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A decade ago, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created the Oscar for animated feature, the new category’s nominees included “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,” a Nickelodeon-produced movie memorable for little more than its belch jokes.


Ten years on, the competition has become much fiercer: This year, the three films vying for the prize are all critical darlings that had to beat out two other well-reviewed box-office hits to earn a nomination.


The three nominees are Pixar’s “Toy Story 3,” the highest-grossing animated movie of all time and the culmination of a franchise that revolutionized the way animated films are made; DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon,” another computer-graphics blockbuster that set a new benchmark for 3-D with its sweeping flying sequences; and “The Illusionist,” an independently produced French film with very little dialogue that’s a love letter to the waning art of hand-drawn animation.


“This year in particular is an incredibly strong field,” said Bob Last, producer of “The Illusionist.” “Animation has reached a new maturity. The fundamental barrier to making CG animation look good has been lowered, so it comes back to story and character.”


According to the academy’s rules, the number of nominees in the animated feature category depends on how many animated feature films are released in Los Angeles County in the year — no award is given if there are fewer than eight releases. In any year in which eight to 15 animated features are released, a maximum of three films may be nominated in the category. If 16 or more animated features are released, five movies can be nominated. Only twice in the last decade have there been five nominees.


“Originally the academy wanted to make sure the sliver of nominees were gonna be the creme de la creme,” said Jerry Beck, animation historian and editor of the website Cartoon Brew. “They would look foolish if, say, a Pound Puppies movie was nominated.”


Films that didn’t get nominated this year included the Disney fairy tale “Tangled” and Universal’s supervillain saga “Despicable Me,” both of which were praised by critics and were among the 10 highest-grossing movies of 2010.


“It seems like there’s enough consistent output that it wouldn’t be preposterous to have five every year,” said Jim Morris, general manager and executive vice president of production at Pixar. “But the rules will evolve over time.”


In the 16 years since “Toy Story” became the first wholly computer-generated feature film, CG has come to dominate the field of animation. One of the last holdouts for traditional techniques, however, is the academy’s short films and feature animation branch, which consistently holds a kind of affirmative action slot for quality hand-drawn films.


“These are people who’ve worked in animation for decades,” said Beck. “They know where this medium has come from.”


The only traditionally animated film that has won the category was Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” in 2002, but for independent animated films like “The Illusionist,” 2007’s “Persepolis” and 2009’s “The Secret of Kells,” a mere nomination helps attract attention from viewers outside the cartoon niche.


“We don’t see this as some sort of big battle between the pencil and the computer,” said Last. “But for a film like ‘The Illusionist,’ the Academy Awards are even more important. It’s a crucial tool for us to reach an audience.”


For decades before the category was created, the animation community said the academy was overlooking its industry’s artistic and commercial achievements, as hit films like “The Lion King” and “The Little Mermaid” were acknowledged only for their music, and “Toy Story” earned a “Special Achievement Academy Award” of the type usually given for technical accomplishments.


Historically, the medium of animation got little Oscar recognition outside the low-profile short film category. Walt Disney collected 18 Academy Awards for his company’s shorts, but only music trophies for features “Bambi” and “Dumbo,” and only an honorary Oscar for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”


Without a Disney short, the category looked even bleaker. “The award would go to some French film and they’d play the winner off to the Looney Tunes theme,” said Beck. “The way they handled that was so bad.”


Still, when the animated feature category was introduced, some in the cartoon world worried that it would ghettoize the medium, and preclude an animated film’s earning a best picture nomination. At that time, only one movie, 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast,” had ever been so honored.


When the academy expanded the best picture category from five films to 10 last year, however, Pixar’s “Up” was nominated in that category. This year, “Toy Story 3” is also up for best picture.


“In the academy in general there’s more openness to considering what happen to be the best-reviewed and most (financially)successful films every year,” said DreamWorks Animation’s chief creative officer, Bill Damaschke.


The last barrier for an animated film to break is winning a best picture Oscar, something Disney Chairman Rich Ross has said he hopes “Toy Story 3” can do this year. Ross backed that ambition with a brawny “for your consideration” campaign emphasizing the film’s record-breaking box office and the innovation of the franchise. Despite the effort, convincing an academy whose largest branch is actors to give its highest prize to an animated film is still considered a longshot.


Of course, there’s always next year. In 2011 there are 16 animated films due from U.S. distributors, including DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda 2” a hand-drawn “Winnie the Pooh” from Disney and the Steven Spielberg-directed “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn” from Paramount, plus dozens of foreign and independent titles.

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