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?
BIG HERO 6
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.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2
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: ...it 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.
SONG OF THE SEA
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.
THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA
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!