Oscars Lowdown 2014: Best Animated Feature – ‘Frozen’ has the heat

In the lead-up to the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, HitFix will be bringing you the lowdown on all 24 Oscar categories with multiple entries each day. Take a few notes and bone up on the competition as we give you the edge in your office Oscar pool!

For much of the year, the Best Animated Feature category was looking like a bit of a problem area: as one studio effort after another met with either an indifferent or disastrous reception, the threat of the weakest field in the award's 13-year history hovered in the air. In the end, however, things picked up: the Mouse House came through in November with a certifiable smash, and the Academy enriched the category by venturing further afield than Hollywood. As it is, it's a respectable enough contest, though a five-nominee field is beginning to look over-generous.

The nominees are…

“The Croods” (Chris Sanders, Kirk DeMicco and Kristine Belson)
A win may have been a lost cause from the beginning, but no film has campaigned harder for its place in the race than DreamWorks's sentimental caveman family adventure. Knowing that the March release could easily have faded in voters' memories — particularly with reviews that were only okay — the studio sent out screeners early (and plentifully), held classy industry events and exhibitions dedicated to the film's artwork and even scored the endorsement of Harvey Weinstein himself, who has been vocally singing its praises in interviews. He's not alone: the film is bright, energetic and hard to actively dislike, even if it's few people's idea of the year's best in the medium. And after the disappointments of “Rise of the Guardians” and “Turbo,” DreamWorks should regard this nomination as a win in itself. Sanders, by the way, has previously been nominated here for “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Lilo & Stitch.” (Fun fact: “The Croods” is the only Oscar nominee in any category this year to have premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.)

“Despicable Me 2” (Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin and Chris Meledandri)
This jolly, candy-colored return for the world's least threatening supervillain becomes only the fourth sequel to be nominated for this award, but it also has a unique place in the category's short history: it's the first nominated sequel to a film that was ignored by the animators' branch. (The asterisk, of course, is that “Despicable Me” would surely have been included in a year of five nominees.) That's the power of money talking: the new film wasn't appreciably better or worse received than its predecessor, but it grossed even more, finishing the year in fourth place. That it is strictly an also-ran in this category despite such stratospheric success speaks to its negligible artistic qualities, though the film is amiable enough; its best chance at an Oscar lies with Pharrell's bouncy, chart-topping hit “Happy.” Meanwhile, we'll see how the Minions' spin-off movie fares in a couple of years' time. (Chris Renaud was first nominated for the 2006 “Ice Age”-related short “No Time for Nuts.”)

“Ernest & Celestine” (Benjamin Renner and Didier Brunner)
Heading into the nomination announcement, many pundits underestimated this delicate French charmer, which premiered at Cannes way back in 2012. People should by now know better than to dismiss plucky indie distribution outfit GKIDS, which once more pulled off a David-versus-Goliath coup: Pixar fell out, but Renner's beguiling, traditionally animated (if computer-augmented) tale of rebellious friendship between a bear and a mouse stayed the course. (For whatever reason, Renner's co-directors, “A Town Called Panic” duo Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar, aren't included in the nomination.) Rewarded by the Los Angeles Film Critics' Association but otherwise sidelined by the high-end critics' groups in favor of “The Wind Rises,” this is one underdog that has had to fight pretty hard to stay in the race — but its gorgeous, watercolor-style visuals clearly wowed the animators' branch, which places a lot of stock in craft.  

“Frozen” (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee and Peter Del Vecho)
Narrowly pipping “Despicable Me 2” to the title of 2013's highest-grossing animated film (with $385 million in the bank Stateside) is Disney's glistening throwback to the musical fairytale adaptations that marked the company's artistic renaissance from 1989 onwards. Much as I like the film, I don't think it's quite in the league of “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Little Mermaid,” but that's immaterial: what began the season as a hit has since become a full-blown phenomenon, one that has captured the imagination of both young viewers and their pleasantly surprised elders to a degree that no Disney film has managed since “The Lion King” 20 years ago. Animation buffs marvel at its sleek, Nordic-inspired design, the ubiquitous soundtrack has topped the Billboard chart for weeks on end, while cultural commentators have devoted yards of column space to its feminist revision of the Disney-princess narrative. If it had merely been a “Tangled”-scale success, this might be a race, but it's not: right now, it's a “Frozen” world, and we're just living in it. Buck was previously nominated for “Surf's Up”; he'll do a little better this time round.

“The Wind Rises” (Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki)
Earlier in the season, with “Frozen” yet to open and the field looking particularly week, the stars seemed to be aligning for a career-capping farewell win for the beloved Miyazaki and his highly personal and ambitious swansong feature: an epic interpretive biopic of wartime aircraft engineer Jiro Horikoshi. Then “Frozen” blew up, and not all the critics' awards in the world could persuade Disney (which is, of course, releasing “The Wind Rises” in the US) to lavish much campaign attention on their arthouse stepchild; with Miyazaki obviously not in the market for campaigning, it's kept a low profile throughout both voting periods. (A minor controversy over Horikoshi's role in designing Pearl Harbor attack planes didn't help.) No matter: Miyazaki's third nomination is a sweet reward all the same, and for a romantic, sweeping vision that couldn't be more different from his Oscar-winning “Spirited Away.”

Will win: “Frozen”
Could win: “The Wind Rises” (but not really)
Should win: “Ernest & Celestine”
Should have been here: “A Letter to Momo”

Overall, I think the animators' branch has given us about the strongest field they could realistically have assembled in what was less than a banner year for the medium: “Despicable Me 2” and “The Croods” aren't exactly one for the ages, but they avoided some potential pitfalls, and looking to acclaimed international fare instead of boilerplate studio efforts like “Monsters University” or “Epic” was the right way to go. I'd have welcomed a second Japanese nod for the lovely, wistful “A Letter to Momo,” but never expected one.

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How do you think this race will pan out, and is there a contender you wish were here? Share your thoughts in the comments.