The State of Animation: The 2012 Academy Awards and Beyond

With the announcement of Seth McFarlane hosting, the plethora of snubs in the directing category, along with the lack of Javier Bardem and Leonardo Dicaprio in the supporting actor category, I have my doubts that I will watch this year ‘s Academy Awards. But there is one moment I’ll tune in for. This year presents a strong field of animated features, of such quality that I believe we are in the beginning of a renaissance for animation.

 

From Pencils to Pixels 

For my generation, love of animated movies starts with the Mouse. Disney has always been a powerhouse in animation, ever since early Hollywood, remaining relevant while others (Warner Brothers, Don Bluth, etc.) had their presence fade away. The early 1990s secured the Mouse’s legacy for yet another generation with hits like The Little Mermaid, Beauty & The Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. But then, in 1995, came a force from the north: Pixar. The tide began to swing, not necessarily towards a monopoly of quality held by one studio, but a singular mode of animation.

 

Hand-drawn cell animation became a thing of the past, except in foreign countries like Japan where Hayao Miyazaki continued to produce brilliant works of art. Dreamworks Animation entered the CGI fray in 1998 with Antz, beginning a pseudo-rivalry with Pixar. Insects vs. insects (Antz/A Bug’s Life), rats vs. rats (Flushed Away/Ratatouille), superheroes vs. superheroes (Megamind/The Incredibles), and even Scotland vs. Scotland (How to Train Your Dragon/Brave). Pixar maintained an unheard of streak of successes, but combined with smaller studios’ “surprise” hits (Laiki’s Coraline and Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me for example), along with the slight bump in the road known as Cars 2, the state of animation has begun to mutate yet again.

Awards are not always the best reflection of quality filmmaking, especially in regards to predicting lasting pictures of success. However, the ever-changing landscape of animation can be tracked through the last decade quite well via the Oscars. Prior to 2002, the only animated film to be nominated for Best Picture was Beauty and the Beast (which later lost to The Silence of the Lambs). Then, for the 2001 race, the first ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature was given out to Dreamworks Animation’s Shrek, beating out Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. There were worries that the creation of this category would prevent any other animated film a chance to break that glass ceiling and win the Oscar for Best Picture. This is true in some regard. Though Up and Toy Story 3 were nominated for the overall Best Picture after the number of nominees possible were increased to ten, no animated picture has taken home the gold.

 

Animation Domination

But I believe that the creation of the Best Animated Feature category has spurred creativity in the industry for the past decade, growing leaps and bounds in regards to story, technology, and competition. Though Pixar has won six times at the Oscars, hand-drawn films such as Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and the stop-motion Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit have also had their moment in the sun. In some regards, the Academy has been much more open in their nominations for this category than the actual Best Picture race. They haven’t been afraid to nominate foreign films like the works of Sylvain Chomet, sci-fi pieces such as Ron Clements and John Musker’s Treasure Planet and Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E, and even horror films including Henry Selick’s Coraline and two of this year’s nominees: Frankenweenie and ParaNorman.

 

This year is the epitome of the Best Animated Feature category, including the diversity lacking in most other Oscar races. Three out of the five films are stop motion, one is foreign, and all were financially successful (Frankenweenie was aided by its DVD sales). This last part, box-office contenders, is commonly a roadblock to victory or even nomination for the overall Best Picture category. One of the most famous examples would be the 1983 race, in which Gandhi beat out E.T for Best Picture. The Academy tends to award “indie” movies over mainstream and popular films, with Lord of the Rings: Return of the King being one of only a few exceptions.

This year’s contenders in animation owe a chunk of their financial success to the one aspect they share; all films were released in 3D. Though I am personally not a fan of this trend, and only saw two of the five pictures in 3D (Frankenweenie and The Pirates! Band of Misfits), if it helps these films make money and therefore help more quality animated motion pictures be made, then by all means continue with it.

 

And the Oscar goes to…

So whom do I think will win? Pixar’s track record is the best, but not stellar. They have lost nearly as many times as they have won. Disney has two pictures in the race, but double nominations are always a risk due to possible split voting, and the studio has never won in this category before. Aardman Animation’s The Pirates! was released nearly a year ago and has been out of the spot light for far too long.

In the end, I would be happy with whichever film takes home the golden statue. Brave featured a mother/daughter tale rarely seen outside of a live-action melodrama. ParaNorman wasn’t afraid to go there in discussing death in a kid-centric film. Wreck-It-Ralph went against all odds in creating a great video game movie.  Frankenweenie took a risk with the black & white cinematography, and The Pirates! deserves credit for somehow remaining relevant and riding the wave of mainly just word of mouth to shore.

 

I also think that some of these films would be deserving of a Best Picture nod, especially with one slot having been left open in that category this year. But there is a common misconception in Hollywood that has probably led to no animated motion picture winning the coveted Best Picture award. Filmmakers, such as John Lasseter, repeatedly have had to remind their peers and the public that animation is NOT a genre. It is a mode of filmmaking, a STORYtelling tool. This year, animators of all disciplines, proved that they could tell just as good, if not better stories, as their live-action counterparts.

 

 

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