There’s been a bunch of hubbub about 2009 turning out to be a disappointing year in cinema. And, when comparing films released this year to other years within the decade, this sentiment is just about right. Many an end-of-the-year release that was supposed to be the saving grace to a lackluster twelve months either turned out to be mightily disappointing (Invictus, Amelia) or contained minor problems that prevented them from quite living up to their massive expectations or full potential (The Lovely Bones, The Road, Precious). But what’s been overlooked is the fact that it’s been largely live-action features that have met the brunt of disappointed reactions, while animated films meanwhile have shined in 2009 in a way they haven’t in any other year.
Last month Variety released a list of twenty films eligible for the five slots in the Best Animated Feature category at this year’s Academy Awards. First of all, I never knew that there were five slots available, because in most recent years there have been only three films nominated in this category. The only year so far in which five features have filled out the nomination category was 2002, the year that Spirited Away won. In many years, the category seems to have been padded out with films that weren’t innovative in terms of their approach to animation nor were they great pieces of storytelling—films like Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2001) or Surf’s Up (2007)—while the already-obvious winner took home the prize.
But this year seems to be the first time where the Academy would have to carefully narrow down the nominees to five, as there were more outstanding and original pieces of feature animation this year than in years’ past—rather ironic given that this is a year in which the Best Picture category is being expanded to ten nominees while critics’ struggle to stretch out a best-of-the-year list of ten great films.
First of all, there’s the obvious pick: Up. Every Pixar film released since this award was created has been nominated in this category, and four have taken home the trophy. That’s out of only eight times the award has been given! Up seems a shoe-in for this award, which would give Pixar over a 50% ownership of the entire history of this category. I don’t see this as a product of intra-industry favoritism (if the uncharacteristically weak Cars won in 2006, I would probably see it as such), as Pixar has shown superior (and, amazingly enough, improving) character-driven storytelling techniques that casts a giant shadow over other studio-made animated features every year. They are to animated filmmaking what MGM was to the machine that was Classical Hollywood—it seems redundant, obvious, and even problematic to award the same studio time and again, but when they churn out top notch filmmaking and deliver with film after film, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
But we expect Pixar to make great movies each year. What’s unusual about 2009 is how much the competing animated films challenge Pixar’s ever-present shadow. Coraline, whose February release has made it almost forgotten by now, was a masterful, refreshingly Tim Burton-free, limitless journey into the impressive, inimitable imagination of Henry Selick. Based on the Neil Gaiman book, Coraline is impressive on multiple levels, being both astounding in artistic vision and containing thorough storytelling while also employing painstaking stop-motion animation in the way only Selick can do it, shot in 3-D no less!
Then there was Fantastic Mr. Fox, which gave us a more fun time at the movies than Wes Anderson has cared to give us in quite some time, and animation proved to be a far less distracting and more natural means to contain the director’s quirky aesthetic sensibilities. In an industry dominated by innovation in CGI, this film and several others represented a necessary look back at animation formats of decades’ past, proving that groundbreaking technology is not always the best means for solid storytelling, and that a technique doesn’t have to be new to be freshly innovative. The return of the 2-D Disney Princess was greeted with a warm welcome by audiences nationwide as the company returned to a form not seen or attempted since the 90s in The Princess and the Frog. This was a welcome return because of the very fact that it isn’t revolutionary or groundbreaking in the same way that many CG-animated features of CGI-heavy live-action films allege themselves to be. Its modest box office success is something of a relief to those of us that feared 2-D animation was dead in the water. Between the CG, stop-motion, and 2-D animated features, 2009 has proven itself a year in which audiences need variety in their animated cinemagoing.
If the Oscars are good for one thing (and they aren’t good for much), it’s introducing American audiences to strong foreign-language films that they may otherwise not have been aware of. The animated category has proven itself a rich category for raising the awareness of international animated filmmaking, from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle (2005) to Persepolis (2007). My vote for the long-shot nominee this year is the hilarious Belgium-born A Town Called Panic, an amazing romp of a film whose deliberately primitive means of stop-motion animation are essential to its incredible comic effect. If this was a year that didn’t already contain several impressive stop-motion animated films, A Town called Panic would probably stand out to the degree that it wouldn’t exist as such a dark horse, but it’d be in good faith if the Academy gave this little gem some much-needed exposure. Though the fact that Miyazaki’s Ponyo hasn’t even been mentioned until this late in this article is indicative of not only how potentially competitive the typically unavailable slot for a foreign animated feature nominee is, but how competitive this category is this year in general. In other years Miyazaki would be a shoe-in.
The Best Short-Form Animated Film category usually contains a breadth of innovative approaches to animation, while the Best Animated Feature category usually contains three-studio produced CG features (of course, a short operates quite differently from a feature, as the visionary Academy-Award winning short 9 did not successfully translate into a strong feature equivalent this year). This year I’d prefer not to see Monsters v. Aliens, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs to be nominated by default while Up inevitably takes home the prize, as the sheer variety of animated features this year necessitates serious Academy attention.
But seeing the history of the Best Animated Feature category, this may not happen. Created quite recently in 2001 (the first award went to Shrek), the category is argued by many to be a reaction to Beauty and the Beast’s Best Picture nomination a decade before, thus preventing animated films from serious competition with their live-action counterparts. So while this category allowed, in the era of Pixar, a timely means of honoring excellent animated feature filmmaking, at the same time it ghettoizes the animated feature. This stigma and threat is largely due to a perception that animated features are inherently meant for children and are thus somehow childish, unworthy of competition with “serious,” “realistic” live action Best Picture nominees like, say, Crash. (For the record, many other countries don’t view animation this way. Look at the animation industry in Japan, or Czech stop-motion animator Jan Švankmajer’s subversive filmmaking.) So it makes sense that if a committee sees a medium as childish, they will recognize those features seen as most explicitly geared towards children (as evidence, keep in mind that Happy Feet once took home this prize).
Critics seem more courageous and outspoken when it comes to great animated filmmaking than the Academy seems to be, and it’s hard to find a top ten list without Up on it. But it seems the animated feature category was created for competition in the big category to not take place; so while it may be one of the strongest films of the year, Up may be shut-out of a live-action only category of Best Picture nominees, even in a year of ten slots (as further evidence, the Academy has had an odd recent history of avoiding overlapping best-of categories, like when Persepolis was eligible for Best Animated Feature but not Best Foreign Language Film, while the exact opposite incurred with Waltz with Bashir the following year). However, in many ways (as I argued in a post this summer), animated filmmaking, in its seemingly endless potential for manifesting the far reaches of imagination, can often embody all that is purely cinematic in a far more effective way than live-action.
In arguing against the ghettoization of feature animated filmmaking, especially in a year where many an animated feature shined brightly above their live-action competitors, it’s hard to argue that the medium is inherently child-aimed when so many films this year—even the studio-backed ones—seemed to shut out children altogether. Kids found Up confusing and boring, were too scared of Coraline, and seemed to not show up at all for Fantastic Mr. Fox. Animated films in 2009 proved to be the medium for strong adult storytelling—and, as the brilliant first ten minutes of Up illustrated, can bring with them unexpectedly devastating adult themes and profoundly beautiful cinematic moments.