Best animated feature 2013: new films, same players

Thursday morning, the American Film Academy finally announced the nominations for the 85th Oscars, which will be awarded on the 24th of February. The nominees for Best Picture, Best Direction and the acting categories will be discussed by everybody and their mother, but, as animation lovers, we are here to discuss a less talked about category: Best Animated Feature.

The nominees are:
Brave (directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, 3d/CGI, Disney/Pixar)
Frankenweenie (directed by Tim Burton, puppet stop-motion, Disney)
ParaNorman (directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell, puppet stop-motion, Laika)
The Pirates! Band of Misfits (directed by Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, claymation, Aardman)
Wreck-it Ralph (directed by Rich Moore, 3d/CGI, Disney).

Those are the facts, and, as any self-respected journalist knows, they are sacred. But comments are free. Here are mine:
2012 was a good year for animation

Unlike other years, when the Academy couldn’t even find enough films to fill their 5 slots, or nominated mediocre or simply bad films such as “Shark Tale” or “Cars” (and let’s not even mention “Happy Feet”s unfortunate 2006 win), this year any of the nominees would be a deserving winner. The Academy can choose between five high quality films. It’s an injustice that “The Rabbi’s Cat” (a French 2011 production, eligible only now) was left out, as it is a far better and more inventive and intelligent film than the ones that are actually competing, but it’s hard to tell which of the nominees should have been left out to make room for it. Dreamworks would have probably wanted more for “Rise of the Guardians”, released strategically in the Oscar-baiting holiday season, but the Academy didn’t take the bait and focused their attention on the superior output of their rivals.

The club of potential Oscar winners is closed for outsiders

In the animation industry, competition between studios is more prominent than competition between directors and screenwriters, and in the case of the Best Animated Feature Oscar nominees, it’s clear that we’re dealing with an exclusivist club in which outsiders are not accepted. All of the nominated competitors for 2013 have been here before: Laika were previously nominated for Coraline, Aardman won in 2005 for “Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the WereRabbit”, and the other two, Disney and Pixar, need no introduction. With three films in the race, Disney seems to be close to their former Golden Age domination of the American animation market.

In the live action categories, the indie hit “Beasts of the Southern Wild” scored 4 nominations, a sign that the Academy does cast an eye towards independent “serious films” every once in a while, but independent animation is constantly marginalized. In 2008, for example, the year when 2 excellent indie animated features toured festivals, Bill Plympton’s “Idiots and Angels” and Nina Paley’s “Sita sings the Blues”, the Academy thought their only options were WALL-E (Pixar), Bolt (Disney) and Kung-Fu Panda (Dreamworks). And these were American filmmakers. What can foreigners expect? The wonderful “Mary and Max”, by Australian Adam Elliott, was not nominated in 2009. Japan produces remarkable animes fairly often, but only Hayao Miyazaki ever has a shot at the Oscars (Satoshi Kon, whose “Paprika” is considered by many an inspiration for “Inception”, died without ever being remarked by the American Academy). European countries such as France and the Czech Republic offer interesting films on a regular basis. Although in previous years, indie and foreign animated features have made the cut for the final nominations sometimes, 2013 is only for the big Hollywood players.

If we seek diversity in content, the situation is no more encouraging. All nominees are family movies aimed primarily at children. All follow the predictable pattern of the outsider/fish out of water hero who can’t adapt, but eventually gets what he wants and becomes popular and accepted. “Brave” is the only one with a female protagonists. All five films have protagonists who are white and Anglophone. As for technical aspects, this year we have 3 stop-motion films amongst the nominees, but no 2D at all. It seems that in the US, 2D animation has moved from cinemas to television permanently (we can add that this year’s Oscar host will be Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the hugely successful animated sitcom Family Guy.)

Who is going to win?

In any year when Pixar makes a decent film (so excluding Cars and Cars 2),they should be a shoo-in. So Brave should be the safest bet. However, its reviews were not stellar, and the Academy, whose members are primarily old, conservative males, might manifest reluctant or even slightly misogynistic attitudes towards the story of a young girl who rejects marriage. Therefore, by elimination: Frankenweenie and ParaNorman, both dealing with death, are too dark in subject matter for the Academy’s usual taste, and Aardman’s Pirates are too, well, English (a hilarious detail: for its US release, some of the characters in “Pirates..” were redubbed by American actors, because apparently the British accent is too much for American audiences to handle). My bet would be “Wreck-it Ralph”, then.

Who deserves to win?

Even though I usually find them overrated and they have plenty of Oscars anyway, strangely enough I’m rooting for Pixar this year, as I enjoyed “Brave” very much. I must however mention again that my pick for best film from the initial batch of eligible ones is the almost-nominated The Rabbi’s Cat, a smart film about different religions and cultures living together more or less peacefully, but, alas, never involved in a car chase or rollercoaster ride, or anything that is likely to rub the Oscars the right way.