By: Peter Kosanovich
Looking at animation this year, there were some absolutely phenomenal films! Disney put out two original animated films in Zootopia and Moana; Laika LLC released another highly original stop-motion feature to add to their catalog of work, Kubo and the Two Strings; Studio Ghibli co-produced the beautiful and subtle La Tortue Rouge (The Red Turtle) with the French-based studio Wild Bunch; and the French-Swiss company Gebeka Films released the small, charming, stop-motion feature Ma vie de Courgette (My Life as a Zucchini). And these were just the films that landed Academy Award nominations – Pixar released Finding Dory to much critical and financial success, after some US release issues Netflix landed the final distribution for The Little Prince, DreamWorks had a big year with Kung Fu Panda 3 and Trolls, Illumination Entertainment of Despicable Me fame came out swinging with the musical Sing and family comedy The Secret Life of Pets, Seth Rogen released his usual brand of crude and sophomoric humor in the R-rated Sausage Party, and Japan’s Makoto Shinkai is being hailed as “The New Miyazaki” with the release of Your Name (US release April 7, 2017). But, as always, only one can win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film.
What is so wonderful about this year in particular, is how refreshingly diverse the group of films is. That isn’t to say that previous years have made bad films – I previously reviewed the 2015 Academy Awards which featured the storybook-like Song of the Sea, stop-motion The Boxtrolls, The Tale of Princess Kaguya’s traditional Japanese watercolor style, DreamWorks stalwart franchise How to Train Your Dragon 2, and the Disney-Marvel collaboration Big Hero 6 (winner). It is incredibly reassuring, however, to see such continued diversity and stylistic inclusion from the animated categories. Both of Disney’s major releases this year featured strong, dynamic women as the leads, with Zootopia dealing specifically with diversity and Moana highlighting minority representation; two of the films nominated this year are done entirely through stop-motion, a clear break from the CGI-heavy industry; and the final film is an international joint effort showing a wonderful blending of styles and making a universally understood movie, further highlighted by its almost nonexistent use of dialogue. Now, it is unfortunate that the Academy is still reluctant to award non-Disney/Pixar films with the actual statuette – since the introduction of the category Pixar and Disney have won 10 of the 15 years (20 combined nominations), DreamWorks has only won twice from their 11 nominations (11 is the most nominations by a single company), and there have only been two non-CGI winners ever with Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and DreamWorks’ Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit – but the recognition is definitely a good start! With that said, go see some of the other movies mentioned above, as this was truly a wonderful year for animation and the five nominated are only a small sampling of what is available!
Now, without further ado, here is this year’s breakdown of the animated film category as represented at the Academy Awards. Starting with the smallest, most out-of-left-field film, there is My Life as a Zucchini. Unfortunately, My Life as a Zucchini has yet to have its US release (February 24, 2017), which means I have not had the opportunity to see it, but because the Academy so rarely gives the win to the foreign film I do not actually see this winning. That being said, do go see it when it comes out, as the reviews so far have only been good! Next is The Red Turtle, co-produced by Studio Ghibli, which immediately gives the movie a little more clout than others. Interestingly though, to make the story universally understandable, the movie is almost entirely without dialogue, besides standard efforts, or reactionary sounds such as grunting or non-descript yelling. Because of this, despite the beauty of the film, the audience has been more limited, and I do not see The Red Turtle gaining enough momentum to persuade voters in its favor. It did, however, win the Annie Award for Best Animated Feature – Independent; the Annie Awards highlight accomplishments within the animation field specifically. Getting into the heavy-hitters is Moana, Disney’s effort to diversify its princess lineup. Focusing on the daughter of a Polynesian island chief, Moana follows the titular heroine as she embarks on a quest to save her island from being swallowed up by the ocean. The film tells a wonderful, well-constructed heroes journey featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, accompanied by the musical styling’s of Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. Personally, this was one of my favorite movies of the year, showcasing beautiful animation, wonderful music, a brief glimpse into Polynesian culture, and I wish it could win; somehow, as well as Moana has been received by both critics and audiences, it has mostly fallen off the radar during this award season. I’m not sure how a Disney Princess musical manages to be an underdog, but that’s what I see it as this year, as it really has not performed well at various other award shows and circuits.
Finally, the two frontrunners, Disney’s other major release, Zootopia, and Laika LLC’s Kubo and the Two Strings. Two drastically different films, Kubo tells the epic fantasy of a boy with magical powers going on a quest to defeat his grandfather, the evil Moon King, and all of this done through the most fluid and gorgeous stop-motion animation ever put to screen; Zootopia in contrast tells the culturally relevant story of prejudices relating to race and the police, but done in the most loving, Disney way possible, by placing a female bunny in a police department filled only with predators and then forcing her to work with a fox to solve the investigation that nobody wants. While Zootopia was incredibly charming, funny, and all-around enjoyable, its overall message came off as a little too present, almost like I was being bashed in the head by the message. That in no way means that I did not like the movie, in fact I very much enjoyed it and will definitely add it to the list of Disney movies I will rewatch on a regular basis, but the bluntness with which is presented itself just made the movie a little weaker than it could have been. Despite this minor complaint, Zootopia introduces one of Disney’s best, complex, and most well-rounded female characters ever created in the form of Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin. So far this award season, Zootopia and Kubo and the Two Strings have managed to split wins pretty well, with Zootopia pulling away with the lead only more recently. As strong as Disney was this year, Kubo stands the best shot of pulling an upset. For everything else that it is – a massive fantasy epic about music and magic – Kubo and the Two Strings, at its core, is a film about family, a boy and his parents. This movie was incredibly beautiful, the meticulous detail that went into the stop-motion process is truly extraordinary, and it by far tells the most wonderful and unique story this year. As far as winning goes, I can see three scenarios: Zootopia wins outright, as it is currently the frontrunner; Kubo and the Two Strings manages to ride the success of its recent BAFTA win, and the Academy awards Laika LLC the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award since it has never won in this category; or Zootopia and Kubo and the Two Strings manage to split the vote and Moana wins from behind, the only way it stands a chance of winning. At long last, and after being only slightly long-winded, I see The Academy giving the statuette to Zootopia, but my personal pick for upset and film that should win is Kubo and the Two Strings.
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