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!
Best Animated Feature, like the other short categories, used to be something of a crapshoot in prediction terms — you'd watch all the nominees and imagine how the majority of voters might spontaneously respond to each one, with hit-and-miss results. Now things have changed slightly: with voters no longer required to prove they've seen all the nominees, the profile of each contender now counts for more than it should — and with Disney the reigning champ in the category, we're about to see if a corporation-friendly pattern is being set.
The nominees are…
“Feral” (Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden)
Before the rule change, I might have put my money on “Feral” in this category as the most artistically striking and thematically substantial of the nominees — it's the only film here with much of an emotional kick, and if enough voters do their homework and view it, that could make it something of a spoiler in the race. Sousa competed in the short film category at Sundance last year for this exquisitely designed, dialogue-free tale of a young boy, reared in the wild, unhappily introduced to human society; he also won three awards, including the FIPRESCI critics' prize, at the prestigious Annecy animation fest. Visually, it's a distinctive piece, making sophisticated use of old-school animation techniques, while Sousa's stylized, monochrome-pastel imagery seamlessly blends reality and fantasy. It gets my vote easily.
“Get a Horse!” (Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim)
Disney broke a decades-long dry spell in this category last year with “Paperman,” and they enter the race once more as heavy favorites with what is easily the most widely-seen nominee in the category — thanks to its attachment in theaters to Animated Feature shoo-in “Frozen.” Under the new voting roles, it could scoop a lot of votes from members who were charmed by it in that context, but haven't necessarily seen all the nominees. The Disney brand, after all, could hardly be stronger than it is in this Mickey Mouse-starring romp, which employs state-of-the-art animation techniques to literally break the fourth wall: contemporary 3D invades the black-and-white world of a 1930s-style cartoon, and all hell breaks loose. Many think it's brilliant; I found it wholly charmless, and couldn't help noting that the 21st-century intervention does little to fix its retrograde sexism. (Minnie's never been more vapid.) But that's by the by: it'll likely make Disney the first studio to claim that Animated Short and Feature awards in the same year.
“Mr. Hublot” (Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares)
If voters are in quirky mood, they could opt for this French fancy, which plays a little like a higher-tech “Wallace and Gromit” origins story. This breezy tale of a hermit-like inventor who adopts a mechanical puppy only for the beast to grow to a point that drives him out of house and home has the kind of slick but wittily detailed visuals — both futuristic and industrially retro — that voters often respond to in this category, plus a couple of jaunty original songs from French chanteuse Lilo to sweeten the deal. It's puddle-deep, but sentimental enough to catch voters' hearts — who can resist a puppy, even one made of scrap metal? Winner of the top animation prize at the Kerry Film Festival, it's another plausible alternative to the Disney juggernaut.
“Possessions” (Shuhei Morita)
Japanese anime has penetrated the Animated Feature race to a slight extent over the years — albeit only when Hayao Miyazaki is at the helm — but it's a more unusual presence still in this category. Morita's heavily symbolic fable, rooted in local folklore and mythology, is a refreshingly esoteric pick, and one of the more narratively complex entries, though I sense it's too oblique to capture the imagination of most voters. The story centers on a weary traveler who, seeking shelter from a storm, stumbles upon a treasure trove of discarded objects that he restores to life and purpose — there's something of an environmental message here, but you can also read a certain spiritual dimension into the proceedings. Morita's film was shortlisted for the top prize in Annecy, and gives the category some cultural breadth, but the nomination is the reward here
“Room on the Broom” (Max Lang and Jan Lachauer)
The one previous nominee in the field is British animator Lang, who popped up here three years ago with his adaptation of the bestselling children's book “The Gruffalo.” His latest work follows very much the same formula: made for UK television, based on a popular picture book and a voice cast stuffed with big names — including one of this year's Supporting Actress nominees, Sally Hawkins. The story, about a good-natured witch (Gillian Anderson) and her faithful cat adopting various forest misfits on an eventful day out, is cheery and slight; the animation, like “The Gruffalo,” in a computer-generated approximation of claymation that doesn't quite charm. (At 25 minutes, it's also a bit lacking in pace.) Still, it won the TV category at Annecy and was nominated in Special Production category at the Annie Awards. I doubt it'll add an Oscar to that haul, but Lang is clearly held in high regard by this branch.
Will win: “Get a Horse!”
Could win: “Feral”
Should win: “Feral”
Should have been here: “Hollow Land”
All in all, not the most inspired field this category has ever had — and to look at the shortlisted titles that didn't make the cut, it seems the Academy omitted some of the more stylistically adventurous options, including a striking, melancholy slice of Canadian absurdism in “Hollow Land.” Still, a broad range of styles is represented; here's hoping this race isn't ceded to the most commercial option every year from here on out.
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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.