Oscarwatchers and fans of world-class journalism rejoice! I return to Awards Daily with the second in a series of brilliant, incisive and acclaimed articles of advice, helping to escort you through the oncoming awards season with clarity and perspicacity. I’m AD’s Oscar agony aunt, only not an actual aunt, so with considerably more focus on the agony. But agonize not! Aunty Paddy knows their way through this race pretty well by now, having followed its progress for almost half their life, and is ready, willing and gaping wide to impart invaluable guidance to thee mere mortals, my nieces, nephews and niblings. Our category of choice this time out shall be Best Animated Feature
Increasingly, year after year, the Animated Feature category appears to grow ever more crowded. As the major studios continue to refine their understanding of the money-making capacity of the right kind of animated product, made and marketed in the right manner, and as their indie counterparts continue to imitate in a similar pursuit for success, the animation genre has witnessed a remarkable, and seemingly unrelenting, expansion ever since the mid-1990s. Gone are the days when animated films had to duke it out for a Best Original Score – Comedy or Musical nomination, and even the days when a limited number of releases restricted the Animated Feature award to three nominees – these days it’s a given that there’ll be five, in the permanent and highly lucrative category devoted solely to cartoons.
Within the Oscar race, we often like to reference ‘rules.’ What most call rules, I prefer to see as ‘patterns’ – each and every year, one or more tends to be broken, thus reshaping our perception of the race. But there are definitely patterns to voting within different groups and institutions, and within the Academy’s own branches. The animation branch is one such branch that appears to follow its own patterns relatively closely from one frame to the next, and here, I intend to analyze these patterns, and thereby evaluate which contenders are most likely to secure nominations for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award in three months’ time.
I’m going to make this a ‘key word,’ since I’d otherwise need a thesaurus of infinite length to find anything of its sort in order to make this article at all readable: VARIETY. And indeed, it’s a key quality in assessing what to look for in probable Animated Feature nominees. Whether it be studio, demographic, gross, style, length, nationality, language, type of animation – you’re always striving to achieve VARIETY when making your Animated Feature predictions. And this is consistently what Oscarwatchers fail to grasp, scanning the list of eligible titles in search of familiar names with proven box office success and culling their predicted picks from that. So maybe it seems plausible at the time, but what about every other time? What about last year, and the year before, and the year before again, etc.?
Some important statistics:
- In the 15 years of the existence of the Best Animated Feature category, a studio has been nominated more than once in any given year only three times. Every single other time, every single nominee has come from a different studio.
- In years with five nominees, not once has every single nominee been an American title.
- In all 15 years, nine have included at least one non-English language film, and only six have not.
- In all 15 years, only four have included no films produced / distributed outside of the ‘Big Six’ studios – all four were years with only three nominees, and all were in the previous decade.
- In all 15 years, only four have included only films made in the conventional ‘3D’ computer-animated style; these years are the exact same four as in the statistic immediately above
Get the picture? Think outside the box with Animated Feature! Stop before you put down the usual suspects, and think of what constitutes ‘usual’ for the Academy’s animators. Consider that double nominations for a studio are rare: animation branch members hail from a VARIETY of backgrounds (read: studios / production houses) in the industry. They also have a VARIETY of tastes, and have a wide outlook on the animation industry – a global outlook. They’ll want to include at least one film not made in English (dubbed in English for U.S. release will suffice), at least one made in a production house based outside the U.S., at least one stop-motion film (where possible), at least one ‘2D’ hand-drawn style film, and at least one independent film. And before you start thinking “Hold on, that’s five slots already booked right there,” consider that there can, and often will be, a lot of overlap between those qualities, and indeed one or two oversights.
A few vital things to consider:
- Pixar is pretty much a dead cert, but not with sequels / prequels. Only Toy Story 3 has made the cut for Pixar follow-ups, while both Cars 2 and Monsters University failed to claim nominations. Incidentally, both were follow-ups to the only two Pixar films since the inception of the Animated Feature category to be nominated and then to lose – Monsters University to Shrek in the category’s first frame, and Cars to Happy Feet. Otherwise, only one original Pixar film has joined those two in falling short of a nomination – last year’s The Good Dinosaur, which likely suffered due to being released in the same year as Inside Out, the first time Pixar has opened two films in the same calendar year.
- Walt Disney Animation Studios and Laika are big hits with the Academy’s animators – the former has lost out on a nomination only once since The Princess and the Frog unofficially rebooted the studio, and that was in the sole year to feature fewer than five nominees since that time, and the latter has a 100% hit rate to date. DreamWorks is also popular, though the sheer size of its yearly output means that its regularly miss the cut.
- Alongside Laika, Aardman Animation is also a favourite of members of the animation branch. Stop-motion goes down very well with these voters, as they proved when nominating The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! four years ago, and Shaun the Sheep Movie last year. As of writing, their 2005 film Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit is the only stop-motion film to actually win this award. Studio Ghibli is another regular, having won with Spirited Away – since then, that film’s now-retired director, Miyazaki Hayao, has lost out on a nomination only once, with 2008’s Ponyo.
- Big studios don’t necessarily command the attention of voters to the same extent. Illumination Entertainment has struggled, with only one nomination for its titles, occurring in 2013 for Despicable Me 2. Paramount’s The Adventures of Tintin and Warner Bros.’ The Lego Movie were major award-winners among other groups in their respective years, but were passed over by the Academy.
And with all of that VARIETY in mind, here come my least-varied Best Animated Feature predictions ever, in which I break just about every single
rule pattern mentioned above.
1. Finding Dory (Pixar)
I know this is a Pixar sequel, and I know it’s not in the Toy Story franchise, and thus ought to be considered a shaky prospect for a nomination at best! But, as I mentioned earlier, both Cars 2 and Monsters University were follow-ups to films that didn’t win in this category, and both were regarded as mild disappointments upon release. $485-million domestically and counting ain’t no disappointment, and since Finding Nemo DID win in this category 13 years ago, I struggle to see voters treating Dory with similarly silly dismissal.
2. Kubo and the Two Strings (Laika)
Stop-motion practically always wins over animation branch members, and Laika literally always does. This film may have suffered from an over-served family film market this summer, with its box office receipts a little pallid in comparison to expectations. But the critics dug Kubo deeply, even by Laika’s lofty standards, and one can only predict the Academy to do so too.
3. The Red Turtle (Sony Pictures Classics)
Here’s your 2D. Here’s your foreign film. Here’s your non-English language film… rather, here’s your non-language film, since there’s no dialogue in Michael Dudok de Wit’s hugely-praised debut feature. Here’s also your Studio Ghibli film, as a dying gasp of minor Oscar glory for the Nipponese studio, which has now ceased to operate as a production company. It may not be capable of boasting the level of awareness that previous, 100% Ghibli titles have ridden to safe Oscar nods, but it satisfies so many of my beloved patterns that it’s got to make anyone’s predictions. It’s gonna be a big year for turtles at the Oscars, what with this and then Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows sweeping the major categories.
4. Moana (Walt Disney Animation Studios)
A late-year release, plus the backing of a bona fide animation giant, plus a level of prestige of which most other studio animations could only ever dream ought to be a fortuitous formula for Moana. Its position in the race could only rise should critical reviews and box office returns be as healthy as hoped for; the temporary uncertainty in that regard is the only reason Moana lingers outside of the projected top three for now.
5. Zootopia (Walt Disney Animation Studios)
And so, you see me contradict myself, exposing myself in front of everyone like the shameless pervert that I am. I know this is two nominations for Disney. I know this is four American studio animations. I know this is three 3D animated titles. I know this is three films with grosses (possibly, in Moana’s case) topping $200-million in the U.S. I know, I know, I know. But how not to predict Zootopia? Should Moana come along and decimate all memories of Zootopia, it might fall out of the top five altogether, since there’s arguably only so many voters allied to each particular studio within the Academy’s animation branch; on the other hand, should Moana flop, Zootopia co
6. My Life as a Courgette (GKIDS)
GKIDS have a whole lot on their plate this year, but my gut tells me that My Life as a Courgette, which is also Switzerland’s official entry into the Foreign Language Film race, fits the bill best of all. My heart too tells me that it absolutely must be nominated, because it’s one of the most wonderful films I’ve seen in so, so long. It’s certainly set to fulfil any calls for VARIETY, being an independent, Swiss, French-language, stop-motion, 66-minute-long story about abused and abandoned children with a main character called Courgette (that’s Zucchini for North American readers). But it’s just so fucking good that they’re
bound to going to be forced at knifepoint / swordpoint / bazookapoint by me to love it anyway.
7. The Little Prince (Netflix)
In the 108 years since The Little Prince debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, it’s been drip-fed through a small international audience, reel by reel, after Paramount decided they were just completely done with making any half-way decent decisions ever again and dropped all existing copies of this into the Bermuda Triangle just seconds before release. What are they even like?! For a part-foreign, Netflix-distributed, sort-of-indie, The Little Prince ticks a lot of boxes, though it’s currently unclear how voters will respond to a film that’s ostensibly from the animation establishment, yet is aligned to no studio with strong previous form in this category.
8. April and the Extraordinary World (GKIDS)
This is the second film, after The Little Prince, to feature Marion Cotillard in its voice cast, which, should both claim nominations in January, would make for a funny result, given that she’s probably going to lose out on a nod herself after
wrecking a marriage starring in Robert Zemeckis’ Allied. The critics love April and the Extraordinary World, and it’d be a smart choice, entirely typical of the animation branch, but it’ll have to squeeze past some strong high-profile picks if it wants to make it. GKIDS’ slate is packed to the brim this year too, so it’s unclear where, if anywhere, they’ll focus their campaigning funds.
9. Miss Hokusai (GKIDS)
Another GKIDS title, and this one fulfilling the Japanese mandate, left only partially-filled by The Red Turtle, which is otherwise a French-Belgian production. Miss Hokusai actually has quite a bit of competition among animated films targeting a more mature audience than usual, but the Japanese factor could work in its favour and help to distinguish it from its competitors. If it gets into the Academy’s top five, it’s likely a sign that it wasn’t ever just Studio Ghibli that caught voters’ attention – it was Japanese animation in general!
10. Sing (Illumination Entertainment)
Who saw this coming? Sing may not be in line to rank among Illumination’s highest-grossing films, since it features a grand total of zero minions, but reviews out of the Toronto International Film Festival last month were pretty good! It remains an outside shot at a nomination, but a December release can only help its chances at being remembered. And if they’re going to go with Illumination this year, it’s likelier this than The Secret Life of Pets – that one has the unpleasant sheen of appearing more like a straight-up cash-grab than this.
Even in a year such as this, where trends look to be bucked and American studio pictures seem to stand the best chances at picking up nominations, the above patterns that I pointed out, and the generally-prevalent standard of VARIETY in the Animated Feature category, must absolutely be kept in mind when making one’s predictions. So, if you’re looking to kick one of those interchangeable top contenders out, and none of my alternatives tickle your fancy, there’s still a lot to choose from: Illumination Entertainment’s The Secret Life of Pets, which made obscene amounts of money but might be altogether too trite and humdrum a choice for voters in this branch; Sony Pictures’ Sausage Party, which may be altogether too crude and irreverent for voters but for which Sony is reportedly prepared to launch a robust campaign; DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 3 and Trolls, the former of which would be the first in its franchise to miss a nomination should it land outside of the top five, the latter of has proved a solid earner and has also brought in unexpectedly-decent critical reviews; Sony’s Storks; and GKIDS’ The Girl Without Hands and Phantom Boy.
Oh, btw, I might have written earlier that there are no rules in the awards race, only patterns. Well, time for some VARIETY of my own – there is one rule: Paddy is always right.
For more of the finest writing you’ll find online or in print, check out my Twitter @screenonscreen, and have a look at my blog, screenonscreen.blogspot.co.uk, where I too have removed all reference to my Nobel Prize for Literature award because BOOOO ESTABLISHMENT BOOOO HISSSS