Can Spider-Man Save the Year in Animation?

There could be a superhero showdown at the Oscars, but only one of the contenders seems worthy.

Spider Man Into The Spider Verse
Sony Pictures

Of the 25 movies contending for the next Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, I’ve only seen eight. That should feel surprising given that I’m a father who tries to take my young children to the movies whenever they’re interested in an appropriate release. What is more surprising is how lacking the list of submitted titles is on quality. After a terrible year in mainstream animation in 2017, we were so hopeful that 2018 would be a banner year for the format. But a lot of works with high expectations didn’t live up to their promise.

The disappointments began with Early Man, which is just fine and not on the level of what we’ve come to trust in Nick Park’s stop-motion work. Shortly after, while Wes Anderson’s own new stop-motion film, Isle of Dogs, is technically brilliant and very entertaining, the backlash about its cultural appropriation has marred its appreciation for many (I’m conflicted). Whether or not that affects its Oscar chances is unknown, but currently, most awards pundits have it as one of the frontrunners in the animated feature category.

Of course, the top choice predicted by many experts is the latest from Pixar. But Incredibles 2, while receiving almost unanimous acceptance (if not praise) from critics, is also another letdown. It’s not just less than the 2005 original. Frankly, the sequel is not very good. As directed by Brad Bird, it is another marvel on a technical level, but I would have been shocked if it didn’t have the visual production value we can expect from him and Pixar as a studio. The script is contrived and doesn’t make very much sense, unfortunately, and just like the non-nominated Finding Dory (which has the same high Rotten Tomatoes score), it’s simply not Oscar-worthy.

Perhaps Disney’s other big animated sequel release this year, Ralph Breaks the Internet (Wreck-it Ralph 2, out 11/21), can take its place as the rightful heir to the throne that has gone to the company 13 of the 17 years of the category’s existence (14 of 17 if we count Spirited Away, which Disney put out on video) and has not been held by anyone else since 2012. But as enjoyable as it looks, the dominance of Disney’s ego in the marketing, featuring so many nods to the company’s own portfolio of IPs, seems more like corporate-think synergy than metatextual amusement.

And as we saw already this year with Teen Titans Go! To The Movies, too much parodic self-irreverence can be, while often hilarious, ultimately insubstantial. I came away having laughed a lot, but I don’t have any appreciation for the Teen Titans Go! characters or interest in whatever their existence outside the movie happens to be, and that “CalArts style” animation is not my cup of tea. Those issues combined with its lack of box office success means there’s no more chance of it breaking into the Best Animated Feature category than the more insightful Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie had last year.

Box office gross shouldn’t be a factor, though. Finding Dory wasn’t nominated in the past despite making more than a billion dollars worldwide. And Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, which isn’t even comparable to Pixar’s sequel in terms of critical favor, won’t be nominated either (then again, I didn’t think The Boss Baby would). Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch will also be a huge hit when it comes out, but it doesn’t look like an Oscar-caliber feature. Lackluster box office might be an issue for the prospects of Smallfoot, however, despite that movie’s obvious awards wishes given its original song nominee wannabes.

So what’s left? This year’s list of qualifiers includes a lot of foreign candidates that I haven’t seen, most of them coming from Asia. I am familiar with the fever-dream spectacle that is The Night is Short, Walk On Girl, which is probably too kooky for Academy tastes. Another Japanese production, Mamoru Hosoda’s latest time-travel tale, Mirai (aka Mirai of the Future, out 11/30), is considered a likely nominee by pundits who’ve seen it and believe it to be the best chance among non-Hollywood possibilities. GKIDS will surely be campaigning for it, too. Just today, the distributor announced its English-language voice cast, which isn’t just the usual white actors and actresses. Korean-American stars John Cho and Daniel Dae Kim will be heard, alongside British-American actress Rebecca Hall in the film’s adult roles.

Unless you’re Hayao Miyazaki, though, you can expect to be an also-ran with a foreign-language animated feature at the Oscars. So, what might be another fresh alternative to the Disney sequels and problematic or minor stop-motion efforts by past contenders (Incredibles 2, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Early Man have directors who’ve won this category before, Isle of Dogs‘ Anderson has been nominated)? You’ve gotten this far into the article without me mentioning the superhero in the headline, so you’ve probably guessed it. But does Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse have a chance?

Based on only the one whole sequence playing at the end of Venom, additional to the trailers, I’d say it should. There’s no other animation this year that’s wowed me the way that footage did. I am not typically a fan of the usual animated superhero features, of which Warner Bros. has also put a few out this year (in addition to the non-typical Teen Titans Go! film), but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (out 12/14) is going for something really unique. Part of me wants to deny the Lichtensteinian old newsprint texture of the images since they have no practical functional purpose. But that stuff looks really cool!

And the film seems to be a very tricky but well-executed mix of laughs and heart and action. They put Miles Morales and Spider-Gwen and Nic Cage (doing Bogey) and Spider-Ham in the same movie. Is there anyone who doesn’t have something to latch onto here? Okay, so my mom isn’t going to watch it, but I want to see it and my kids want to see it, and that typically only happens with Pixar movies (which as I noted haven’t been the best lately). How could Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse possibly be snubbed by the Academy?

Two words: Lord and Miller. You know, the guys who did the impossible by taking my favorite children’s book, which I was totally against anyone adapting into a colorful-garbage cartoon movie, and they made one of the most surprisingly delightful and hilariously punny family films of this century. You know, the guys who also did the impossible by turning a toy brand into a movie, which all of us were immediately against, and it was something we all thought was awesome. Well, all except the Academy’s committee that chose the nominees for Best Animated Feature in 2015.

The duo, which already have a sore spot on their resume this year for Solo: A Star Wars Story, which they were fired from, didn’t actually direct this one — that’d be Peter Ramsey (whose Rise of the Guardians wasn’t nominated) and veteran animators Rodney Roth and Bob Persichetti making their co-directorial debut. But Phil Lord wrote the screenplay and he and Christopher Miller produced the movie. They’re two of the most creative minds in Hollywood right now but the Academy has yet to throw them a bone.

But that’s okay. We can still look back and know that Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie are among the greatest animated features of the last 10 years. The Critics’ Choice Awards, which I’m more concerned with as a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, recognized both, the latter as a winner, and I trust that if it’s worthy that we will nominate Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse over whatever the Oscars select in its place. I just hope that we don’t award Incredibles 2 just for being an okay sequel that nostalgically reminded us of a brilliant movie from 13 years ago that we love.

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.