This past weekend, How to Train Your Dragon 2 opened in theaters, and I was very ecstatic about it. I still consider it to be something of a masterpiece that will hopefully find more legs as its box office history continues. With the expectations of it topping next year's Academy Awards, it got me thinking: what are my favorite Best Animated Feature nominees? In the category's brief, 13 year existence, it has celebrated the growth of a style that used to be a lot cruder. However, it has also shown the progression effectively, especially as computer technology has trumped traditional technique and has taken some films into new artistic zones.
From all of the comments that could be made, the most obvious is why am I so obsessed with this category? For starters, it is likely one of the few categories to reward "overall quality" of a film (Best Documentary being another one) and not of a specific aspect that you are likely to recognize over half of the nominees. It has also created a perfectly brisk look at how animation has grown. Simply look at Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2001) and then Rango (2011). We've come a lot further than you think.
The following is a look at my 10 favorite in the category that still resonate with me and make me feel that animation is something greater. Obviously, there's a lot of predictable favorites in the mix, but please don't be offended for some omissions. It is impossible to include many titles on here. Much like my other lists, this is meant to be a better understanding of who I am as a writer and what my interests are when looking at these films.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Over the past five years, there hasn't been an animated film that has made me feel as energized, youthful, and immersed as Fantastic Mr. Fox. From its superb voice cast to whimsical use of cussing, it is not only director Wes Anderson's best film, but also one of stop motion's recent triumphs. It may be short compared to other titles on this list, but it packs a punch and features an excellent soundtrack to boot. To say the least, the film deserved to win Best Animated Feature alone on the grounds of its technique and ability to blend dark subject matter with some high flying fun and family drama. It may also go down as one of, if not my top, my favorite animated film.
Since creating The Oscar Buzz, my support for ParaNorman has been constant and almost undoubtedly annoying. Even in the past week when talking about the upcoming The Boxtrolls, it is impossible for me to talk about Best Animated Feature nominees without mentioning this gem. Its ability to mix horror, comedy, and animation into something wholly original and inventive remains unsurpassed by any film since. It is both a loving homage while also a perfect gateway for kids to get into the great b-movie culture of yesteryear. The story's also very heartfelt and impressive. The only issue is that Laika Studios doesn't have the man power to release more movies. That's more an observation than a problem.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
For people of a certain age, Toy Story and its sequel Toy Story 2 are more than genre-advancing films, they are holy text. Having seen the original in theaters, my investment in the final film was expectantly high. Like most people, I laugh, cried, and took that last moment to enjoy a film that perfectly summarized my childhood through metaphorical anthropomorphic toys. Even as I grow older and more snobbish about film structure, I remain thoroughly impressed with the effort that went into making this universally beloved film so tight. If you haven't, please listen to the audio commentary with director Lee Unkrich in which he outlines the film's structure. It will reflect just how amazingly tight the script was on this film (though I still love Toy Story 2 more).
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
Was there any mystery that the original film in the series that inspired this entry would miss the cut? While my comments for the sequel can almost be mirrored here, it is a testament to Dreamworks Animation that after years of being second tier to Pixar, they made this masterpiece which not only raised the bar, but set the precedent for what the studio could be producing in a world that has grown to decry Shrek. It is heartfelt, funny, and easily one of the best animated films of the decade. The voice acting is superb and the music by John Powell booms triumphantly in ways that surpass the limitations of animation. This feels like an epic in all of the right ways, and few films from major studios nowadays feel that way.
Lilo & Stitch (2002)
In true coincidence, the director of How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois) also made one of Disney's last truly great hand drawn animated films. Following an alien that lands in Hawaii, it is full of heart, humor, and a lot of references to Elvis Presley. It is a brilliant space invasion film that clearly is having almost too much fun with the concept. In the process, it also makes for one of the best nuclear family tales in animation, leaving many to try and not find the appeal of this blue alien Stitch and his strange tendencies to cause havoc. It has probably become unfortunately overlooked in a lot of camps, but I assure you that this is an amazing film through and through and may be one of the most highly original films on this list.
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Many still wonder if this Pixar film should have won in the inaugural year for the Best Animated Feature category. The answer will never be solved. For me, the film will always symbolize the moment when Pixar went from making films that I found perfect to the more conflicting mixture of mediocre films that I didn't care for (Finding Nemo). However, what was created was an excellent vehicle for Billy Crystal and John Goodman to take two unsuspecting characters and make them into some of the studio's most beloved characters. Full of madcap fun, a Saul Bass-esque opening credits sequence set to wonderful Randy Newman score, it is one of those great films that has aged exceptionally well. The universe is so well thought out that there's nothing to do but find new things to appreciate about it every time it is on.
As the decade was coming to a close, Pixar has one of the most enviable titles of being the Hal Ashby of 2000's cinema. To those unaware, this basically means that everything they made was impressively designed, creative, and pushed cinema into exciting directions. The opening of Up has become a notorious tearjerker and Carl Fredericksen remains one of the greatest curmudgeons. Full of life and memorable characters, the film is impressively mature while also having a sense of wonder and exploring dysfunctional families. The only difference between Pixar and Ashby? Pixar has yet to form an alcohol problem and totally have diminishing returns (though some argue the case, anyways).
It must be hard to be director Henry Selick. His most beloved film, The Nightmare Before Christmas is more often credited to its producer Tim Burton. Then Burton made Corpse Bride, which while not nearly as iconic, muddied the water a bit. That's what makes Coraline so wonderfully welcome. Along with a Neil Gaiman story, it is an excuse for Laika Studios to trumpet their entrance into the animation race with some gorgeously opaque set designs and a story so profoundly curious. In a time where animation tries to go for happier, upbeat stories, Coraline went for dark and unnerving looks into our psyches. It remains audacious and full of challenging moments that ask you to not look at the whole thing as one big wondrous vision of what can be done nowadays in the stop motion field.
I know that I have badmouthed Shrek in this piece. However, specific things must be known about it. It was revolutionary at the time to see an ogre make pop culture references and get hyper-risque. I can even blame the film in part for my meta humor. Being 12 upon its release, it was an anarchic alternative to traditional animated cinema that still strikes a chord with me. In fact, there was a period where I became overly obsessed with the film, quoting along to the film countless times. Does it look dated? Yes. Many prefer Shrek 2, though I still find the original the best. It may have also lead to a lot of bloated, crass humor-filled kiddie films, but upon its release, Shrek was something fresh, and for that (and childhood sentimentality), I consider it one of my favorites.
Howl's Moving Castle (2005)
Let me clarify. I love Spirited Away a lot more than Howl's Moving Castle. So why is this one on the list? The straightest reason is because it was my introduction to Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Upon a recommendation from a friend, I watched the film and within seconds, I was amazed by the intricacy and details that went into every inch of the frame. Compared to American counterparts, this was an inexplicable masterpiece that made everyone look like understudies for Freshman college students. Since then, I have gone to expand my cultural understanding of foreign animation and I don't regret it. This was the gateway to those possibilities. For that, I am eternally grateful.
Most Overrated Nominee
Happy Feet (2006)
I love penguins to an unconditional degree. I consider March of the Penguins one of my all-time favorite documentaries solely for Morgan Freeman's narration. These animals mean a whole lot to me. When news came out that there was going to be an animated film about them, I was curious. Sad to say that within minutes, I was furious. Whatever it is about penguins singing Prince's "When Doves Cry" is just plain offensive. Along with a story that was pandering and full of lowbrow jabs, thanks to Robin Williams and his multiple voices. It was an awful film that I vehemently hate for its portrayal of my favorite flightless birds. The one redemption is that its competitors was Cars and Monster House. Yes, this may have been the worst year for the Best Animated Feature category, and the worst one won.
What's your favorite Best Animated Feature nominee/winner?