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Tim's Toons: The newly wide-open animation race

Tim here. As you’ve probably heard, unless this is literally the first thing you’ve read on the internet all day, the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars got thrown for a loop when the prohibitive frontrunner, The Lego Movie, was unexpectedly denied a nomination. In the blink of an eye, one of the most boring races suddenly turned into the most unpredictable of all 24.

So why don’t we start hacking away at the five titles, and see what we can make of them, now that we’ve suddenly got some excitement on our hands?

Directors: Don Hall (1st nomination), Chris Williams (2nd nomination)
Studio: Walt Disney Animation (8th nomination)

Nathaniel kind of liked it, I kind of liked it a bit less. Which mostly describes the reception that the film has received from everybody: nobody much dislikes the genial adventure-comedy about a boy and his charmingly soft robot, but it hasn’t inspired the kind of culture-devouring passion that Disney’s Frozen was enjoying a year ago at this point.

Path to victory: If the glow of the Disney brand name, so recently rejuvenated by Frozen’s enormous success, convinces people that this one was probably good enough to get by in an uncertain year.

Directors: Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable (1st nomination for each)
Studio: Laika (3rd nomination, 4th if we include the pre-Laika Corpse Bride)

With The Lego Movie out of the picture, this has abruptly become the critics’ baby in the race. And it’s not an unfair position for the film, which bears its rough, handmade aesthetic with pride that shades into showing-off. Those of us who love stop-motion animation really love it, and the studio has done an outstanding job of positioning itself as the home for high-tech revisions to the most ancient of animation forms. The Boxtrolls is certainly not their most sophisticated piece of storytelling, but it’s a technical masterwork. For more praise, check out this top 10.

Path to victory: It’s in a great position to do some of the "look at our wonderfully fussy homey craftsmanship" campaigning that Laika does so well, and CEO Travis Knight has deep pockets. The film will have to work for it, but it’s work that I think can be done.


Director: Dean DeBlois (3rd nomination)
Studio: DreamWorks Animation (11th nomination)

A sequel that many people liked and only some people particularly loved. A lot of that is the side effect of having two movies' worth of plot crushed down into one, cramping things and having unfortunate repercussions in the department of making Cate Blanchett's awesome character feel like an afterthought. It's also a little too desperate to make things feel grander and more epic, at the expense of the character-driven charm of the first. Still...

Path to victory: feels like the default pick, right? DreamWorks proper hasn't won since the category's very first year in 2001, and voting for HTTYD2 can retroactively feel like rewarding the original, which surely would have won against any competition less fierce than Toy Story 3. The box office and the critics are fine without being in any way exceptional, though, so this is less the one that's surely going to take the Oscar, than the one that only takes the Oscar if nobody else can be bothered.


Director: Tomm Moore (2nd nomination)
Studio: Cartoon Saloon (2nd nomination)

I must confess to having not seen it. Both Nathaniel and Margaret were pretty high on it, though, and on the strength of 2009's The Secret of Kells, I feel that following Moore down the rabbit hole of brightly-colored Celtic mythology is a pretty safe bet. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to look at this one a bit more closely in the next few weeks.

Path to victory: Margaret puts it bluntly: "breathtakingly stunning artwork". Being the most traditional, and probably also the most striking, of the nominees can only help. The big uncertainty here is that distributor GKIDS ended up with two nominees, and it's hard to guess if they have the resources to handle two campaigns. One of them almost certainly has to give.


Director: Isao Takahata (1st nomination)
Studio: Studio Ghibli (4th nomination)

As you perhaps know - because I won't shut the hell up about it - Takahata is one of the great living directors of animation, and Princess Kaguya is a gorgeous, challenging (potential) swan song. Retelling the most ancient story in Japanese storytelling using digtital animation techniques designed to mimic pencil sketches and watercolors, the film is a smart blend of fable and domestic drama without any anachronistic modern attitudes but also without old-fashioned fustiness. It's my favorite animated feature of the year, so I get a little over-passionate about it; it's also the only one of the nominees mostly meant for an adult audience.

Path to victory: See the above issue with GKIDS' split loyalties. These seems like the stronger play - it has more critics' awards, it's probably the last Ghibli film that will have a real shot at winning, the same for Takahata - but the category hasn't favored grown-up animation yet. And this is way Japanese. Besides, how many Academy members can possibly find "But Takahata might not ever make another movie!" a compelling argument?


Alright, so if you had to pick, right now, what do you think will end up winning? And was The Lego Movie robbed, or is that just the cost of making a feature-lenth toy ad? Sound off in comments!

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Reader Comments (24)

So happy for Kaguya, such a breathtakingly gorgeous movie.

January 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

With Lego Movie out of the way, How to Train Your Dragon 2 may end up being the victor, but there lies a glimmer of hope for Princess Kaguya to come out of nowhere and take the win. It may not be much of a hope, but like you I truly loved Princess Kaguya and I hope that this ends up happening. It would be fitting for Miyazaki and Takahata to each have a competitive Oscar.

Dunno what you feel about the Best Animated Short category. Feast is going to be the popular choice, but it may end up coming down to The Dam Keeper and The Bigger Picture. Then again, the Academy is enamored with Torill Kove and Me and My Moulton could end up surprising, although I personally found it underwhelming.

January 15, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterajnrules

Thanks for this awesome write-up! I bet the winner is 'Dragon' for the reasons you mention but also because it has made a ton of money. But if there is an upset, I think it will be 'Princess Kaguya' because it's the only one of these films that inspires the kind of loyalty it will need to knock the CGI behemoth out.

January 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDusty

Yeah, Dragon is probably going to win (which makes me so upset as I kind of loathed that movie). However, I'm praying for The Boxtrolls, which I think may be in second place, and am excited to see Kaguya and Song of the Sea. I still wish Lego had taken out Dragon, though.

January 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

I'm rooting for The Boxtrolls, but that's just because I haven't seen either of the GKIDS nominees (which I will as soon as I find them). The Golden Globe win for How to Train Your Dragon 2 might be telling though and while I don't think it's as good as the first, it's not necessarily a bad choice. Big Hero 6 was a film I was enjoying, up until the end when it turned into another superhero origin story (though I still enjoyed Baemax)...

January 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

I want Princess Kaguya because I was so pissed last year about Frozen taking the Oscar away from The Wind Rises, which for me was one of loveliest films of the 2000s, and PK ranks right up there too. But, I did like HTTYD2 quite a bit, though I agree the second half was weak.
I haven't seen Song of the Sea, but I didn't love Secret of the Kells. Bummed that neither The Book of Life nor The Lego Movie got in because I had tons of fun watching both films.

So I guess, I would be happy with either PK or HTTYD2. I think PK will win.

January 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I also haven't seen Song of the Sea yet, so my vote goes for Princess Kaguya.

As far who WILL win... I guess (and hope) it's The Boxtrolls. The only one of the American nominees that I liked. But seriously, I found all the American animated movies I saw this year a little (or a lot) underwhelming.

January 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterConrado

I think that HTTYD2 will win because of the power of Dreamworks, the cuteness of Toothless, and the fact that it strikes a nice balance between commercial and prestige filmmaking.

I'd personally like to see Big Hero 6 or Song of the Sea win. The former has gotten an unfair wrap for being predictable (all of these films were fairly predictable) and is quite cute. The latter is gorgeous.

Ajnrules raises a thought I had earlier in the day that perhaps Feast isn't the lock people think it is. It is a cute idea but the execution didn't live up to expectations and it felt like it was trying to hard with the music to make the film seem grander than it really was. I got serious wannabe-Paperman vibes from it. The Dam Keeper looks beautiful and films that are visually striking like The Bigger Picture have done quite well in recent years. I think it comes down to who is voting-- are these being sent out on screeners to all voters this year?

January 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Let's be honest- most commercial animated films ARE toy ads so really not sure why that would work against Lego.

January 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

@Jamie: Except usually the toys follow the film.

I would love to see Song of the Sea win.

January 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

My theory on why lego movie wasn't nominated:
The animation branch vote for who the nominees are, and as such, they probably weight animation quality much more than regular folk. Lego Movie's animation is is perfect for the purposes of this movie, but ultimately, it's still all about getting toys to move like toys. That kind of animation suits this movie obviously (though I found it a little annoying for feature length), but it still might be the antithesis of what many animators (especially old-school ones) value in animation: striving for life-like and vivid movement, not letting the audience remember that what they're seeing is all fake. The fact that the Lego Movie's most emotional and resonant scene is live-action highlights how much more gimmicky the Lego Movie's animation is compared to, say, Big Hero 6 (and the other 4 nominees too, I assume, though I haven't seen them). Anyway, that's my 2 cents. And of course, this is all armchair BS analysis as I don't have any more insight into how the animation branch think than anybody else.

January 16, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterbuttface

I certainly hope the "quality of animation" wasn't what caused Lego to miss out. The animation style was absolutely perfectly suited to the subject matter and a refreshing change from the recent trend towards showing off as many animation tricks as possible at the cost of story, wit, and creativity.

January 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTeppo2

I think it would be awesome to see one of the foreign animated nominees take the trophy since that rarely happens.

I was predicting Song of the Sea and Princess Kaguya to both get in, but definitely didn't expect it to be at the expense of The Lego Movie.

I think sometimes frontrunners actually have a slight disadvantage in the nomination process because everyone expects them to be nominated, they expect everyone else to vote for the film, so people place their passion in other places (Song of the Sea, Princess Kaguya). I think that's what happened for The Lego Movie. But also, they probably just weren't as huge fans of it as critics. I'm sure it was right on the cusp of a nomination though.

January 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

I hope it's Kaguya. It'd be the single best win in the category since Spirited Away. Takahata is a master. GKIDS should be positioning this as a way to honor him, reminding everyone that he directed Grave of the Fireflies (my God I hope the Academy knows that film). I also hope they can get screeners to every voting member. If they are convinced to see the film and look past the "princess" title, then it stands a chance. I'm still waiting for Joe Hisaishi to break into the Score category. His work is consistently among the best orchestral soundtracks every year he works.

January 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Interesting that no one seemed to think The Lego Movie might miss out, yet when the nominations were announced, it immediately made sense that the animators might have issues with its animation style and the fact that an important part of the movie is live action. I remember that a few years ago, quite a few people correctly predicted that Tintin wouldn't be nominated because the animators wouldn't vote for motion capture.

January 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJan

My pick has been The Tale of Princess Kaguya for a long time now and I still think it could win. I think The Boxtrolls might pull it out since Studio Lenka is now 3/3 with nominations for gorgeous, critically acclaimed stop motion films.

January 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

I personally can't see BOXTROLLS winning primarily because it is far more divisive than the previous Laika hits. I think Dragon 2 will take it but if it can't be Boxtrolls i'm rooting for Song of the Sea because it would be so great if Thom Moore had an Oscar

January 16, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

So tell me the truth - is BOXTROLLS boring? At first it looked so great - when it was just basically the Boxtrolls and the boy - and then I started seeing previews with other human characters and the whole thing started looking typical and stupid. I love the animation but if the story is boring, I just can't see it. So someone be honest - is the movie entertaining beyond having amazing animation?!

January 16, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterbillybil

So tell me the truth - is BOXTROLLS boring? At first it looked so great - when it was just basically the Boxtrolls and the boy - and then I started seeing previews with other human characters and the whole thing started looking typical and stupid. I love the animation but if the story is boring, I just can't see it. So someone be honest - is the movie entertaining beyond having amazing animation?!

January 16, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterbillybil

Team Kaguya, here. Takahata more than deserves it. Though I quite enjoyed it, HTTYD2 is really the fourth best film in the category. A win wouldn't be a travesty or anything, but this feels like a perfect opportunity - a la 2011, when Rango won in a soft year - to recognize a non-DIsney, non-franchise artistic triumph. Here's hoping the voters agree.

January 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

I get the animation argument, but isn't the category "Best Animated Feature Film", and not "Best Piece of Animated Art"? Surely the direction, acting, and screenplay are considered, since it's a film? If not, then just give the award to the Dreamworks feature every year, because no one can deny they are beautiful pieces of art, even if the things involved that make a movie a movie suck.

January 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

The best animated movie of the year was " The Lego Movie" . " How To Train Your Dragon 2" was a lazy sequel that ruined everything that made the first movie special. Have not seen the other films but I would prefer a classic hand drawn winner.

January 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I loved the movie "How To Train Your Dragon 2", basically due to the mind blowing visual effects that were put into the movie and also because of the adorable animated characters in it.

January 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDana Morales

I'm rooting for How to Train Your Dragon. Yay! It's the best animated film of 2014!

If there will be an upset, well, I hope nobody wins at all. Lol!

Will probably give the runner-up spot to Boxtrolls (but not really).

January 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDann

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