In most Oscar categories, it’s clear what “best” means. Not so the annual animated feature race, in which the ballot presents perhaps the greatest range of any category every year — certainly, in terms of budget, subject matter, artistic style and formal innovation. Where else can you see a pair of superhero movies competing against an ultra-personal Japanese anime and stop-motion Wes Anderson movie, to use 2018 as an example?
Consider this year’s crop: Among the 26 films that qualified, you’ll find everything from a splashy studio hit (“Sing 2”) to a cult-interest Sundance indie (Dash Shaw’s hand-drawn “Cryptozoo”), from a Sony-animated pop-culture phenom (“The Mitchells vs. the Machines”) to a highly targeted, “Heavy Metal”-esque midnight movie (“The Spine of Night”).
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Many of the more eccentric submissions will be eliminated in the next phase — including perhaps anime entry “The Laws of the Universe: The Age of Elohim,” a sort of inspirational/recruitment tool for Japan’s fringe Happy Science spiritual group. On the other hand, “Mirai” nominee Mamoru Hosoda stands a real chance with “Belle,” a standout anime submission. In the past, popularity and box office success have been no guarantee of a nomination.
Two years ago, “Frozen 2” failed to make the cut, and in many years, Illumination movies are routinely excluded.
Part of the confusion around the category comes from a relatively small group of Academy members selecting the nominees, while the entire organization is free to vote on the winner. For years, the first cull was done by members of the animation branch (many of them short filmmakers), who brought their professional expertise — and personal taste — to their selections, often skewing the noms toward more indie and artistic contenders.
Four years back, the Academy adjusted the rules so any member can participate in the nominating stage, provided they commit to seeing enough of the eligible contenders. In theory, obliging voters to watch all (or most) of the submissions gives smaller films a chance — compared to best picture, in which films must campaign for voters to watch them. So what should Academy members be looking for in the cartoon category?
Technique clearly matters. Voters routinely acknowledge the sheer industrial achievement represented by top-tier computer-animated films, such as Pixar’s “Luca” and the visually innovative “Mitchells,” which introduced an appealing doodled-over style in which the CG characters appear to be hand-embellished by the teenage lead character.
The Academy appreciates slick studio-grade animation, but not to the exclusion of smaller projects — especially those that require a painstaking amount of effort, which explains why even so-so Aardman movies make the cut. Stop-motion is as hands-on as the medium gets, though there are no such films competing this year. So, while a hand-drawn movie such as Annecy festival winner “My Sunny Maad” looks downright crude by comparison to, say, “Ron’s Gone Wrong,” the Academy seems to scale its expectations accordingly. (It’s the mid-range stuff that tends to get passed over, e.g. CG
As in virtually all Academy Awards categories (except perhaps the most technical), an emotional connection often translates into Oscar love. Ergo, “best” can reflect a well-told story and, increasingly, a socially conscious message. In addition to the technical advances they represent, both of this year’s Disney originals expand the realm of representation beyond the classic, passive-white-princess mold: Female-empowerment adventure “Raya” serves as an amalgam of Southeast Asian cultures, while crowd-pleasing musical “Encanto” centers on Latino characters, doubling as a metaphor for the immigrant experience.
The question of what defines “best” in the Academy’s eyes potentially matters most for the unconventional Danish documentary “Flee,” a Cannes 2020 label film that’s been racking up awards over the past 12 months on the festival circuit. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen chose hand-drawn animation to mask the identity of his subject, a gay Afghan refugee, which is a formally audacious decision (reminiscent of the face-replacement strategy used in last year’s “Welcome to Chechnya”), but one that some animation pros don’t care for, given the rudimentary, rotoscoped look of the result.
As with all toon contenders, is the animation impressive enough for the Academy’s taste, or will the bigger picture win them over? “Flee” is an undeniably strong film, eligible in the animated, international and doc categories, and yet it’s conceivable that it could fall outside the rather specific criteria voters look for in those races.
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