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Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Top 10 Films to be Nominated for Best Animated Feature (that DIDN'T win)


           Hoo boy, this was NOT an easy list to put together.  The first problem I ran into was that, given the tendency in the States to only make animated films that are „family-friendly“ (which I have expounded on already), most of the films I had to compare for this list had basic and very similar storylines built around relatively obvious morals, leaving little variety to choose from.  Second, since nearly all „kid-films“ take the form of comedies, I also found myself comparing a lot of straight-up comedies, which do not lend themselves to objectivity (either you find a movie funny, or you don’t).  Furthermore, the growing hegemony of CGI meant that there were fewer and fewer stop-motion or hand-drawn animated films I could consider as well, leaving me little opportunities to compare the looks of the films on the list. 

            Nonetheless, after much hand-wringing, I was finally able to put together a list I am fairly proud of and have *relatively* few reservations about.  This is my list of the 10 best films to be nominated for Best Animated Feature, but that, for one reason or another, did not win the award.  In addition to providing a brief synopsis of the film itself, I will offer my views as to why each particular film fell short of winning. 

*Note: this list is of films that were officially nominated for Best Animated Feature, but did not win.  This means that films that did win (i.e., nearly every Pixar film) did not qualify, as well as films that were not nominated period (such as Tangled, Waking Life, and Tintin).  The list of Animated nominees and winners can be found here.* 

            First, the honorable mentions- all films I really like, but just didn’t have enough room for:

            Coraline, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genuis, Kung Fu Panda

10. Wreck-It-Ralph (Rich Moore, 2012)

            If there’s one thing that holds Wreck-It-Ralph back from being truly great, it’s that the overall story arc and basic character dynamics are almost completely rote and by-the-numbers- an odd-ball loner, ostracized for being different/unique/etc., goes on a journey to define their personal identity while also earning the respect of those who previously shunned him/her, helped and/or hindered along the way by a cast of quirky and comedic  side-characters, one of which will be the main ally/love interest, with whom the main character will eventually have a brief misunderstanding/falling out, before they reconcile in time for the big, action-packed third act (see nearly every Disney film ever). 

            What allows the film to rise above this, though, are two things.  One is the voice-acting, which is really top-notch.  Jane Lynch takes the cake as a parody of the tough-as-nails fem-fatale stereotype, but every other voice in the movie is just as good.   Reilly and Silverman have great chemistry as the main duo, and each side character has their funny moments.  The second major factor in the movie’s favor is the setting.  This was made by people who get and love video games, and it shows.  Loads of subtleties (like how the older game characters move with a herky-jerkiness while the newer game characters walk like normal people) along with its broader themes (like the Candyland parody of the Mario-Kart games) make this movie a ton of fun to watch for both gamers and non-gamers, and is a nice change of pace from Disney’s more traditional themes. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            I honestly do not know why this didn’t win.  It was the most successful and well-recieved Disney film in awhile, and a Disney movie is yet to win Best Animated Feature (Spirited Away and Pixar films don’t count).  On top of that, although I am still a Brave apologist, Wreck-It-Ralph left a better impression in my mind by being much more tightly-written.  Personally, I just think it fell victim to the Pixar-bias that currently (and not unjustifiably) rules the Academy’s thinking- „What?  It’s a Pixar film not named Cars?  Then it MUST win!“

9.   Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)


           I cannot tell you how much I want to give this movie a free pass and put it higher on the list.  Miyazaki’s films are always well-animated, but Howl’s, along with Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, is easily one of the most detailed and beautiful.  Howl’s tells the story of Sophie, a young, shy woman who is forced to leave her family and seek out a mysterious wizard after a witch curses her to turn into an old woman.  Seeking to break the curse, the woman works her way into the confidence (and maybe the heart?) of the wizard, along with his young apprentice and a fire spirit he enslaved as a boy.  The world of Howl’s is gorgeously detailed.  The setting is quasi-Eastern European circa WWII, but with magical powers and tranformations thrown into the mix (not to mention the castle itself).  Sophie is a great main character, and she has emotional, believable chemistry with the other characters.  There is no major villain- the movie is *mostly* just about Sophie living with the wizard in his castle and trying to deal with the curse- but that’s never a problem, because the journey itself is endlessly interesting and entertaining. 

            Sadly, the movie ultimately shoots itself in the foot with its third act, which is very much a jumbled mess.  Several minor conflicts, plot twists, and „villian“ characters are all thrown together rather haphazardly.  In addition, where Spirited Away focused more on environmental themes, Howl’s focuses more on war.  One of the subplots involves a missing prince that has sparked a devastating war (Sophie’s village is eventually destroyed in the conflict), but it’s only brought into play sporadically, and often completely out of the blue.  As typical of Miyazaki as the anti-war message is, Howl’s is probably the one time his inclusion of it feels the most shoe-horned.  It never detracts from the beauty of the film or the strength of the characters, but it was, sadly, enough to knock this movie down towards the bottom of this list. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            I’m pretty certain the darned third act is to blame for this one not winning, especially since there were no Pixar films in the running that year.  Spirited Away, despite it’s VERY Japanese artistic design, had generated a lot of goodwill towards and interest in Miyazaki’s work in the states, so Howl’s straightforward love story and European-esque setting and style should have made it even more appealing to Western sensibilities.  Sadly, as excellent as the rest of the film is, the cluster-bomb of an ending probably left just enough people scratching their heads to keep it from taking home the gold.

8. Monsters, Inc. (Pete Doctor, 2001)


           Monsters, Inc. was the lone Pixar film to fall between the first two Toy Story movies (which effectively launched the CGI Revolution of the past 15 years) and the „Golden Age“ of Pixar’s Oscar dominance, which continues to this day (aside from this and the two Cars movies, literally every other Pixar film released since 2001 has won Best Animated Feature).  It stars John Goodman and Billy Crystal (playing, respectively, John Goodman and Billy Crystal) in a spin-off of the classic „monsters hiding in the closet“ fear of many kids growing up (myself included).  Here, the monsters are actually afraid of us, but „risk their lives“ anyway to scare kids so that their screams can be used for energy (a subtle allegory for modern capitalism/energy policy?  Yes?  No?  Maybe?).  All seems well until a kid sneaks into the Monster world and starts following our two heroes, who soon find out that her presence may be part of a larger conspiracy within the Monster world. 

            Honestly, there’s really not much I can say about this you haven’t heard already.  It’s a Pixar film, and you have ALL seen it.  John Goodman and Billy Crystal are tons of fun to watch playing off each other, Goodman falling for the kid over time is adorable, and even though the major conflict is unnecessarily convoluted and the villains a bit shallow, the main monsters look really interesting, and the way they build up the world towards the fantastic climax is really creative.  It’s just a darn good movie. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            Because Shrek.  With all the overload Dreamworks has dumped onto us since 2001 (and the justifiable ire the series has started to draw because of it), it’s easy to forget just how big a pop culture-bombshell the first Shrek was, establishing Dreamworks as the „Anti-Disney“ (at least back then).  Honestly, I think Shrek and Monsters were pretty even in terms of which one deserved an Oscar, and the popular buzz about Shrek tipped the scales in its favor.  

7. Ice Age (Chris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha, 2002)

            Yup.  I think Ice Age is better than Monsters, Inc.  I’ll explain why, but first, for those poor souls who haven’t seen it:

            Ice Age follows the story of 3 hapless dudes (in the forms of a sloth, a woolly mammoth, and a sabre-tooth tiger) as they seek to return a human baby to his tribe, all the while trying to endure the dangers of a world order slowly changing before their eyes.  The overall story is more or less road trip crossed with disparate-oddballs-form-an-impromptu-wolfpack (screw The Hangover, this came out first), set against a quasi-apocalyptic backdrop. 

            What makes the movie special, though, are two things- one is the comedy, which is fantastic (one of the best moments involves a re-imagining of the extinction of the Dodo bird).  The characters are fun and funny, but also very likeable, and the strong voice acting brings real chemistry to their interactions.  The second is the ice tunnel sequence.  After being trapped inside a winding maze of ice tunnels, they try to find their way through the mountain, eventually having to ride the ice paths like bobsledders to get out.  It’s funny, it features a lot of visual creativity, and on top of all that, it ends with a moment of silent and completely unexpected character development that deserves to be remembered alongside some of the finest Pixar moments.  If you have not seen this yet, do yourself a favor, and get onto Netfix pronto. 

Sequels?  Ice Age has no sequels.  They do not exist.  

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            Harder to say with this particular film.  This was the year that Spirited Away won, which I don’t recall being a foregone conclusion.  It could just be that the film didn’t have the out-and-out cultural tidal wave backing it up like Shrek did the year before to make it stand out more from the Disney/Dreamworks pack that year.  Of course, compared to some of the films I’m about to get to on this list, and given that it lost to a cinematic masterpiece, this really wasn’t that bad of a snub. 

6. Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2011)

            Building on the solid foundation of Kung Fu Panda, this movie continues after Po’s defeat of Tai Lung in the first film.  Po continues to develop his friendship with the other kung fu warriors, and starts to learn a new technique under Master Shifu, until not only the valley but all of China is threatened by the new cannons developed by an evil peacock named Long Shen (voiced to perfection with a side of deliciously sinister by Gary Oldman).  While trying to stop his evil plan, Po is also forced to confront with his own troubled beginnings, and learns the truth of how he came to be raised by a duck. 

            Like a proper sequel, this movie manages to successfully up everything that was good in the first film- the comedy is funnier, the animation is better, and the fight scenes are even more inventive and visually engaging.  On top of that, the decent villian of the first is traded in for the finest Grade-A Gary Oldman.  Every minute with Long Shen is solid gold, and the scene where Po finally learns the truth about his parents is easily one of the finest bits of any Dreamworks animation. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            This one also doesn’t have the excuse of being up against a Pixar work.  I haven’t seen Rango, but from what I have heard of it, it seemed what stuck out the most about that movie was the quality of its animation, which may have been the deciding factor.  Also, I suspect the title may have hurt as well- Kung Fu Panda just isn’t the sort of title that SOUNDS like a good, classic movie.  Ah well, it’s the Academy’s loss.  This film is going to stick around anyway.  I cannot wait for the third film (and I’ve honestly NEVER said that about a film series not based on books).  


5. Shrek 2 (Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, Conrad Vernon, 2004)

            Beginning after Shrek and Fiona’s honeymoon, our beloved trio (because Donkey never could take a hint) receive an invitation to meet Fiona’s parents in the kingdom of Far Far Away, here played up to the hilt as a parody of real-life Beverly Hills.  They go despite Shrek’s hesitations, and are soon forced to deal with the disappointment of Fiona’s parents in her choice of spouse, along with a plot by the Fairy Godmother to break up Shrek and Fiona.  Like with Kung Fu Panda 2, this is a prime example of how to make a great sequel.  It builds on the characters from the first film and gives them even more room to breath and develop, it doesn’t just rehash the plot of the first movie, and, of course, it's even funnier.  Definitely my favorite of the Shrek franchise. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            Like many of the films on this list, Shrek 2 just had the misfortune to be up against a Pixar film, in this case The Incredibles.  It could also be that the potshots it takes at Hollywood with the Far Far Away setting touched a nerve with some of the voters, but, yeah, it probably just lost because, you know, The Incredibles.

4. ParaNorman (Sam Fell, Chris Butler, 2012)

            ParaNorman is only the second feature-length film by Laika Animation, the first being Coraline, which just missed out being on this list as well (Wreck-It-Ralph not winning the Oscar ultimately bumped it off).  Like Coraline, it’s a stop-motion children’s horrorfilm that carries a lot of influence from Tim Burton’s works, especially Nightmare Before Christmas.  Little Norman is a social paria, mostly because he can see and talk with ghosts (and of course, no one believes him).  At first, the film looks like it’s developing into just another zombie-curse story, but it takes a number of refreshing turns, so by the end it barely feels like a zombie film at all.  I think what I appreciated most about it was its bitterly sharp pokes at small-town America (ultimately, the zombies aren’t the terrifying monsters you feel afraid of).  Although containing plenty of dark and serious material, though, ParaNorman never stops being just plain fun to watch.  The characters are funny on their own without having to beg for laughs from the audience.  I like where this company is going with its movies.  And it’s always nice to see that stop-motion animation is far from dead. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            Too weird, too small-scale, and a touch too dark for the Academy’s taste, plus there was a Pixar film in the running.  There seems to be a very, very fine line between „acceptably adult“ (i.e., Shrek) and too far for Oscar voters (see the top 2 on this list), although where exactly that line lies has  been hard to fathom since it’s never been seriously tested by an animated film geared towards adults.  Which is a shame, because I would love to see Laika Animation get the encouragement of winning a major award.  Maybe next time. 

3. How To Train Your Dragon (Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois, 2010)

            This is easily one of the best films Dreamworks has ever made.  Based off a popular series of children’s books, this movie tells the story of the young boy who starts to learn how to tame, train, and live in peace with the dragons that have terrorized his village for generations.  The impetus for this voyage of discovery is a particuarly deadly dragon that he permanently (albeit inadvertently) wounds with an invention of is, prompting him to try and help the creature recover, leading to his discovery that dragons aren’t just mindless killers after all.  Predictably, this puts him into conflict with the elders of his village, including his own father. 

            The animation, especially during the flying scenes, is among the best CGI has yet offered us.  The basic storyline is one we’ve seen a million times before, but it’s done so earnestly, and with such believable characters, that it feels new.  The designs of the dragons are interesting, and the different species they describe are pretty creative (probably a strength it gets from the books).  It also features an incredible soundtrack by John Howell, which takes every scene that features it and makes it better, like a perfect soundtrack should. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar

            This was a film that definitely could have taken the award.......if only it hadn’t been up against Pixar.  And not just any Pixar film, this was up against Toy Story 3.  Honestly, I think that bit of bad luck is the ONLY reason this did not waltz away with the Oscar. 

2. The Secret Of Kells (Tomm Moore, 2009)

            The Secret of Kells is perhaps the most strangely unique film on this list.  Taking place in Ireland at the very end of its pre-Christian days (seriously, pre-Christian Ireland?), Kells is a fictitious story about the creation of the real-life Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the 4 Catholic Gospels nearly 1500 years old.  Brendan, the young nephew of the strict Abbott of Kells, is eager to help complete the book after its aging caretaker shows it to him, and is tasked with gathering berries for ink in the forest around the abbey (which is strictly forbidden by his grim uncle).  After an encounter with some wolves, he meets a spirit girl named Aisling (pronounced „Ashley"), and the two become close friends. 

            Part of what makes Kells so fascinating to watch is how it mixes Christianity with pre-christian Irish paganism- what sort of sprit or creature Aisling is is never explained (she apparently is not able to enter the abbey, so odds are she’s not a Christian angel).  The primary threat in the film is the destructive, rampaging vikings that terrorized Ireland during this period, but another side plot involves a creatively animated form of Crom Cruach, a pagan diety about whom, to this day, little is known.  On top of its refreshingly unique subject matter, the hand-drawn animation is Ghibli-level gorgeous.  Every shot looks like a painting come to life. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            The most obvious reason is Up, which, as I gushed in my last post, is one of the greatest films ever made, so it never stood a chance from the word go, but even if there had been no Pixar film that year, the movie is too atypical, and its subject matter and story way too specific and „out there“ to get the kind of buzz needed to grab the gold.  Sadly, as fantastic a movie as this is, it wouldn’t win in any year, much less against Pixar’s best material. 

1. Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud, 2007)


           This is possibly the ONLY nominee for Best Animated Feature (at least of the ones I’ve seen thus far) that is, quite emphatically, NOT a children’s movie, or even a comedy, and for that, its star shines all the brighter.  Based off of the autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, Persepolis chronicles the early life of its author, Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian-born woman who now lives in France.  Roughly divided into three major parts of her life, we see Marjane as a young girl during the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War that almost immediately followed, while she struggles to comprehend the religious and political forces that constantly threaten her very life.  After she is sent to Europe for her own safety, she struggles to find her identity as both a Persian and a Muslim and reconcile it with the secular European world around her.  After she returns to Iran as a young woman, her journey for her own identity continues amidst the world of political repression in the country that continues to this day, until she finally decides to leave the land of her birth for good. 

            Marjane’s story and its relevance to the current struggles within Islam today alone is compelling enough to make the film worth seeing.  The animation- done in the same style as the graphic novel and primarily in black-and-white- has a childish whimsy to it that makes the story feel other-worldly, but still brilliantly conveys the darkness, depression, and brutality that often enters her life without warning.  The title above links to the trailer (same as Kells above).  If you hunger for movies with any sort of genuine depth or substance, you need to see this film. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            Way too adult.  Forget that it, too, was up against Pixar, this is not the happy, feel-good „family flick“ that overwhelms the ranks of Animated Feature nominees, and, thus, is precisely the sort of film that will not be able to win an Oscar for some time.  Which is a shame, because Perspepolis is yet another of the great works on this list that deserves to be honored, not just as a great animated film, but as a great film period.  It is, in my opinion, the best film to be nominated for Animated Feature, but that did not win. 

-Judge Richard 

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