By Guest columnist Daniel Smith-Rowsey
Oscar-bestowing Academy, hear my plea: please, please, please consider some animated films for Best Picture this year. You’ll never have a better chance to break down the imaginary, but entirely unnecessary, barrier between live-action and animation filmmaking. Let’s end the stigma together!
We all know that this year’s voting begins this Thursday, January 5, and finishes little more than a week later. We all also know that the eventual Best Picture list is very unlikely to have any animated films, because these are perceived to have “their own” category, Best Animated Feature, and thus why bother to recognize them in Best Picture? Well, I’ll tell you why:
1. The animated films this year are of exceptional quality, as evidenced by their Rotten Tomatoes scores and Metacritic scores, to wit:
My Life as a Zucchini RT 100% MC 85%
Zootopia RT 98% MC 78%
Kubo and the Two Strings RT 97% MC 84%
Your Name RT 97% MC 80%
Moana RT 95% MC 81%
Finding Dory RT 94% MC 77%
The Little Prince RT 93% MC 69%
The Red Turtle RT 90% MC 92%
(And this list doesn’t include the remarkable, but slightly less well-regarded, Sausage Party, Kung Fu Panda 3, and The Secret Life of Pets and Sing.)
More on each of these films is below, but just compare those scores to almost any of the films likely to be nominated for Best Picture, and you’ll see that they meet or exceed them. Which leads to…
2. This year’s likely Best Picture nominees are, to be polite, not exactly the barnburners of years past. Let’s postulate that the excellent La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight are nomination locks. For argument’s sake, let’s throw in the terrific Fences and Arrival and Hell or High Water. After that, is there really any film that must be nominated for the Academy to save face? This year’s Revenant or Gravity? I’m not saying other 2016 films weren’t worthy, but they’ve hardly made a case for indispensability based on critics scores or box office. I will bet anyone reading this any amount of money that the average RT/MC scores of the aggregate of the eight or so eventual BP nominees will be less than the average RT/MC scores of the aggregate of the eight animated films I cited.
Friends, this is the year to take advantage of the fact that live-action films, with the possible exception of Rogue One, failed to dominate the year-end conversation. With the exceptions of Martin Scorsese (Silence), Clint Eastwood (Sully), and Ang Lee (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), there’s a sense that most of Hollywood’s heavy-hitting directors (and award favorites) sat out 2016 or pursued other projects — Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, the Andersons (Wes and Paul Thomas), James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, Ava Duvernay, Ryan Coogler, Ron Howard, Robert Zemeckis, Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Inarritu, David Lynch, et cetera. Along with the entertainment supernova that was the presidential election, the absence of these filmmakers has contributed to a sense that this year’s Oscar race is something of a quiet, boring, neglected affair. But why keep it quiet? Shake it up, blow it up, mess it up, with one or two or three animated films in the Best Picture circle.
3. #oscarssowhite a problem? Clearly, bestowing many nominations upon Moonlight, Fences, and Loving would help. But it would hardly look insensitive to likewise consider Kubo, Moana, Your Name, and/or especially Zootopia. Finding Dory is about disabled fish, and I’ve noticed none of them are white.
4. Every year we hear that the Oscars are divorcing themselves from the films that America really likes. We hear that “Oscar island” and “blockbuster island” are moving further and further apart. Easy correction: a Best Picture nomination for the #1 movie of the year in North America, Finding Dory, and/or the #3 movie worldwide, Zootopia. If it helps, Moana is surprisingly buoyant and will soon be sailing into the year’s Top 10.
5. Relatedly, we often hear that movies have lost something from eras past. This argument was most recently articulated by Pulitzer winner Wesley Morris in The New York Times, in an article subtitled, “Recalling a singular Hollywood star and an era we won’t see again” which began
Nobody like Debbie Reynolds is ever happening at the movies again. Who’ll be as plucky? Who’ll work as hard to stay as morally pure? Who the hell is gonna be named Debbie? These days, when we talk about “showbiz,” we have to adjust for deflation, because it just doesn’t mean as much as it did when Ms. Reynolds was a star.
What if I told you that pluck and moral purity and much of what was once considered movie “showbiz” hasn’t disappeared, but merely migrated to animation? Debbie Reynolds and Morris’ other referents (Doris Day and Shirley MacLaine, among others) offered nothing that we haven’t seen redone and reimagined by Anna in Frozen, Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, and, yes, Moana in Moana and Judy Hopps in Zootopia. Actually, Judy the bunny and her erstwhile partner Nick the fox are nothing if not reminiscent of former Hepburn-Grant-style pairings. (Pixar’s Dory is likewise plucky, morally pure, and a star, but clearly offbeat and misfit-ish; in the 50s, she would have been played by Susan Hayward or Shelley Winters.)
Celebrate the best of old and new Hollywood not just with La La Land, but with this year’s animation! Critics often wax nostalgic about a time before the 1970s when the best movies were made for everyone — a time when Disney’s films were made only for kids, and adults weren’t served exclusively by “niche” material. Well, hate to be the one to break it to you, but Disney is now the one leading the charge — while the other studios follow — making “four quadrant” movies that are wholesome enough for families and thoughtful enough for adults. And yes, it’s slightly annoying that Disney is so good at it that they dominated the 2016 box office. But is that a reason to punish them by nominating them only in Animated Feature, which looks like the kids table?
(Animation houses must constantly justify their existence by having their next movie project lined up, whether they be Walt Disney, Pixar, Laika, Ghibli, DreamWorks, FUNimation, Illumination, or Warner Animation. In this way, their creative leaders are more reminiscent of the creatives of sixty years ago than the Spielbergs and Tarantinos and Scorseses of today, who can moviemake or not moviemake when they feel like it. In other words, in today’s animation, creative jouissance emerges not from auteur caprice but from assembly-line imperatives, more like Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain. Think about it, Wesley Morris.)
6. Break free of the guilds! Thirty years ago, the PGA, DGA, WGA, and SAG didn’t have televised ceremonies and didn’t have nearly the power that they currently have to control the conversation. Guess what? They nominate their friends, not the quirky weirdos who make cartoons. Along with critics groups, certain blogs, the Golden Globes, and the American Film Institute, these groups’ nominations rise to the level of self-fulfilling prophecy. They fill out their ballots with the likes of Hacksaw Ridge and Captain Fantastic and convince voters that they need to do likewise. But why blithely follow this live-action consensus when better films are out there?
7. There’s still a bias, especially amongst the “steak eaters” that have been Academy voters for more than half of their lives, that cartoons aren’t real Best Pictures. In fairness to them, thirty years ago, animated movies didn’t rise to the level of Best Picture material. That began to change with Disney under Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. For 1991, Beauty and the Beast somehow scored animation’s first Best Picture nomination, probably stealing one from Thelma and Louise. (The latter suffered from MGM’s empty pockets; the former benefited from Disney’s deep ones.) Three years later, however, the #1 film of the year and one of the best films of the decade, The Lion King, almost certainly should have scored the Best Picture nomination that went to Four Weddings and a Funeral. I blame the steak eaters and a sense that the Beauty and the Beast nomination was “enough.”
The Oscars added a category for Best Animated Feature in 2001, essentially permitting the new Pixar-DreamWorks era to get its own gold. Since then, only two animated films have broken out of the Animated Feature ghetto (Tarantino was right, PC police: “ghetto” is a term that gets used in these contexts, look it up) and risen to the level of Best Picture nominee, and both of them — Up and Toy Story 3 — came from Peak Pixar during years (2009 and 2010) when the Academy committed itself to ten Best Picture nominations. In just those two years, modern Academy voters were permitted to vote for (up to) ten films for Best Picture. Since then, they have been restricted to voting for only five, and through a complicated mathematical process, these votes result in somewhere between five and ten BP nominees. How can we expect voters to choose a cartoon when they can only write in five choices? Well…expect, no; hope, yes. I mean, how good do the films have to be, especially in comparison to the live-action ones?
8. Look, I’m not crazy. I realize that My Life as a Zucchini has approximately a 0% chance of a Best Picture nomination. At best, maybe one or two films has anything like a shot. But with a little craziness, I imagine a nomination morning (this year, January 24) where I wake up to hear the Best Picture good news about La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Fences, Arrival, Hell or High Water, Silence…and Moana and Zootopia. Okay, maybe just Zootopia — that’s the one the American Film Institute included in its 10 best of the year, only the second cartoon it had recognized that way since the 2011 Academy voting-rules change. (The first was last year’s Inside Out.) Come on, Oscar voters, after what American voters did on November 8th, don’t you also want to subvert the dominant paradigm? It’s not enough to vote for animated films in their ghet kids-table category. One animated BP nominee under the Academy’s revised rules would give all animators both new validation and new standards to live up to. Let’s shatter that lingering anti-animation stigma once and for all.
9. Getting back to #1, if there was ever a year to do it, it’s now. You’ll never find a better year of animation, to wit:
A.O. Scott on Finding Dory:
“Nemo” made the case for indomitability in the face of fear. “Dory” is more about the acceptance of chaos. Dory’s inability to make or stick to plans is shown, in the long run, to be an advantage. And her memory issues, played mostly for laughs in the first movie, take on a deeper meaning here. She and Nemo, who was born with a deformed flipper, are both people — well, actually, anthropomorphized fish, but you know what I mean — with disabilities, an identity shared by most of the new secondary characters. In a way that is both emphatic and subtle, “Finding Dory” is a celebration of cognitive and physical differences. It argues, with lovely ingenuity and understatement, that what appear to be impairments might better be understood as strengths. The inclusiveness of the film’s vision is remarkable partly because it feels so natural, something that no adult will really need to explain. Children will get it, perhaps more intuitively and easily than the rest of us.
Christy Lemire on Kubo and the Two Strings:
The script from Marc Haimes and Chris Butler (from a story by Haimes and Shannon Tindle) has faith that kids can handle such tough stuff and never talks down to them. But Knight and his massive team of animators have packaged these weighty, complex themes within visuals that are just jaw-dropping in both their beauty and craftsmanship. A decade in the making, “Kubo and the Two Strings” is both painstakingly detailed and epic in scope. Inspired by a multitude of Japanese art forms, it’s textured yet crisp, frighteningly dark yet radiant with bold color. It’s a classic hero’s journey full of action and adventure, but it’s also an intimate fable about love and loss, magic and memory.
David Weigand on The Little Prince:
No child, or adult, for that matter, will be able to resist the considerable charm of “The Little Prince,” a starry-eyed animated adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s timeless story of an aviator whose life is transformed when he meets a little prince in the Sahara Desert…“The Little Prince” is a masterpiece of remembrance told with exceptional production values at every level. The animation plan brilliantly reflects the structure of setting the original story within the framing device of the Little Girl’s awakening to what it really means to be a child. Saint-Exupéry’s original is depicted through stop-motion animation, while the Little Girl’s story is told through artfully detailed computer animation…Deservedly, it won the César (the French Oscar) as best animated film. After Paramount dropped the movie, Netflix picked it up. Smart move. “The Little Prince” is heartbreaking, beautiful and irresistible.
Mark Kermode on Moana:
Moana, a joyous tale of a Polynesian teenager’s quest to save her homeland…boasts eye-watering visuals, earworm songs and heart-swelling messages about respect for the past and hopes for the future…Having made their names with the hand-drawn triumphs of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, directors Ron Clements and John Musker here segue seamlessly into their first CG feature, embracing the malleable magic of digital animation while retaining the clear lines that underpinned their previous work. In contrast to the sylph-like figures of Frozen, Moana has a sturdiness that recalls the Hawaiian heroines of 2002’s Lilo & Stitch. She also embodies the independent outsider spirit of Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, the lovely 2009 feature with which Musker and Clements revived the “traditional animation” skills that Disney had seemingly put aside in the wake of 2004’s Home on the Range.
Katherine McLaughlin on My Life as a Zucchini (a.k.a. My Life as a Courgette):
It’s incredible how deeply you fall in love with the characters in a film that runs for a succinct 66-minutes and that’s down to a combination of a frank screenplay (from Girlhood’s Céline Sciamma), adapted from Gilles Paris’s novel, and the brightly designed models, whose giant eyes superbly convey a multitude of thorny emotions. The way in which the children speak to one another is perfectly judged too. The kids’ candid discussions about sex and other adult topics artfully highlight the things some of them have been privy to at an early age, while also perceptively showing how they can misinterpret certain subjects due to their naivety. Though all this sounds pretty heavy-going, the film deals with the material in such an imaginative manner and with such levity that the children’s playful interactions make for extremely heartening, often giggle-inducing viewing that a younger audience can fully enjoy.
Kenneth Turan on The Red Turtle:
“The Red Turtle” is a visually stunning poetic fable, but there’s more on its mind than simply beauty. The first full-length work by Oscar-winning Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit and a prize-winner at Cannes, this is an immersive, meditative animated feature that is concerned with the rhythms of the natural world and the mysteries and wonders of ordinary life. With a simple, uncluttered visual look that manages to be realistic as well as gorgeous, “The Red Turtle’s” story of a nameless man shipwrecked on an uninhabited island has no lack of dramatic adventures and threatening events. But, as befits a dialogueless work that mixes Laurent Perez del Mar’s fluid score with the ambient sounds of the physical world, “The Red Turtle” intends to enlarge our spirit as well as dazzle us, and in this it succeeds.
Dan Jolin on Your Name:
Every frame of Your Name is a richly teeming composition, whether breathing in the vast sweep of a lush, crater-scarred landscape, tracing the aurora-tailed path of a sky-slicing comet, or focusing on the weaving of threads as they are nimbly braided into colourful cords. Whether blazing with sunlight, or shadowed by storm clouds, the film glows with an inner life that the hard, plastic sheen of CG animation so rarely attains; one awesomely trippy-cosmic sequence is even realised using pastels and chalks…Shinkai’s brazen narrative boldness, his dextrous handling of alternating, equally likeable lead characters, and his mastery of hand-drawn visuals all weave together to form a profoundly gorgeous cinematic experience. If any film has the right to be called this decade’s Spirited Away, it’s this one.
Peter Travers on Zootopia:
The last thing you’d expect from a new Disney animated marshmallow is balls. But, hot damn, Zootopia comes ready to party hard. This baby has attitude, a potent feminist streak, a tough take on racism, and a cinema-centric plot that references The Godfather, Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. The kids, paying zero attention to such things, will love it. But the grownups will have even more fun digging in…Directors Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph), along with co-director Jared Bush, who shares screenplay credit with Phil Johnston, know how to keep things light. There’s a nifty scene at a DMV exclusively staffed by sloths. But they also know how to take a deep dive when necessary, especially when certain species are treated as threats and cause public panic. Listen up, Mr. Trump. Like I said, this big-city crime caper puts a lot on its animated plate. Zootopia takes chances and doesn’t play it safe. Is it too soon to talk about next year’s Oscars?
No, it’s not. Academy: your move. Make it count.