Animation is an underappreciated medium. Often dismissed as family entertainment or something aimed at children, there is a wealth of stunning artistic achievement to be found in even the simplest of animated works.
The Academy first introduced the category for Best Animated Feature Film in 2001, a full ten years after Disney’s Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture. Before 2001, animation was honored through Special Achievement awards, something which only happened three times in 73 years. The first was in 1938 when Walt Disney was celebrated for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The citation rewarded Disney for pioneering “a great new entertainment field for the motion picture cartoon” and effectively ignored the work of filmmakers like Lotte Reiniger whose The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) is believed to be the first feature-length animated film.
Fifty years later, Richard Williams received the Special Achievement Award for the animation direction in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Williams and his team also won the award for Visual Effects that year, but singling out animation was an important step to recognizing the specific and important distinction between visual media.
When Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture in 1991, some naysayers thought animation unworthy of the industry’s highest honor. But as producer Don Hahn noted, the nomination served as “validation of animation as a legitimate way to tell a story.” What few people knew then was that the next phase of evolution was already underway. Pixar was in the early days of production on Toy Story, and its release in 1995 not only rewarded John Lasseter a Special Achievement, it would also open the door to entirely new avenues of filmmaking.
In 2001, animation finally got its due when AMPAS introduced Best Animated Feature Film. The nominees were Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Monsters Inc, and Shrek. It’s noteworthy that after decades of Disney domination in the world of animation, the first film recognized with a competitive Oscar came from DreamWorks instead. The next year, Studio Ghibli’s beloved Spirited Away from Hiyao Miyazaki prevailed over four others, including two from Disney (Lilo & Stitch, Treasure Planet). The others were Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (DreamWorks), and Ice Age (Blue Sky/20th Century Fox).
Disney/Pixar would finally win the Oscar in 2003 with Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo, and would proceed to win 12 more over the next 16 years. Of the four Disney did not win, only once were they not nominated at all. Of their 13 Oscars, 10 were Disney/Pixar co-productions.
What does any of this mean for 2020’s Animated Feature race? With Pixar bringing two films to the table, is there room for another studio to break through? Could this be the year Netflix or GKIDS takes home the statuette? Is there room for DreamWorks, Universal, or Warner Bros. to find their way into the lineup? The answer to all this is yes.
One of the year’s most beautiful and heartwarming entries, Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s Wolfwalkers (AppleTV+/GKIDS) is a callback to classic animation with hand drawn backgrounds and a timeless fable of magic and friendship. It’s unclear how many viewers have had the opportunity to see this magnificent work, but this critical favorite will very likely win over voters when the time comes. It is still too early in the process to call anything a lock for a nomination, but it will certainly be shocking if Wolfwalkers is not among the honorees in April.
The Disney/Pixar team have two entries this year. This marks the third time since 1995 that Pixar has released two features in the same year. In 2015, they gave us eventual Oscar winner Inside Out in June and the gloriously beautiful but derivative story of The Good Dinosaur in November. In 2017, their June release, Cars 3, received middling reviews while that November, Coco joined the ranks as one of Pixar’s most beloved films. Coco went on to win the Academy Award, also picking up an award for Best Original Song, “Remember Me.”
This history bodes well for both Soul and Onward, which have been highly praised by critics and well received by audiences too. Both are very strong contenders not only for the nomination, but for the win. There is also a possibility that they could split votes and both walk away without the award. When Inside Out won in 2015, it didn’t have to compete against its own cinematic sibling as The Good Dinosaur didn’t make the lineup. Walking into the 90th Oscars, no film — including Cars 3 — had a real shot at unseating the clear and compelling favorite, Coco. But this year, the love (and lack thereof) is fairly even between Soul and Onward. An early release date and underwhelming box office performance make Onward easy to overlook, but Dan Scanlon’s urban fantasy is still very much alive. Likewise, Pete Docter’s long-awaited return to the director’s chair has great music, important messages, and the benefit of a holiday release.
Netflix entered the realm of feature animation last year with two entries: Klaus and I Lost My Body. This year, they didn’t just distribute but also produced two animated contenders: The Willoughbys and Over the Moon. They have committed most of their time and energy to Over the Moon, a musical directed by Disney alum Glen Keane. A beautiful endeavor and a likely contender for Best Original Song (“Rocket to the Moon”), Netflix is well positioned for another nod. The task ahead now is to keep the film in the minds of voters and audiences since its October release didn’t spark a lot of conversation.
As for what might take the fifth slot, that is a little harder to say. DreamWorks is spending a lot of marketing dollars on The Croods: A New Age, the sequel to their 2013 Oscar nominee. Universal also has a sequel in the mix as Trolls: World Tour hopes for consideration. Other familiar properties include Scoob! from Warner Bros. and The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run from Paramount. Of these big studio offerings, The Croods: A New Age has been well received by critics and audiences, and that often — though not always — helps complete an animated field.
Netflix has a few additional titles, including the delightfully charming A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, as well as the international films A Whisker Away from Japan and Bombay Rose from India.
GKIDS also has several selections this year. One is Earwig and the Witch, a magical adventure from Gorô Miyazaki. There isn’t much yet in the way of early reactions, although the few that have emerged have not been overly impressed with Studio Ghibli’s first CGI effort. But with the Miyazaki name attached, this could perform well when the time comes.
- Wolfwalkers, AppleTV+/GKIDS
- Soul, Disney/Pixar
- Onward, Disney/Pixar
- Over the Moon, Netflix
- The Croods: A New Age, DreamWorks