In the first of my assessments of the films nominated for Best Animated Feature, I decided to revisit what I consider to be the 5 best movies to actually win the Oscar for Best Feature. At first, I wanted to just straight-up rank all 13 winners, but on top of the fact that I haven’t seen one of them (Rango), since none of the winners are „bad“ films, directly comparing them to one another would be grossly unfair to those in the lower half of the list. So instead, I decided to just pick what I consider to be the 5 best, most groundbreaking, and most influential movies to take home the big prize. In my opinion, of course. Just in case that wasn’t clear.
5. Ratatouille (2007, Brad Bird)
Ratatouille came out right in the middle of the Pixar Golden Age, when nearly every year Pixar came out with a groundbreaking new film that would inevitably draw huge critical praise, dominate the box office, and touch the hearts of almost everyone who saw them. And, in my opinion, this is one of the best (yes, better than Wall-E). It follows a young rat, named Remy, who dreams of being able to cook human food and work in a restaurant. Not only does this put him in conflict with his more traditional, rough-and-tough father, it also ends up separating him from his family (for a time, at least) and leading him to Paris. There, he comes across the famous restaurant started by his idol (who we learn has recently passed away) and befriends a hapless kitchen boy working at the restaurant who just wants to finally hold down a job.
Like with all the Pixar greats, one of the highlights of the film is the quality of the animation. This film uses a rich tapestry of colors to bring both Paris and the food it depicts to life. Thankfully, the beautiful look of the film is strengthened by fun, interesting characters, and by the end you can’t help but root for both Remy and his human friends. It has a breezy atmosphere, and offers plenty of laughs, but it still maintains a quiet seriousness and earnestness about a subject matter that, on the surface, seems pretty damn silly for a film that’s NOT trying to be a straight-up slapstick comedy. This movie makes you care about a sewer rat. When you really think about it, that’s not a feat to be sniffed at.
4. The Incredibles (2004, Brad Bird)
Prior to Ratatouille, there had been only 1 Pixar film to feature humans as main characters. (and also happened to be directed by Brad Bird), and that was The Incredibles, Pixar’s spin on the traditional superhero shtick. The main character is Mr. Incredible, aka Mr. Parr, living out a midlife crisis years after he, his wife, and their various superhero colleagues were forced by an overly litigious world into early retirement, and have to constantly conceal their identities from the „normal“ population. The stress of having to shield their superpowers is also paralleled by the more normal struggles of dealing with frustrations at work, marriage, and having to raise 3 rambunctious kids (who each have superpowers of their own). However, Mr. Parr eventually gets a mysterious message suggesting that he can still live out life as a superhero in secret, and finds new meaning in his life. Until his family gets caught up in the secret as well, that is.
The Incredibles is one of those action films that really succeeds in getting pretty much everything right. The animation is great, the powers are inventive, and the action scenes are excellently choreographed and a ton of fun to watch. It’s a mostly serious movie that still manages to have some great comedy with its characters without breaking its tone or pace. The entire family feels genuine and real. I especially love how creatively they tie each of their powers into their personalities and character types- the big, overweight father has super strength, the ever-busy mother can stretch her arms and limbs (which helps her with both household chores AND restraining/protecting her kids), the chatty, hyperactive, troublemaking son has super speed, and the shy, somewhat-insecure teenage daughter can turn invisible (how many of us wished we had THAT power in high school? I know I did). There’s really nothing more I can say to do the film justice. You’ve probably seen it already, but if not, AWAY WITH YOU! TO NETFLIX!
3. Finding Nemo (2003, Andrew Stanton)
To this day, Finding Nemo remains my favorite Pixar film (although, as you will see, I don’t consider it the BEST Pixar film). It follows the story of Marlin, a Clownfish who loses his family (except for a single, scarred egg) to a Barracuda in the first scene. That damaged egg eventually becomes Nemo, a typically adventurous youngster with a malformed fin. Still carrying the wounds of losing his family, Marlin is overly cautious with Nemo and barely lets him out of his sight. His worst fears are confirmed when, on his first day of school, Nemo is captured by a scuba diver and taken to Sydney, Australia. Marlin has to set out across the vast ocean and all its dangers (and beauties) to find his son, while Nemo, finding himself in a dentist’s fish tank, slowly forms a plan with the other fish in the tank to escape to the sea.
Looking back, I think there are two aspects of Finding Nemo that make it stand out from the other Pixar movies (at least in my mind). One is, obviously, the visuals- the programming they used to simulate real waves was groundbreaking, and it shows. The ocean shots in this film make the sea seem vast, warm, cold, scary, friendly, vibrant, and bleak, all at once. Sometimes (like during the reef scenes) the screen is bursting with color, while during other scenes, it‘s filled with empty greens and blues, making both the characters (and the viewer) feel genuinely alone. Secondly, the number of identifiable characters is enormous. There are a lot of Pixar films with large, sprawling casts, but Finding Nemo takes the cake by having more than any other AND managing to perfectly balance every one. Virtually every character gets at least one great scene or line of their own. Finding Nemo is not just one of the most visually stunning Pixar films, it also has some of the best writing (which is saying something).
2. Spirited Away (2002, Hayao Miyazaki)
Spirited Away was the film that really brought popular attention in the US to the works of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in a way that no other film before (or since) had managed. To this day, it’s the one Miyazaki film that most people in the States have at least heard of, even if they haven’t seen it. It follows the story of Chihiro, a moody young girl upset at having to move to a new town. On their way to their new house, she and her parents happen across an abandoned fairgrounds. After eating food meant as tribute to spirits, Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs and imprisoned as night falls and the spirit world comes to life around them. Terrified, alone, and surrounded by all manner of bizarre spirits, creatures, and powers, Chihiro has to grow up quickly and find the strength to figure out how to save both herself and her parents, aided by the friends and allies she makes along the way.
Spirited Away’s brilliance works on a lot of levels. From an animation standpoint, it’s easily one of the most colorful, detailed, and just plain interesting works in Miyazaki’s reportoire. Every image, every scene is filled to the gills with the most minute details, right down to the shadows in the windows of the bathhouse. You can watch this fim over and over again just to pick out more things in each shot you didn’t notice before. The superficial story of a girl coming of age under strange and adverse circumstances is excellent, and despite the outlandish visuals the movie is actually pretty straightforward and kid-friendly. Underneath, however, the film is also full of Miyazaki’s well-established trademarks- commentary (both subtle and direct) on the clash between modern and traditional Japanese culture, symbols and characters insired by old Japanese myths, and fairly constant undercurrents of environmentalism and anti-war themes- which offer plenty of stuff for older viewers to chew on long after the credits roll.
1. Up (2009, Pete Docter)
Out of all the outrageous and seemingly ridiculous storyboards Pixar has made believable, Up has what may be, at least on paper, the silliest. An aging widower, still grieving over the death of his wife, ties a bajillion-friggin-million balloons to his roof, allowing the house to fly. Once he’s Up in the Air (ya see what I did there?) he heads for an unnamed jungle in South America, to search for a famous waterfall that he and his wife always wanted to visit, but never had the chance to. However, he soon finds a young boy scout who accidentally got whisked away when the house took off. While trying to take care of the boy, they eventually make it to South America, encountering massive, colorful birds, dogs that can talk via mind-reading collars, and an old adventurer who may be the main character’s old idol. Oh, and they never encounter snakes or anything, or catch a deadly disease. Admit it, when you really think about the basic plot of Up, it sounds absurd and laughable at best. And yet........
Not only is Up the best film Pixar has ever made, not only is it the best film to win the Oscar for Animated Features, not only is it one of the greatest animated films of all time, it is one of the best FILMS ever made, period, animated or otherwise. The animation is of the highest quality. Every character is funny, sympathetic, interesting, and likeable (in their own ways). The talking dogs are HILARIOUS pretty much every time they open their mouths, and are adorable to boot. The bird never speaks or changes facial expressions, and yet has a unique, memorable character all its own based solely on how it physically interacts with the old man and the boy. The justly-famous opening sequence is funny, moving, uplifting, and heartbreaking all at once. And although it’s easily the best individual scene in the film, it never feels like the movie played its hand too early, because the regular throwbacks and references to it supplement and enhance the old man’s journey without overshadowing it or making it seem trite or unimportant. The soundtrack is equally perfect, adding yet another layer of quiet, subtle emotion to every scene. Few themes work so well in so many different contexts- one scene, it’s energetic and exciting, in another it’s quiet and peaceful, in another it’s somber, and in yet another, it’s tragically sad. Up is that exceedingly rare perfect movie.
And that is my list of the 5 best movies to win Best Animated Feature! Next post, the 10 best films that were nominated for Best Animated Feature but, for one reason or another, did NOT win. Stay tuned!