Thursday, August 25, 2016

Why We Need More Kid Friendly Best Picture Nominees

Scene from Pete's Dragon
With August coming to a close, the general conversation has switched over to the familiar broad topic: was this a good summer at the movies? Most people would argue that everything was disappointing, and the three weeks of Suicide Squad topping the box office remains disconcerting for some. However, August has made a strong case against this being a total waste with the presence of Pete's Dragon and last weekend's phenomenal Kubo and the Two Strings. Despite middling box office for both, they reflect that best that blockbuster entertainment can be. In a time where the Oscars want to branch out and reflect a more diverse pallet of genre fare, there is one question that could be asked: Can family cinema get nominated for Best Picture? To be totally honest, I think that we should greatly consider these two movies when it comes time to fill out those ballots. 

While there are legitimate complaints that can be made regarding recognition of genre cinema and works by women and non-white filmmakers, there is one small caveat that often goes unexplored: the family film. Since 2010, there have only been three Best Picture nominees with a family friendly PG rating (Hugo, Life of Pi, Toy Story 3) and zero with a G rating. The winner's circle is less friendly. Since 1970, there have only been 7 PG rated films that have won - most of which are along the lines of mature dramas like Out of Africa and Terms of Endearment. To find a G rated winner is to go back even further to 1968's Oliver!, which also is an anomaly as the only G-rated film to win Best Picture period following the formation of the MPAA. To say the least, the award's lack of recognition could be seen as a problem for those who want to get their families involved in Oscar's big night.

That isn't to say that family films have been terrible in the almost 50 years since Oliver! sung and danced its way into our hearts. There's been plenty of renaissance material that one could argue should've been nominated in this time. While there are those exceptions, it does seem like they are singled out. After all, it must be considered that in this time there has been an impressive run by Disney in the 90's, Pixar in the 00's, and even live action films have their share of defining masterpieces. Some of the zeitgeist doesn't need to be defined by darker themes that isolate a small fraction of cinema goers. True, there is a difference between an amazing, well crafted film and the average kiddie flick. However, there is an art to entertaining families, and I do feel like the Oscars sometimes overlook them.

For instance, last year's Inside Out was a great film. I would even argue that it's among Pixar's best films. While it got an assured Best Animated Film nomination, it failed to get a Best Picture nomination - all this despite the category only having eight nominees. It isn't odd when you consider that there have only been three Oscar-nominated Best Picture animated movies (Beauty and the Beast, Up, Toy Story 3), but in a time where the category was expanded to recognize diversity, it seems to not be... diverse. Beyond Pixar, the only films that have gotten in were directed by former Oscar winners. Martin Scorsese's Hugo also may have made the cut solely because it was a movie about how great movies are. To say the least, family films are relegated to Best Animated Film and often Best Original Song. 

It may be coincidental, but it's also a damning note that family films aren't seen as art the way that Spotlight or The Martian is. There is an excellence to crafting every frame and making the work usurped by sheer entertainment value. With the summer of 2016 providing what many see as a vast wasteland for nominees, it is a revelation that Pete's Dragon and Kubo and the Two Strings exist. To me, they are films that exemplify mainstream cinema as art in the way that Avatar reinvented special effects culture. While Laika's always been a third wheel to the big studios like Pixar or Dreamworks Animation, I do think that they deserve more credit than they get. Their films are often above and beyond the animated competition - and I argue that Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the studio's best period.

While it saddens me that I already am not expecting Laika to show up in the Best Picture race, I do think that there really should be a push for Pete's Dragon. Yes, it does seem like a silly idea, especially when you compare the remake to the kooky original that brought us such nonsensical songs as "Brazzle Dazzle Day." The remake isn't as silly in execution, yet captures something more sublime. It's a story of how adopted families relate to each other - also the dragon is expertly created and will make you cry in ways that CG hasn't since Richard Parker in Life of Pi. Most of all, David Lowery is a director who understands the visual language of cinema. He rewards viewers who understand symbolism by packing earned sentiments into every frame, especially in the harrowing, powerful third act. It's something that will likely be taken for granted given Disney's other (albeit underrated) live action film of this year with The BFG. Where I see the Steven Spielberg entry as the base level of what we should expect from family cinema, I feel like Pete's Dragon is the overachieving brilliance of what it could be.

Much like my wish to one day see superhero cinema be in the Best Picture field (admittedly without much worthy competition in recent years), I think that family films get overlooked simply because it's not as distinct of a problem as the lack of nonwhite filmmakers. It almost seems like a taboo that nobody recognizes simply because there is something to not caring for childish things. It's still baffling that Babe was ever a Best Picture nominee - also the last G rated Best Picture nominee - because of this. It isn't a bad movie by any stretch. In fact, it was shortly encouraging that the Oscars could see family cinema on the same level of art as your Gladiator or Slumdog Millionaire

I'm not saying that we should have a G rated winner come next Oscar Sunday. I am merely saying that I think the lack of Best Picture nominees that fit this bill inevitably impacts our judgment of its place in cinema. If it's not Pixar, it stands almost no chance of being nominated. Yes, there's a lot of below average family films released annually. However, I think that knowing that Pete's Dragon isn't a typical Oscar contender almost makes the interest in it vanish a little. Yes, people will go to the films that interest them most. I just think that resetting the mindset that family films can be art will make going to see these films a little more exciting. It shouldn't just be shoddy prestige dramas that get the false hopes of a Best Picture nomination. Everyone should. I know that this is a problem that cannot be resolved properly - even with a sliding 5-10 scale of Best Picture nominees. I simply think that with all of the hullabaloo over everything else, it is important to note that great family films are likely to be overlooked in the serious discussions. I think it's time for a change in that. 

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