Is Pinocchio the Film to Beat in Best Animated Feature?

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio has been the sight unseen Best Animated Feature frontrunner essentially all year, and following its premiere at the BFI London Film Festival this past Saturday, it still holding onto first place, earning rave after rave after rave right out of the gate (and a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with a 8.8/10 average rating and 93 on Metacritic) and even causing some to wonder if this might actually be Netflix’s best Best Picture bet after their supposed strongest players BARDO and White Noise fell off at the fall festivals (and the films that are “next-in-line” like Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery and All Quiet on the Western Front have a long ways to go to establish themselves as major contenders in the top category). However, even though Pinocchio is said to be as good as we always thought it would be, that doesn’t mean it has this in the bag just yet. Let’s not forget that Disney has won this category 15 times (out of the 21 years it has existed), and they have not one, not two, but three contenders this year (Strange WorldTurning Red, and Lightyear), with the first two best positioned to make a play for the win, as Turning Red already released to widespread acclaim on Disney+ earlier this year (a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes with an 8/10 average rating and an 83 on Metacritic), and early word on Strange World sounds spectacular (and as someone who was offered to see a sneak preview of the film in September, I can indeed confirm that it looks like Disney has something special on their hands, offering their own spin on Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth with an emotional emphasis on family, fathers and sons, and legacy).

The one advantage Disney may have over GDT and Netflix is that their films are entirely original works, while Pinocchio is an adaptation of the classic fable we all already know (and love!), following it fairly closely. Conversely, Turning Red is not only a rare culturally specific coming-of-age story about a Chinese-Canadian girl growing up in the early 2000s, but also a metaphorical take on female puberty – one that has not only been praised for its profuse creativity, but also courted controversy (which still keeps it in the conversation). And although Strange World is indeed quite “Vernian” in its construction, it’s also still a brand new adventure with original colorful characters hoping to find their place in the Disney canon when they charm audiences around the world over the Thanksgiving holiday. But let’s not dismiss Pinocchio too quickly, as although it is an adaptation, GDT and co have suffused their film with supplemental social context by setting it just before the rise of Fascism in pre-WWII Italy, where Pinocchio is recruited by the military because the fascists believe that, if this puppet cannot die, he would make “the perfect soldier.” Oh yeah, and did we mention that, in this version of the classic tale, Geppetto creates Pinocchio to fill the void left behind by his recently deceased son? Just give us the tissues already. Those who start the film wanting the “same old same old” will be satisfied, as will those looking for a “weightier” lark that comments on the perils of the present, even if it takes place in the past. (And Pinocchio could also have a leg up since it’s simultaneously a strong contender in several other categories as well, such as Best Original Score and Best Visual Effects, and maybe even Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Production Design; but for its credit, Turning Red is also contending in Best Original Song.)

Turning Red, Strange World, and My Father's Dragon

However, although these three seem to be our tentative “top three” in the Best Animated Feature category at the moment, they’re far from the only films in contention. Up next, we have Netflix’s second biggest contender of the year, Cartoon Saloon’s My Father’s Dragon. Not only has this adaptation of the 1948 Ruth Stiles Gannett novel of the same already earned a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes (with a 7.4/10 average rating) and a 77 on Metacritic, but Cartoon Saloon also hasn’t ever missed a nomination in this category (The Secret of the KellsSong of the SeaThe Breadwinner, and Wolfwalkers all received recognition here). I was lucky enough to see My Father’s Dragon a few weeks ago, and while I would say that the film is a bit more “child-centric” than other Cartoon Saloon features (with a bit more of a predictable plot and less dynamic dialogue), the artistry on display is admittedly awe-inspiring, the voice work is vibrant (especially from leads Jacob Tremblay and Gaten Matarazzo), and the themes are timely, tender, and tremendously touching. It’s an earnest and easygoing watch through and through – and should be a decent hit with families when it releases on Netflix on November 11th – and it’s also one of the most “fun” films voters will find in this line-up. And don’t let the fact that Netflix is prioritizing Pinocchio make you underestimate their ability to get this in as well; they were able to get two of their animated features nominated in both 2019 (I Lost My Body and Klaus – the latter of which came close to winning) and 2020 (Over the Moon and A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon – the latter of which was a surprise over the snubbed The Croods: A New Age), so they know what they’re doing.

These four films are my top four right now, and then we come to that elusive fifth spot, with many compelling contenders all competing to be the one that “breaks in” over all the others. At the moment, I give the edge to DreamWorks’ The Bad Guys, which was one of their most well-reviewed and most profitable movies in years (an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes with a 6.9/10 average rating, a 64 on Metacritic, and a $248 million worldwide box office cume against an $80 million budget), and it’s clear that Universal knows what they have on their hands, as they’ve been pushing the film non-stop ever since it released in theaters; as a member of Hollywood Critics Association, I received a digital screener for The Bad Guys at the end of May, and at the start of October, I just received a physical screener as well. However, this isn’t the only Universal/DreamWorks film in contention this year, as they also have Puss in Boots: The Last Wish debuting in December – just in time for Christmas – and like The Bad Guys, it looks to be a supremely stylized story chockfull of snappy dialogue, which is sure to appeal to The Academy’s animation branch, and let’s not forget that the first Puss in Boots nabbed a nom in this category all the way back in 2011. There are also two other Netflix titles circling nominations – the summer smash hit The Sea Beast and Henry Selick’s Wendell and Wild, but the former may have released too early to stay in the conversation in a significant capacity, and the latter hasn’t received quite as rave of reviews as Pinocchio or My Father’s Dragon.

The Bad Guys, The Sea Beast, and Wendell and Wild

And that brings us to the “unconventional” contenders, with animation that doesn’t always earn the attention it deserves from The Academy or the industry at large. Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood, a resplendent rotoscopic trip through the major events of his young life while growing up in Houston, Texas (and particularly, the Moon Landing of 1969) was recently “rejected” as animation by an Oscars committee (despite the fact that Linklater literally utilized a complex blend of 2D animation and employed nearly 200 animators in Austin and Amsterdam over the film’s two-year production), but Linklater intends to appeal the decision, calling it a “bias against both rotoscope animation and independent productions.” And finally, there’s A24’s Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, which doesn’t fully fit the conventional definition of an “animated feature” (its a live-action mockumentary with a few animated characters, like the titular Marcel and his grandmother), but as one of the most acclaimed movies of the year in any medium (a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes with an 8.3/10 average rating and an 81 on Metacritic), A24 is going to give it a go anyway, with writer-director Dean Fleischer Camp taking to Twitter in late July to say that the film will indeed be eligible for Oscar consideration in the Best Animated Feature category, but they’ll simply have to submit documentation to prove that it has met the requirements in which “animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time” and “a narrative animated film must have a significant number of characters animated.”

So, even though Best Animated Feature looks to be Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio‘s for the taking at the moment, it’s clear that there’s still a lot about this category that’s up in the air, and we have a long race to run before the 95th Academy Awards. Do you think GDT has got this one in the bag? Or will Disney be able to pull off a last-minute upset yet again?

Written by
Though Zoë Rose Bryant has only worked in film criticism for a little under three years - turning a collegiate passion into a full-time career by writing for outlets such as Next Best Picture and Awards Watch - her captivation with cinema has been a lifelong fascination, appreciating film in all its varying forms, from horror movies to heartfelt romantic comedies and everything in between. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, she made the move to Los Angeles in 2021 after graduating college and now spends her days keeping tabs on all things pop culture and attempting to attend every screening under the sun. As a trans critic, she also seeks to champion underrepresented voices in the LGBTQ+ community in film criticism and offer original insight on how gender and sexuality are explored in modern entertainment. You can find Zoë on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd at @ZoeRoseBryant.

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