Animated Oscar nominees: There is life outside of Hollywood

Feature films

„Inside Out”(Pixar, USA) directed by Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen
„The Boy and The World”(Filme de Papel, Brazil) directed by Ale Abreu
„Shaun the Sheep” (Aardman, UK) directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak
„Anomalisa” (Starburns Industries, USA) directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
„When Marnie Was There” (Studio Ghibli, Japan) directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Looking at this year’s picks for Best Animated Feature, one might even think that the Academy is finally taking animation seriously as a filmmaking medium, rather than something for your kids to watch on DVD when you want to keep them quiet. For the live action categories, you could write an entire thesis on what constitutes a critics’ darling and efficient Oscar bait, but for animation, the Academy was often content with name-checking whatever silly blockbuster had run in cinemas the previous year, ending up with nominees such as the aggressively mediocre ‘Shark Tale‘. All of the current nominated films are worth watching, though, and all are ambitious and beautiful in their own way. Most notably, they’re very diverse in both technique and subject matter, and only two of them are American. This may just be the most interesting list of nominees in the history of the Best Animated Feature award (which started in 2000).

The frontrunner is, of course, Pixar’s ‘Inside Out‘, especially considering that it has also been nominated in the Original Screenplay category, alongside ‘serious’ live-action films. I don’t know what else I could say about ‘Inside Out’ that hasn’t already been said: it’s a good film, it’s funny and sad and smart.

It’s not necessarily the best on the list, but it’s the best that Hollywood can do as far as mainstream animation is concerned, and we already know that it will win, so let’s talk about the others, since this is the only Oscar attention they’ll ever get.

Anomalisa is probably the only serious contender in terms of critical praise, and also one of the strangest films I’ve seen in a long time, a high-concept stop-motion animation that manages to be simultaneously very touching as well as painfully pretentious and dull. I didn’t like the film, but I respect its ideas, and I’d almost want it to win, if only to boost the currently anaemic field of animation for adults.

When Marnie Was There is one of the quieter Ghibli movies, mixing slice-of-life with a ghost story in which ghosts are not the point at all. It has almost none of the usual whimsy, but Studio Ghibli still proves its unrivalled talent at building a beautiful, relatable world that feels more real than reality at times, and it’s probably my favourite of the nominees.

Shaun the Sheep is the most conventional „children’s movie” on the list, with a very simple, wordless story full of old-fashioned slapstick humour.

As for the Brazilian film The Boy and The World, it seems to be the most atypical choice for the Academy, a mostly visual, almost plot-less experience of stylised graphics, showcasing the potential that 2D images have for conveying meaning and beauty.

So as you can see, we don’t need to worry about animation: it’s doing just fine, diverse and alive, outside of major CGI studios in Hollywood. And the Oscars are finally noticing this: 2015 was full of big-budget, intensely promoted animated releases that didn’t make the list of nominees, amongst them the „Peanuts” movie, Dreamworks’ „Home” and the ubiquitous „Minions”.

Short films

„The World of Tomorrow”, directed by Don Hertzfeldt
„We Can’t Live Without Cosmos”, directed by Konstantin Bronzit
„Sanjay’s Super Team” (Pixar), directed by Sanjay Patel
„Bear Story” directed by Gabriel Osorio Vargas
„Prologue” directed by Richard Williams

Unfortunately I’ve only seen three of these shorts, so picking a favourite isn’t exactly an informed choice. I’d go with The World of Tomorrow, which looks at the human side of several sci-fi ideas such as time travel, cloning and colonising other planets; like human experience itself, it’s mostly sad but also quite funny.

I also enjoyed We Can’t Live Without Cosmos; its tale of inseparable friends going through astronaut training is straightforward and somewhat conventional, although peppered with moments of absurd humour. Both Don Hertzfeldt and Konstantin Bronzit have been nominated in this category once before, and both of them have won a long list of awards for these shorts, but I’d say Hertzfeldt’s film is deeper and more affecting, despite its simple graphics.

Sanjay’s Super Team (screened in theaters before „The Good Dinosaur”) is a fun, colourful little film, and it’s great to see a filmmaker from a minority background being allowed to explore the mythology of his own culture (in this case, Hindu deities) at a major studio, but beyond its neat idea, we’re not left with much more than an overly long, hyperactive fight sequence. I tend to value good storytelling above technical excellence, so I was not impressed with this short at all.

As for the films I haven’t seen: I’m intrigued by the presence of Richard Williams’ Prologue on the list. The trailer contains only a few seconds of animation, so it’s hard to say much about it, but Williams is a veteran of the animation industry and perhaps the Academy will reward him in view of his long career.

Bear Story looks like the kind of cute crowd pleaser the Oscars like, but I might be wrong. All in all, it seems to be a solid list of nominees, but I haven’t seen other shortlisted films, either, so I can’t comment on the choices.

What do you think, Pixar wins in both categories? It certainly looks like it, although the shorts category may provide a surprise. Let’s not forget, though, that awards are essentially meaningless: what’s important is that animation as an art form seems to be doing better than ever.