Friday, February 17, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Animated Feature

Zootopia is nominated for Best Animated Feature.

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 leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Animated Feature

The nominees are:

Kubo and the Two Strings
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle

Best Animated Feature is a studio game, plain and simple. This is the 16th year since the category became official at the Oscars, and in that time, there have been 64 nominated features. Of those 64, 31 have come from just three studios – Pixar (Disney Pixar), Disney, and Dreamworks. Of the 15 winners, not counting this year of course, those three studios have accounted for 12. The boom in independent animation has been wonderful for the industry, but if you want to win an Oscar, come with big boys or don’t come at all.

This year represents one of the few times Pixar had an eligible feature (Finding Dory) that failed to get a nomination, but Disney made up for it with a double nomination (Zootopia and Moana). Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli earned its sixth nomination with its first non-Japanese production (The Red Turtle), and Laika picked up its fourth nomination (Kubo and the Two Strings) for its fourth film, a perfect record that so far has produced zero wins. French-Swiss co-production My Life as a Zucchini is the only independently produced nominee, and not coincidentally, it is the least likely winner.

*Note: Full disclosure, I have not yet seen My Life as a Zucchini, which will not be released here until Feb. 24, two days before the ceremony. I will write about it in this space once I have had the opportunity to see it.

Zootopia (directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore)Zootopia has been the animated movie of the moment pretty much the whole year. Its clever examination of race relations and prejudice teaches viewers a valuable lesson, and it is also undeniably entertaining and hilarious. Released early in 2016, as the U.S. presidential election truly was beginning to ramp up, it felt important and relevant then, and it has only grown more so as events in this nation have unfolded.

The film not only forces us to question our preconceived notions and biases, but it also wants us to question who benefits from those biases and how those people build systems that reinforce and worsen prejudice. Of course, this is all done in the style of a computer-animated talking-animal movie in which an adorable bunny (a bunny is allowed to call another bunny “cute,” but another animal …) realizes her dream of becoming a police officer.

The writing is smart, the animation is inspired, and the message is moving and necessary. Given all that – and the fact it has been a dominant and beloved force all season – you are probably looking at your winner. It would be the third non-Pixar Disney winner in the last four years, joining Frozen and Big Hero 6, and fifth straight from either Pixar or the parent company. Howard is a previous nominee for Bolt and Moore for Wreck-It Ralph, while nominated producer Clark Spencer will be making his first trip to the Oscars.

Moana (directed by Ron Clements and John Musker) – Of course, I will be rooting for the other Disney nominee in the category. If Best Animated Feature existed in the ’90s, Clements and Musker probably would already have a couple Oscars for The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, both of which they also directed together. As it stands, their only previous nomination together came in 2009 for The Princess and the Frog, which lost to Pixar’s crowning achievement, Up. Clements earned a solo nomination for Treasure Planet in 2002, though that feature was also co-directed by Musker.

Moana is the story of a young Polynesian girl, Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho), torn between duty to her people and an insatiable desire to explore the world beyond her island. When the island is threatened by a curse that will wipe out all life, she sets out to find the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) and, with his help, end the curse. As a tale of a young girl’s strength, wisdom, and independence, it is revolutionary in the Disney canon, encouraging traits in a young girl rarely encouraged by the movies or, sadly, by the world at large.

Beyond that, it is a terrific entertainment with the most gorgeous animation of the year – particularly the water effects, which are remarkable – and one of the best, most listenable Disney soundtracks in a long time. The songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina are endlessly hummable, instantly memorable, and in the case of the showstopper “How Far I’ll Go,” out-and-out brilliant. The voice acting is on point, and the world of the story is absolutely engrossing. As I have said before, this is not only the best animated film of the year but one of the best films of the year, period.

Kubo and the Two Strings (directed by Travis Knight) – Where I find myself in the minority with my unabashed affection for Moana, I also find myself in the minority with my muted appreciation of Kubo and the Two Strings. Along with Zootopia, Knight’s stop-motion film gobbled up the lion’s share of critical kudos and has been talked about as the most likely spoiler in this category. Only the second animated film ever nominated for Best Visual Effects, the animation is undoubtedly gorgeous to look at, but on a story level, the film does not hold up.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a story of magic, tradition, and family, but the film’s default setting for communicating each of these ideas is action – action, action, and more action. Again, I would never deny Knight, who is also president and CEO of Laika, and his team bring their vision to life in a stunning fashion. Every sequence is magnificently realized and lovingly detailed. In between action sequences, though, the story bogs down, seemingly unsure what to do with itself when not engaged in a battle of some sort. As such, whatever message the film is trying to communicate is lost in the morass of combat.

The Red Turtle (directed by Michael Dudok de Wit – The story goes Studio Ghibli co-founder and animation legend Hayao Miyazaki met with the head of Wild Bunch studio and screened the Oscar-winning animated short Father and Daughter. He then asked Wild Bunch to find him that director. That was in 2008, and after finding Dudok de Wit and convincing him to make a film for the studio, the world got The Red Turtle.

A marvel of hand-drawn animation, Dudok de Wit’s style is recognizably his own, while still maintaining that certain Studio Ghibli charm, no doubt aided by the presence of nominated producer Toshio Suzuki. The plot, such as it is, follows the life of a man who gets shipwrecked on a deserted island and makes a life for himself there. To reveal anything further would be to dispel some of the film’s magic, though the trailer does a pretty good job of that anyway. The Red Turtle is intentionally slow and contemplative, but even at 80 minutes, it feels long, like a magnificent short idea stretched out to feature length.

My Life as a Zucchini*See note above

The final analysis

Zootopia is the juggernaut here, the billion-dollar grosser from one of the biggest studios in the world. It won the Golden Globe and the Producers Guild award for animated feature, and it has picked up numerous critical accolades. Kubo and the Two Strings is the underdog from the little stop-motion studio that could. Its triumph at the BAFTA Awards over Zootopia and Moana certainly raises questions for the Academy. Could this be the year Laika finally breaks through? I wouldn’t bet on it. Expect Disney’s recent run of dominance to continue, though not necessarily for its best new film.

Will win: Zootopia
Should win: Moana
Should have been here: Finding Dory

Tomorrow: Best Animated Short

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