lost My Body” feels too experimental to cross the finish line. Like “Anomalisa” or “The Wind Rises,” the subject matter may be too adult for the Academy to go for it. It’s likely the subject matter held it back from a slew of nominations, most notably BAFTA, the Golden Globes and PGA. Those are three big misses, despite the power the film had in the early stages. The nomination might be the win for “I Lost My Body,” even if future generations of animators question the missed opportunity to reward originality.

“Klaus” (Sergio Pablos Animation Studios/Netflix)

Perhaps the most unlikely contender of the season caught fire at just the right time. Director Sergio Pablos had a long career making big films for big studios. After rising through the ranks at Disney during the end of the Renaissance, he jumped to Blue Sky, Illumination and Dreamworks. He produced “Smallfoot,” helped create the “Despicable Me” juggernaut, and brought color and culture to “Rio” in 2012. One of the rare journeymen in animation, Pablos returned to his roots with the hand-drawn “Klaus,” but the style and beauty are unmistakable.

Three weeks ago, “Klaus” was a fun story showcasing Netflix’s power to revive seemingly dead genres. Hand-drawn animation has only been rewarded once in the Animated Feature category, and that film was “Spirited Away” in 2002. Last year’s “Spider-Verse” felt hand-drawn, and perhaps that was a sign of things to come. The industry undeniably responded to Klaus, with the Annies screaming to pay attention with its seven for seven, clean sweep. That would not be the end though, with BAFTA awarding it the prize for Best Animated Feature last night.

The BAFTA-Annie combo is deadly. Since BAFTA introduced the Animated Feature as an award, they’ve gone to predict the winner in twelve of the fourteen years. The lone misses were “Kubo and the Two Strings” in 2016 and “The LEGO Movie” in 2014. Every time BAFTA lined up with the Annies (seven times since 2006), Oscar followed. There are only two real dings on “Klaus,” which missed at PGA and the Golden Globes. In both cases, Netflix was snubbed entirely. Another note, “Klaus” has the lowest Metacritic score of any of the nominees. That might reveal a weakness for “Klaus,” despite the love it felt over the past month.

Missing Link” (LAIKA Studios/Annapurna Pictures)

The film that kicked off the insanity in this category, “Missing Link” represents a huge step forward for Stop-Motion animation. Thanks to new technology, a globe-trotting stop motion feature was possible for the first time. Dozens of sets and small details are etched in every frame of LAIKA’s latest, and the craft on-screen remains undeniable. Perhaps the most kid-friendly nominee this year, “Missing Link” tells a positive story of bridging differences and finding the family you choose. It’s clear why those who love it do, which resulted in a surprise Golden Globe win. Two wins with Visual Effects Society help bolster its case, including the Outstanding Visual Effects in an Animated Feature Award. Nominations with PGA, BFCA, and the Annies build a strong case.

However, despite its early coronation as the challenger to Pixar, “Missing Link” struggles to win anywhere. The Globe and Visual Effects Society prizes represent most of “Missing Link’s” wins. Those three, plus citations with Las Vegas and Toronto film critics are the only prizes it holds. The Annies blanked “Missing Link,” despite leading nominations. BAFTA ignored it entirely, a bad sign considering its lead character is British (although the film is not particularly kind to the Empire). Still, ever since BAFTA began award Best Animated Feature, every Oscar winner at least had a nomination with the Brits. It features the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score of any nominees (and second-lowest Metacritic score). There’s still reason to think that “Missing Link” could find traction, but the momentum went to other features over the past month. Rather than “Missing Link” showing strength, it could not capitalize. LAIKA may have missed their chance.

“Toy Story 4” (Josh Cooley, Mark Nielsen & Jonas Rivera)

To be the king, sometimes you have to take down the king. “Toy Story” remains the iconic computer-animated franchise, and “Toy Story 4” proved there are still tales to tell about Woody and the gang. Not surprising anyone, “Toy Story 4” brings emotion and existential dread in ways only Pixar could. What might be surprising is the comedy. No Pixar film has ever been as funny as “Toy Story 4,” and infusing the franchise with Tony Hale, Jordan Peele, Keegan Michael-Key, and Keanu Reeves paid immediate dividends. Forky remains the standout character of the year in animation.

Not only does “Toy Story” represent the highest-grossing film of the nominees by a wide margin, but it was a critical darling as well. It was the highest-rated film on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, even outpacing “I Lost My Body” among these groups. The guilds have gone to bat for Pixar’s latest as well. It won the PGA, the ACE/Eddie award, CAS and MPSE. It also won BFCA and scored a nomination at BAFTA, something every single Animated Winner has done. Another pickup for “Toy Story 4” comes from Randy Newman. The singer/songwriter received a nomination for his song “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” and it’s the only film with more than one nomination. With dozens of critics groups singing its praises, it felt like “Toy Story 4” was walking into the night with Best Animated Feature sewn up.

However, there are some weaknesses in the armor. First, it lost BAFTA and got blanked at the Annie Awards. There’s Academy crossover there, and that does not bode well. Second, only one sequel has ever won Best Animated Feature. It was “Toy Story 3,” which makes this a silver lining. However, it was also the first time the franchise was eligible for the category it helped create. “Toy Story 3” was also nominated for Best Picture. Since then, “The Incredibles,” “Finding Nemo,” “Frozen II,” and “Shrek” have seen their sequels kicked to the curb. PGA has less correlation with Oscar than BAFTA, lining up ten of its fourteen wins. Two of those misses were Disney/Pixar films.

The question is simple: will the larger Academy body course correct for “Toy Story 4” when other bodies chose the smaller, independent films? “Klaus” and “Missing Link” have cases and stats to justify the win. However, unlike both of those films, “Toy Story 4” remains one of the crown jewels of an industry juggernaut. More cynically, half of Hollywood voices a “Toy Story” character. Even though Jordan Peele and Keanu Reeves have shown great taste, are they about to vote against their own film? Disney even continued to release Forky shorts on Disney+, making a key character ever-present on their digital platform. If this was not “Toy Story” it seems unlikely we’d be picking it. Still, “Toy Story 4” remains an iconic franchise, and the Academy seems poised to return to the well.

WILL WIN: “Toy Story 4”
SHOULD WIN: “Klaus”
SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: “Frozen II”

OFFICIAL RANKING FROM THE CIRCUIT HUB (CLICK HERE):

  1. “Toy Story 4”
  2. “Klaus”
  3. “Missing Link”
  4. “I Lost My Body”
  5. “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”

Share your thoughts on the Best Animated Feature race in the comments below!