Monday, February 26, 2018

Long Shot Week: Best Animated Film - "The Breadwinner"

Scene from The Breadwinner
Welcome to the first Long Shot Week, where I will attempt to persuade you to think outside of the Oscar box. While it's too late to change voters' minds, I believe that audiences need to take a moment to look at the other contenders in any category and give them a chance. Long Shot Week is designed as a way to highlight these talents that likely don't stand a chance of winning, but more than deserve a chance to be appreciated for what they bring to the game. In a way, this is my list of "Films that should've won," though it's not always indicative of my favorite. Join me all week as I look at different categories and pose the question "Why not?" in hopes that The Oscars still have a few surprises up their sleeve.

Long Shot: The Breadwinner
Category: Best Animated Film
Other Nominees:
-The Boss Baby
-Loving Vincent
Likely Winner: Coco

The Case for The Breadwinner

To start, i think that the Best Animated Film category is always the category with the most predictable and disappointing outcome at any Academy Awards ceremony. It shouldn't be. In a perfect world, hand drawn animation from Asia or stop motion from South America would stand just as much of a chance to win. In a world populated by the mentality that "We're happy just to be nominated," it does get into an icky territory. How much of that is really true when you crunch the numbers? 14 of the 16 current winners are CG animation productions from big American studios, with 11 being from either Disney or Pixar. Yes, it's nice to be nominated... but it does feel at a certain point that the idea of great animation and popular animation are becoming a bit hard to split apart.

The case could be made with this year's Coco. In a year of dismal American animated films, Coco stood out for one reason: it was Pixar making a good original movie. True, the Dias de los Muertos scenery has a beauty to it that in any other situation would make it a breathtaking choice to win. However, I am bored of the idea that Pixar is going to win because Pixar hasthe most recognizable name in the pack. The other American films, The Boss Baby and Ferdinand, can't even compare in visibility because of Pixar's 20+ year reputation. The one relief is that they didn't get a pity vote for Cars 3. But still, what are we saying by just predictably giving Coco the Best Animated Film award? In a sense, it's no different than the Best Picture category going exclusively to stuffy old dramas that celebrate the act of creating cinema. 

My one caveat is that I haven't seen Loving Vincent yet, which is probably the most innovative of these five. However, I did manage to catch The Breadwinner on Netflix last week when it surprisingly appeared in one of their many menus. This was Cartoon Saloon's third nominated film in the category (after The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea), and it had a story line that far exceeded the other two American films, especially in a time where voters are going "socially aware" with nominations for films like Get Out or The Shape of Water. Sure, Coco is about Mexican identity, but The Breadwinner is something that hasn't really been recognized enough in this category: Middle Eastern narratives. 

True, one could fall back to the masterpiece Persepolis and see some precedent, but again - this category recognizes an almost exclusively American sensibility in ways that other categories get flack for. With exception to Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, there hasn't been a dominant threat to Disney's stranglehold on the category. With The Breadwinner, it seems like that won't change, but it does raise a certain question: what if it did? People go to see movies because they won Oscars. Most people already know Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks because that's just part of the culture. But what if the winners reflected not necessarily just a "message," but a quality that differed from CG animation? Ladies and gentlemen, The Breadwinner is a film that probably could've won if it was a documentary (such as last year's The White Helmets, winner of Best Documentary Short) or a foreign film (The Salesman won Best Foreign Film). 

So, why does it deserve a chance to win? For starters, it is a great story about a family under Taliban rule, forced to send their daughter (in disguise as a boy) to perform errands. She gets a glimpse into the patriarchy that oppresses women and finds a community that does their best to defy the system. In between the narrative is a series of myths from Afghanistan folklore presented in papier-maiche style with heavy emphasis on nature. It all centralizes the mentality of the spiritual culture, creating a story that feels contemporary but rooted in something centuries old at the same time. The Breadwinner is a film that uses animation effectively in telling its story, and in the process conveys something wonderful about both facets. In an era where CG is the norm, the more traditional and simplistic style may be disorienting, but it's still an admirable and engrossing execution that shows the heart of animation is more in intent than how many animators out of Disney you can hire.

The one caveat is that The Breadwinner has an arguably dark streak than the other nominees. It is a story about a family under Taliban oppression, which is already a touchy subject politically. However, it still works as a family film without detouring into territory too jarring for young audiences. In fact, the central drama is more based on the emotional struggles of a family trying to grapple with their position. The daughter is an endearing figure who is noble and does the right thing. There's a lot to like at the core, even if Afghanistan culture isn't familiar to the viewer. It leaves behind an experience that cinema is supposed to. It's supposed to be an enriching look into things that live action cannot take viewers to. The Breadwinner in particular manages to make something that could be bleak into something more accessible thanks to its central character's outlook on life, and its general message about life in a harsh community.

Again, it's a long shot to predict a non-major animation studio to win this category, even if other fields have been forced to mix it up from public pressure. Admittedly The Breadwinner is less accessible than Coco by virtue of its reliance on a more realistic story. It also doesn't have the most optimistic of plot points either. But yet, I feel like for films representing 2017, it does a great job of showing that powerful stories can be told with simple animation technique, and a focus on themes that are universal even when they're presenting something that would seem foreign to American audiences. Maybe this won't be the film to break Disney's control over the category, but a win would help suggest that animation is more than lighthearted family fare, and stands for more than Americans tinkering away on a computer. There's so much more to take away from this format than what The Academy represents, and I hope something like The Breadwinner stands some chance of winning in the near future. 

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