Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Look at the Troubling Best Animated Feature Race of 2013

Scene from Frozen
With Oscar season firmly under way and 12 Years a Slave on the verge of a wide release, it is time to re-evaluate the one category in which thing seem highly unclear: Best Animated Feature. Where last year's selection had some of the best, diverse offerings, this year seems to be an open book with little to no indication of any film deserving nomination besides Pixar's Monsters University. While I predicted that the film will win, I at least hoped that in the process of the months following, and preceding, that it would have a film with enough esteem to overthrow it. So, what is going on with the Best Animated Feature category?

One of the great joys in watching cinema is finding a new animated movie that connects with you and makes you believe in the art form. Last year saw both ParaNorman and Wreck-It Ralph become two of the best in recent years. Studio animation was having a miniature renaissance in 2012 with three of the Best Animated Feature nominees being stop motion. The possibilities seemed endless. Then in 2013, almost the opposite seems to be true.

A meandering batch of films with none doing too highly. Monsters University has been the only film of note to come out. While I enjoyed it, the feedback wasn't as favorable and left me searching for the next thing. Among the batch, the biggest titles were Despicable Me 2, The Croods, Turbo, and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. Not necessarily a bad bunch, though with Despicable Me 2 as the highest rated on critic aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes at 75%, it is a far cry from the numbers of Wreck-It Ralph (86%) or Frankenweenie (97%). I am not expecting every animated movie to appeal to older audiences, but the reviews appear to suggest a decline in quality. Even if you discount the numbers and take out the sequels, the remaining films (The Croods, Turbo) seem baffling at a premise standpoint. 

It is one of the few reasons that Frozen seemed appealing. By this time last year, animation had produced a lot of healthy competition and had a few curve balls nearby. Even if Frozen appears to look and behave in much the ways that Rise of the Guardians, it feels fresh and unique in ways that give it some leeway, especially with competition not being that strong. There is Free Birds, but otherwise this holiday season is not looking too strong on the big studio front. 

What happened to the tent pole family releases? Even if Saving Mr. Banks is the big family film of the Fall, there is limited appeal there. Much like Hugo, children are not going to want to be bogged down with a history lesson. They want entertainment. Sadly, cinemas doesn't seem to be giving it to them in creative or fun ways this Fall. In fact, Frozen is technically the last animated movie being released this year during the holiday season. This basically means that the race is practically over for films that you may have likely heard about standing a chance. We may have some Chico and Rita or A Cat in Paris sneak in like in 2011, but this is just shaping up to be a lackluster year for children's films.

I cannot claim to be an expert, as I have only seen Monsters University. There is little doubt that it will get nominated and win simply because Pixar has rarely broken the Oscar bias code. I feel that while Frozen could be entertaining, it will fall victim to being a niche film, much like Rise of the Guardians, that appeals to a specific audience, but because of that it will not be by any means a critical enough success to be more than just a fun movie. I hope it is for many of reasons, but mostly because I want this year to end well and with more than one animated movie that general audiences clamor for.

Scene from The Croods
From what has come out, I can predict very little of it being considered in the final race. In the realm of sequels, only Monsters University is a follow-up to a nominated film. This makes the bias towards the others a lot harder to gauge, much less accept. Even if Despicable Me 2 was a box office success, many consider it to be less than its predecessor in terms of overall quality. I cannot gauge Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, as while also a success story, also feels like a lesser version of the previous film. 

In fact, of all major studio films released in 2013, the only effort that I could see even being considered is The Croods. While Epic may sneak in on artistic merit, the appeal of The Croods is that it practically came out of nowhere and became a sleeper hit. Much like our current situation, it was the only family film in wide release and thus reaped the benefits. I cannot argue of its quality, though it currently rates 69% on Rotten Tomatoes, but with the appeal of Dreamworks Animation quickly rising and in some ways usurping Disney and Pixar's films in overall quality, I wouldn't be surprised if this was the studio's biggest push for a nomination. Its success story alone will give it some edge with the voice cast giving a little extra incentive.

On the global scale, Monsters University finally has some legitimate competition. Studio Ghibli, the company behind Best Animated Feature winner Spirited Away and nominee Howl's Moving Castle, is releasing one of the most anticipated animated movies on anyone's calendar. Beloved legend of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki is releasing The Wind Rises, which is being rumored to be his last feature length film. This gives the narrative some credibility and the appeal of its nomination stronger. While the film won't hit a wide release until February 2014, the studio plans to release the film in New York and Los Angeles from November 8-14 in order to qualify for nominations. Check out the Toronto International Film Festival's trailer:

Quite impressive, isn't it? The praise has been rather positive, with's David Ehrlich calling it the best animated film that he's ever seen. As a fan of Miyazaki, I do hope that the film delivers on all of the buzz that has been floating around. While I also mentioned From Up on Poppy Hill earlier this year, director Goro Miyazaki has yet to earn the praise that Hayao has. It still could be considered, but with the lack of resonance that it has had with film goers, it doesn't seem likely. At very least, The Wind Rises is a guaranteed nomination because of Miyazaki's stature in the animation world and with his record of artistic achievement being high, even the lesser works (not meant as an insult) should be considered.

With all of this said, it is interesting to see what statistics website Gold Derby has to say on the category, as it differs slightly from my predictions. Fortunately, the buzz around The Wind Rises has pushed it to the front of the race with odds of 13:5. In a strange fate, Frozen comes in second with odds of 10:3 (which I am predicting will drop upon actual release). My presumed front runner Monsters University is third with odds of 9:2. The Croods has odds of 15:2 and rounding out the top five currently is Despicable Me 2 with odds of 10:1.

The list does seem rather strange and while there's a good chance things will change drastically between now and the final voting, it is important to consider the potential upsets. Along with what little power the Golden Globes have over swaying voters, a lot of influence by campaigns can quickly change the race. As of now, the next five are Ernest and Celestine, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, A Letter to Momo, Walking with Dinosaurs, and The Legend of Sarila

Of these nominees, I do believe that Ernest and Celestine has the best shot of overthrowing them. The downside of The Legend of Sarila is the graphics make it feel dated. The downside of A Letter to Momo isn't necessarily in animation, but with The Wind Rises proving to be the potential favorite, there is already one anime movie in the race. While last year showed that more than one style could get into the category, it would need to distinguish itself from competitors. Ernest and Celestine looks to have plenty of distinguishable animation traits that appear more hand drawn and different. This will do well, especially as it visually could represent its own form much like A Cat in Paris or Chico and Rita. It also is packed with humor, which is missing from a lot of its competition. Check out the trailer:

While I am not fond of a lot of American animated films coming out this year, I do feel like there is some justice that can be place provided that the foreign competition plays largely. While I do feel like The Croods will be the surprise nomination, I don't see any non-Pixar film being able to come as close to winning as The Wind Rises. Next year looks to be a great year for animated movies, but for now, we have Free Birds and Frozen to be potential upsets, which is most likely not happening. Fingers crossed that the nominations don't stick to traditional fare and get clever.

Will Monsters University or The Wind Rises take the top prize? Is 2013 just a bad year for studio animated films? How can we fix this in the years going ahead?

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