Friday, January 23, 2015

Oscar Watch: Animated Features

The Oscar for Best Animated Feature has only been awarded this century, so we don't have a long history to build up a decent feel for what makes a winning contender in this category.  Still, the thirteen awards thus far do exhibit certain common themes.

First, a nominee should have been widely seen.  Critical darlings like The Triplets of Belleville and Persepolis could not beat out their competition.  The legendary Hayao Miyazaki has only one statuette to his name, for Spirited Away, arguably his widest release.  Aside from Spirited Away, every winner in this category has come from a major US distributor (even Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which was distributed by DreamWorks) and received wide release in US theaters.  My theory for this is that the larger populace that votes for the eventual winner does not do the same level of homework that it might do for the bigger awards like Best Picture, so to have a real shot, a contender has to be one the voters already know something about.  As a result, I think neither Song of the Sea nor The Tale of the Princess Kaguya stand a serious chance to win, making this year a de facto three movie race.

Also, innovation helps, to some extent.  Shrek famously pushed forward several elements of computer-generated animation and won in the category's first year.  Rango was noteworthy for doing its voice recording as the actors, in costume, acted out the scenes in a full dress rehearsal.  Up, along with fellow nominee Coraline, made excellent use of emerging 3D techniques.

Finally, the winner is often the nominee that, if shot as live action (with any necessary special effects) it would still have significant merit as a film.  The first ten minutes of Up is often described as the best film to come out in 2009.  WALL-E, The Incredibles, Brave, and Frozen all had the strongest emotional core of any of the nominees their year.

With that, let's take a quick look at each of the three wide releases nominated this year.

How to Train Your Dragon 2

This is easily the weakest of the three nominees being considered here.  While it's largely an entertaining film with a decent, if very simple, emotional throughline, it's the most "cartoony" of the nominees in terms of both visual design and character depth.  Every human in the cast takes the form of a 3D animated caricature, with the fat extremely fat, the thin extremely skinny, etc.  The voice acting can be very hammy as well.  Some of the dragons are designed such that they could almost be Muppets.  I don't see this as a serious contender at all, and if I were the makers of The Lego Movie, quite frankly I'd be wondering why my movie lost out in getting a nomination to this.
It does have a few absolutely gorgeous moments, though.

The Boxtrolls

Adapted from the book Here Be Monsters! and filmed gorgeously in stop-motion animation, Boxtrolls owes a bit to The Jungle Book as well as (in a very odd way) Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.  But I think it owes the most to that part of human nature that allows us to so easily believe the worst in those different from us and to those who attempt to take advantage of that trait for their own selfish, destructive purposes.  Given the current ongoing backlashes against immigrants and Muslims both in America and Europe, this is a fairy tale with decidedly modern applicability.  

The stop-motion techniques are used so flawlessly that when I watched this the first time, I thought it was computer animated with an aim to simulate stop-motion.  The epilogue, in which two characters have a conversation in real-time while the camera pulls back to reveal the godlike animator blurring in and out of the shot to make the characters move, is worth the price of admission alone.

Couple with an eccentric script, eclectic set design, and stellar voice acting, the film comes off as a Terry Gilliam production that was accidentally captured in animation rather than live action.  There is an extended, unnecessary plot line in which the main villain wanders about in drag that is neither entertaining nor terribly flattering to trans community, but otherwise this is a worthy film. 
When I say gorgeously filmed, I mean it.  Change the proportions a bit on these characters and they'd look real.

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 is this year's nearly perfect animated film.  It has incredible emotional depth, with main character Hiro undergoing multiple vectors of growth throughout.  His partner Baymax, a healthcare companion bot turned battle droid, is a breakout character in the mold of Groot.  Unlike its competitors, even Big Hero 6's main antagonist has significant depth, with a past that provides rationale to the villain's actions.  

The world Big Hero 6 inhabits is complex and feels real.  The setting of San Fransokyo is fully realized and gorgeously shot, populating a near-future that's advanced in ways that don't seem out of place.  While a couple of the characters at times fall into cartoony movement or dialogue delivery (I'm looking at you, Fred), for the most part, the characters act and think much like in an equivalent live action film.

And technically the animation is soundly done.  The lighting in the film is carefully shot, rendering scenes that simply feel real.  Daylight scenes have consistent lighting and shadowing, while nighttime scenes remain clear, even if the color palette is muted.  The diversity of the people and even plants in the background of shots adds to that feeling of the movie resting in physical reality.  And the movie uses techniques that animate thousands of very small moving constructs very effectively, adding to that illusion. 

Flying at sunset has never looked so beautiful.
Low light scenes that are not muddy just make me want to hug the animator.
With masterful animation, a strong script and voice acting, and a story fit for a live action film, Big Hero 6 is the obvious choice for this year's Animated Feature Oscar.  And it would be the clear choice even if the nomination process hadn't tripped up and left The Lego Movie out.

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