The Academy’s Animation Conundrum

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Another year, another round of Oscar nominations, another perpetual sigh over the way the animation industry continues to be underserved by the Academy. It’s nothing new, and something I’ve written about before on a larger, more general scale, but this year’s Oscar nominations drive the point even further home. Besides the main Best Animated Feature category, animated films appeared in two other categories this year — Best Original Song (“Can’t Stop the Feeling” from Trolls and “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana) and Best Visual Effects (Kubo and the Two Strings). This isn’t anything new; typically, animated films only crop up in a handful of other categories and it’s usually one or two films which are able to branch out. However, what this year’s list of nominations continues to reveal is how undervalued these films are as an art form that is completely worthy of competing against the more traditionally drama-filled Oscar fare.

Going straight to the top, no animated film was nominated for Best Picture by either taking the available tenth spot or knocking another film out. It’s not a surprise, certainly not when only three animated films — Beauty and the Beast (1991, back when Best Animated Feature didn’t exist as a category), Up (2009), and Toy Story 3 (2010) — have been nominated for the top prize before. It’s a feat when an animated film makes it that high, even with the expansion to ten slots in the category and the fact that the Academy often doesn’t fill all ten slots. In fact, Up and Toy Story 3 were both nominated in the only years, so far, that the Academy filled all ten slots.

So what does this say exactly? That the Academy sees animated films as less than and not worthy of the top prize? Perhaps not explicitly or consciously, but it’s hard not to see a dismissal of these films when they’re relegated to their designated category and (usually) nothing more. Interestingly, the same can also be said for foreign films a lot of the time, revealing the inward focus the Academy usually takes in its nominations.

zootopiaWalt Disney Pictures

Of course, there are some years it can be argued that none of the animated films reach the heights of a Best Picture nod, but there are other years that notion is simply ridiculous (that’s right, I’m talking about Pixar’s Inside Out and WALL-E or several Studio Ghibli films, namely The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and Spirited Away, or The Triples of Belleville, etc). This year is another one of those years, as I see no reason why Zootopia or Kubo and the Two Strings, both accomplished films in their own rights on multiple levels, couldn’t have taken the tenth slot (Moana as well, but to a lesser extent and I admit I still need to see The Red Turtle and My Life as a Zucchini).

Things get even murkier when you look beyond Best Picture. It’s not uncommon to see animated films in other places like Best Original Song (especially for Disney), Best Original Score, or various visual effects categories, for obvious reasons, but the glaring reality really shows up in the more “prestige” groups. Actors have never been nominated for their voice work in animated films, which is an ongoing debate and better suited for another essay but certainly worth noting. Various animated films have been up for Best Original Screenplay (in a definite snub, Zootopia didn’t get a nod in this category this year), mostly Pixar films, but have yet to win the statue. This, despite the incredible and expansive worldbuilding most animated films need to establish in less than two hours and everything that goes into constructing the narratives of animated films, especially the ones that explore deeper and more mature themes.

Perhaps most astonishing, the Best Director category has never nominated a director (or several) for an animated film. Sure, these films are more collaborative in nature, but it’s impossible to say directors like Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up, Inside Out) or Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki haven’t directed and guided in staggering ways to help create breathtaking and powerful films and that these feats shouldn’t be acknowledged with a Best Director nod. It’s worthy to point out that animated features do not qualify for the Directors Guild of America Awards so there is a possibility the Academy is influenced by this (though by their standards, animation directors do qualify), but it’s a flimsy excuse at best. And again, this year Byron Howard and Rich Moore (Zootopia) and Travis Knight (Kubo, astonishingly in his directorial debut) stood out with their work but were passed over.

Hayao MiyazakiGetty Images

These categories are competitive, absolutely, and only allow for five nominees rather than the Best Picture race’s ten, but it’s the mere fact that an animation director has never even received a nomination. It’s difficult not to look at the trend and get the feeling the Academy dismisses these films for the most part.

It’s a similar story across other award shows (except, of course, the Annie Awards). Some, in fact, like the Golden Globes, have never nominated an animated film for Best Screenplay (one could say it’s because the Globes only have one screenplay category, and not two, but, again, it’s a poor excuse to overlook incredible work). Animated films stay in their lane, except for the few instances in which they’re allowed to branch out, typically in music and effects-oriented categories.

Animated films also fill a hole people have been clamoring about for years now: they’re populist films. Zootopia was the third-highest grossing film worldwide in 2016 and seventh-highest domestically. Moana, while not quite as high (eleventh domestically and fifteenth worldwide), is certainly more well-known than several other prestige Oscar contenders, both this year and in years past. Animated films that don’t hail from the main studios have a somewhat harder time breaking out, but there’s still a wider appeal, helping these films reach the masses in ways several other Oscar films typically don’t, thereby expanding the Oscar audience.

These films can also contend with more traditional Oscar films on a critical level. In fact, every single animated film nominated for Best Animated Feature this year has a better critical score (going by Rotten Tomatoes’ critic scores) than current frontrunner La La Land, except for The Red Turtle, which is tied with Damien Chazelle’s musical. Only Zootopia contends with the other frontrunner, Moonlight, on a critical basis, but it definitely makes the situation starker. Not that La La Land doesn’t deserve its Best Picture nod, but if all these films were deemed critically better, why aren’t they getting more attention on a larger scale and allowed to compete alongside the films that have been deemed the best of the best?

It’s not that live-action films shouldn’t get their due, but simply that other films, like animated films, should be allowed onto the playing field once in a while and bodies like the Academy, which are meant to recognize and award excellence in filmmaking, should give them more consideration. Just because these films are colorful and drawn (either by hand or on a computer) and appeal to multiple generations doesn’t mean they’re not as prestigious, artistic, or impressive as the other films the Academy likes to hold up on a pedestal. It’s time to stand up for animation and proclaim its worthiness from the rooftops. Things likely won’t change in the next couple of years but if we make enough noise, who knows what could happen?

 | Associate Editor
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One Response to The Academy’s Animation Conundrum

  1. I find it interesting that they keep taking animated films and turning them into live action movies, but no one is doing the reverse, that is, making animated features from live action ones. What does this say about our view of these different mediums?

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