'Mirai' and 'Tito and the Birds' Are Must-See Underdogs in Best Animated Feature Race

These new foreign animation releases may not have a shot against category dominator Disney, but hopefully they'll be given a chance.

Mirai Watch
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As I predicted a month ago, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse seems like a great savior for the year in animated features. Sony’s superhero movie is not only garnering stellar reviews, but it was also just named Best Animated Feature of 2018 by the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle. I still haven’t seen Into the Spider-Verse, but I think it may have a shot at the Oscar, provided the Academy doesn’t criminally snub another Lord and Miller production a la The Lego Movie and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.

If it’s nominated, I can think of at least five animated features more deserving of the recognition than Incredibles 2, which long has seemed a frontrunner for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Pixar’s latest, a sequel to a previous Oscar winner in the category, has a lot of things going for it, including record box office for the format and the usual impressive direction from Brad Bird, but it’s just not very fresh or necessary, its plot falling disappointingly into the same territory as the other, lesser US animation studios’ usual kiddie fare.

Comparatively, Disney’s second animated sequel of the year, Ralph Breaks the Internet, has just arrived and proves to be the better Oscar candidate for the company. Not that the Academy would ever feel the need to choose just one entry from the Mouse House. The original Wreck-It Ralph was a nominee alongside Pixar’s Brave, for instance, with the latter being the winner. This time, Ralph 2 is the more deserving movie, a follow-up that never feels like it was made just to be made. Unlike Incredibles 2, this one has a vital and quite memorable story.

Ralph 2 surprises at every turn. I thought it’d be cringe-worthy in all its branded Easter eggs and product placement and self-serving Oh My Disney-driven cross-promotion of its own IPs. All that is handled very well, even if eBay is a little too prominently part of the plot (I guess we didn’t complain too much when The 40-Year-Old Virgin did it). And the Disney Princesses are wonderful scene stealers (is it time for them to get a mashup movie spinoff?). In the end, the characters and character-driven themes take precedence over the action or anything else, and that’s not something that can be said about Incredibles 2.

Strong focus on character is also what elevates another strong Oscar contender, Mamoru Hosoda‘s Mirai. There are a lot of Asian productions qualifying for the category this year, but Mirai stands out as the most likely to make the cut of nominees. The movie follows the fantastical encounters of a four-year-old boy named Kun who is not happy about the new baby sister, Mirai, invading his territory. Among the people that he meets while dealing with his new family issue are a human version of their pet dog, his long-dead great-grandfather, and Mirai herself, from the future.

As just about everyone has already said of Mirai, the film is very reminiscent of A Christmas Carol in its plotting, as Kun either seems to travel through time or is visited by figures from other eras — but they’re all part of his family rather than abstract specters showing him his own specific life’s timeline. What distinguishes Mirai from just being a Dickens knockoff, however, is the care Hosoda puts into the characterization of Kun in particular. More akin to Isao Takahata than Hayao Miyazaki, Hosoda has a gift for making viewers truly care about and empathize with his young characters.

Unlike a lot of children’s fantasy stories, Mirai allows you to have disbelief that any of Kun’s encounters and adventures are actually happening while still appreciating them. They’re likely just in his imagination as he copes with and objects to the new addition to his family. But that side of the story doesn’t seem like just a construct either. Whether we’re inside his head or not, we’re first and foremost always in Kun’s heart. The dramatic aspects would be just as powerful without the fantasy element. However, much of that fantasy element is extraordinary.

Tito And The Birds

You can sense pure imagination in the creation of Mirai, not just in the dreams of the character, and similarly, there’s more refreshing reverie to be found in the Brazilian animated feature Tito and the Birds, which was directed by Gabriel Bitar, Andre Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg. I don’t think its plot, involving an inventive young boy trying to save the world from a strange epidemic, makes enough sense in the end, but thematically it’s fine, and it’s still such a unique and weirdly original work of animation that it needs to be viewed as a viable Oscar contender.

Tito and the Birds comprises 2D digital drawings and vibrant oil paintings, with the latter not confined solely to its expressionist backgrounds. Similar to last year’s Oscar nominee Loving Vincent, Tito and the Birds also features thick brushstrokes of oil paint in motion alongside the hand-drawn style of the foreground characters. Not only is the animation impressive for its ambition, but also for its artistry. Some parts of the film have an intentionally distorted ugliness to them (I admit I was reminded of The Care Bears in the Land Without Feelings), but so much more of it is just absolutely mesmerizing.

For a fifth nomination alternative to Incredibles 2 receiving the seemingly compulsory inclusion, I’ve been growing more and more hopeful for Isle of Dogs in spite of its mostly forgotten controversy of cultural appropriation. Even next to the mix of style in Tito and the Birds (and what I’ve seen of Spider-Verse) and the smooth direction of Mirai and the spectacle of Ralph 2, no animated feature has delivered anything as memorable as the craft of Wes Anderson‘s second stop-motion feature for me.

There’s also Masaaki Yuasa‘s The Night is Short, Walk On Girl, which is fabulously and feverishly bizarre. How great it would be to see two Japanese films in the category. But even with recent years being more diverse in the scope of and approving of oddities within the nominees in the Animated Feature category, The Night is Short might still be too surreal. And although Tito and the Birds could easily be chosen as something along the lines of past nominee My Life as a Zucchini, that could even be a stretch sadly.

At the moment, I expect the nominees to be: Incredibles 2, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Mirai, Isle of Dogs, and I guess there needs to be a surprising seemingly random additional US production (and Lord and Miller will be snubbed again probably), so I dunno, Smallfoot. If it’s gotta be that kind of mix, is there any hope for one of the non-Disney efforts? The Mouse House has won nine of the last 10 Oscars in the category, with Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios mostly alternating victories for half the decade. If they have to continue, my vote is with Ralph 2, but it’s time for something different.

Mirai is now playing in limited release but also has a few more Fathom Events screenings for the rest of the country, both in subtitled and dubbed options.

Tito and the Birds begins an Oscar-qualifying run on December 7th before officially being released in New York City on January 25, 2019, then in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other major cities on February 1st.

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Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.