Thursday, February 25, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Animated Feature

Co-directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's Anomalisa is nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Animated Feature

The nominees are:

Boy & the World
Shaun the Sheep Movie
When Marnie Was There

It is hard to believe this category has existed for only 15 years. Maybe it is because I am younger, but this category has always felt like a part of the Oscars to me. It makes sense. Certainly before 2001, there were not nearly enough feature-length animated films to justify a separate category. But with the explosion in independent animation houses in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a wealth of quality animated films flooded the market, and thus, a category was born. Still, despite the growth on the margins of the industry and the democratization of production, one very big company has ruled them all.

Pixar Animation Studio has earned 10 nominations in this category in 15 years, missing out with only three eligible films. Of the 14 Best Animated Feature Oscars so far handed out, Pixar films have won seven. No other studio has more than two, while two different Pixar directors have two Animated Feature awards. Each one of those numbers is set to be raised by one this year as previous winner Pete Docter returns this year with a seemingly unbeatable frontrunner. The nominees are universally fantastic, but it is a fool who bets against the Pixar machine.

Inside Out (directed by Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen) – There was talk among pundits when Inside Out came out in June last year of the film possibly being nominated for Best Picture. Only three animated films ever have been nominated in the top category – Beauty and the Beast, Up, and Toy Story 3 – and none since the Academy changed its rules to allow five to 10 nominees rather than a straight 10. The Best Picture nomination did not pan out for Inside Out, but such talk was emblematic of the love the film inspires among critics and fans.

Surely, it is a wild, imaginative ride through the mind of a preteen girl, showing us what it is like to experience the world as someone who still understands so little of it. It is a literal depiction of depression – which is tackled too rarely in film – for a target audience that is just beginning to understand its feelings and how it fits into the culture as a whole. It is also the work of parents, valiantly pleading with their children to keep as much joy in their lives as possible.

Docter, Del Carmen, and co-writers Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley know how easy it is for the world to get you down, and they have created a beautiful expression of youth and imagination that celebrates life above all else. Docter won this award in 2009 for Up, which showed how an old man can recapture the joy in his life by embracing what it means to be young. Docter will likely win the award this year for the opposite – for showing how a young girl does not have to give up joy just because she is getting older.

Anomalisa (directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman) – There is no one who writes films like Kaufman. There never has been, and it would be shocking if there ever were again. His perspective on life and human relationships is so specific and so unique that to attempt to replicate it would be to destroy it. Kaufman’s films are what they are because of the man who made them, and for his first animated feature, with co-director Johnson, he has taken his distinctive writing style and translated it to a medium that can truly express the depth of his vision.

Nothing much happens in Anomalisa. A customer service expert arrives in Cincinnati to give a speech on, well, customer service. While at the hotel, he meets a woman who is unlike anyone he has ever met in his life. She is in fact the only other unique person in this world, so far as he can tell. Their courtship and the fragile bond they form makes up the bulk of the film, which ultimately is less about the story it tells than the feelings that story inspires in the audience. There is pain, fear, and regret, along with fleeting moments of happiness, and it all adds up to one man’s not-so-special life, made momentarily whole by his meeting another individual.

Kaufman is a previous Oscar winner for Original Screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, while he was also previously nominated for co-writing Adaptation. and writing Being John Malkovich. Each of those films, plus his brilliant directorial debut Synecdoche, NY, is exemplary of the kind of insight and world building of which Kaufman is capable. No one else does what he does. Johnson is a 37-year-old wunderkind animator working on his first feature. His mix of stop-motion and puppetry on Anomalisa is what makes the film tick. Without Johnson’s technical wizardry, they would be just amazing words on a page.

Shaun the Sheep Movie (directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak) – The only film in this lineup for the most part strictly for children, Shaun the Sheep Movie is one of my favorite discoveries of the year. I was unfamiliar with the television show on which the film is based, a Wallace & Gromit spinoff also produced by Aardman Animations; however, the Aardman style is unmistakable. Both in its look and its emotional core, Shaun the Sheep Movie is an absolute delight from start to finish.

The stop-motion animation is simply flawless, and the script hits on a number of interesting ideas about routine, taking our loved ones for granted, and the importance of home and family. It is fairly deep stuff for a movie about an intrepid sheep who leads his flock into the big city to find their farmer who has accidentally become an icon of the hairstyling world. The gags are great, the music is wonderful, and if you can allow yourself to be taken in by its charms, Shaun the Sheep Movie is a joyously realized, surprisingly tender little movie.

Boy & the World (directed by Alê Abreu) – This is the kind of film for which animators tend to fall head over heels. It takes the simple premise of a young boy setting off to find his father who has left home and turns it into an examination of corporatization, globalization, and the way the innocence of youth gives way to the compromise and corruption of adulthood. It blends hand-drawn animation – Abreu made every one of this film’s drawings himself – live-action documentary footage, and a raucous, rousing musical score to create a sensory experience unlike any other.

The film opens with simple line drawings over a white background, depicting a boy who has never left the safety of his home. The more he explores, the more complex the animation becomes, reflecting his fuller understanding of the world around him. It is not a happy life he finds in the larger world. In fact, it is damn hard – demoralizing and dehumanizing in equal measure. He comes to understand how people must find small joys in moments or actions that may seem meaningless but carry great emotional and symbolic weight for them.

When Marnie Was There (directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi) – The Studio Ghibli banner has always been a mark of quality. From the earliest films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Ghibli has stood for superbly rendered animation that brings to life worlds of magical realism that help people understand their own inner worlds and struggles a little better. Yonebayashi, who has been an animator of Studio Ghibli films for nearly 20 years, here directs just his second feature, and it is unmatched for majesty and depth of feeling.

When Marnie Was There is the story of a young orphan girl suffering from depression who meets another young girl whose family is always away. Through their friendship, each learns to cope with the pain and difficulties of life. It is rare to see such deep and meaningful female friendships portrayed onscreen, and it is refreshing. To watch Anna and Marnie interact is to watch the work of filmmakers who truly understand what it is to be young, to feel lost and alone, and to discover another soul that looks like yours.

The final analysis

Inside Out is one of the biggest hits of the year, it is culturally ubiquitous, and many would argue it is a new high-water mark for the standard-bearer of animation studios. There is every likelihood more Academy members will have seen Inside Out than the other four nominees combined. Its popularity and its quality will carry it to the win over a remarkable field. Among these nominees, there is no wrong answer, but the winner will be Inside Out.

Will win: Inside Out
Should win: Anomalisa
Should have been here: Minions

Tomorrow: Best Picture

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