Introduced at the 74th Academy Awards, the Animated Feature category can be an exciting time to showcase an underappreciated medium of craft and artistry. It took ten years after the first animated film was nominated for Best Picture before animation was recognized with its own award. In the 19 years of its existence, Disney has only lost four times when it has had a film in contention. This happened most recently two years ago when Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse won out over both Incredibles 2 and Ralph Breaks the Internet.
It may feel like a foregone conclusion that the seemingly unbeatable team at Pixar is about to win again. There is still room for a potential spoiler, although that would be virtually unprecedented, given the way the season has taken shape. But we want to take this opportunity, just days before the big show, to celebrate the year in animated film and to talk a bit about each of the year’s nominees.
Film: Onward (Pixar)
Director: Dan Scanlon
Streaming on: Disney+
This tale of two brothers on an epic quest used familiar themes and fantasy elements to tell a story that managed to find ways to surprise and to explore new levels of relationships and emotions. With beautiful design and use of color, Scanlon’s Pixar flick gives us a sweet and unexpectedly satisfying story about family, destiny, and unlocking our potential. Onward was one of the early victims of the pandemic’s theatrical shutdown, and was later overshadowed by Disney’s other release, but that doesn’t take away from this funny and spell-binding work of art.
Film: Over the Moon (Netflix)
Director: Glen Keane; Co-Director: John Kahrs
Streaming on: Netflix
Netflix had its first real contenders in animated feature last year, acquiring two brilliant and exciting new projects. This year, they released Over the Moon, the streamer’s first animated musical. Wisely recruiting Disney alum Glen Keane as director, the gorgeous and culturally rich movie combines legend, fantasy, art and science into another beautiful story of love, loss, and hope. Over the Moon celebrates Chinese culture, STEM girls, and the importance of family connections.
Film: A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (Netflix)
Director: Will Becher, Richard Phelan
Streaming on: Netflix
Endlessly adorable and full of whimsical delight, the team behind the Shaun the Sheep movies is back with Farmageddon. Aliens? Superpowers? Friendship? They’re all present and accounted for, along with a plethora of Easter eggs for fans of the sci fi genre. The fact that this movie managed to snag a spot in the Oscar lineup seemed like a bit of a surprise, but it deserves its place. It’s also fun to see another stop-motion animation film celebrated by the Academy.
Film: Soul (Disney/Pixar)
Director: Pete Docter
Streaming on: Disney+
And now we come to the presumptive winner, Soul. Pixar’s triple nominee earned nods for its Original Score as well as Sound, and landed on the shortlist for Visual Effects even though it ultimately came up short for that fourth category. Still, Soul has been embraced by guilds all along the road, Twitter backlash be damned. Yes, Pixar and Disney rule the animation races year after year, and there are very few times they have lost the category when they’ve had a film to compete.
Yes, it can be wearing to see one studio continue to dominate the awards and the awards conversation. There are other very worthy films that deserve to be considered. Some of them are in this very lineup. But Pixar doesn’t just win because of Disney’s ability to launch expensive and flashy campaigns. They win because they make big, expensive movies that people love. Whether you loved, liked, or hated the movie, Pete Docter, Kemp Powers, and the team have once again accomplished what they set out to do: create an animated film that gives vocabulary and wonder to an abstract concept. And it does so while being hopeful and avoiding too much pontificating. It’s also stunning in its beauty, and an exciting next step in the evolution of computer animation.
Film: Wolfwalkers (GKIDS/Apple TV+)
Director: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart
Streaming on: Apple TV+
And now we come to Wolfwalkers, the GKIDS/Apple TV+ movie that has captured the attention of film fans for months. First it earned raves as it made its way through the festival circuit. And then, as viewers had the chance to watch at home, it has done exceptionally well among those who have taken the time to see it for themselves.
Wolfwalkers is another story of friendship and destiny, of overcoming obstacles and standing up to those in power. It is an essential message wrapped up in the luster of Irish fable. Hand drawn animation lends to the folkloric look and feel of the film and sets it apart from the rest of its competitors, as well as from recent entries in the animation field. As we move further and further down the road of computer graphics, traditional styles of hand drawn art are harder and harder to find. But there are some stories that just work better with pencils and paper, and Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart knew this was one such example. The story itself could have worked in many different forms of media, but it might not sing as magically in any other way.
This is where I must say that Soul has certainly run ahead of the pack. But as some have pointed out, last week’s Annie Awards showed strong support for Wolfwalkers, which managed five wins to Soul‘s seven, and the GKIDS movie managed to overtake Pixar in the individual categories of character design and directing. There is a likely winner, but there is still room for a surprise.