Academy Awards statuettes

The 2017 Oscar Nominations

What a time to be alive and in love with animation. This year saw a record number of film qualify, and I know that we’ll just continue to see each year yield a larger pool of contenders. We’re seeing more diverse films, more innovation, bigger budgets, smaller budgets and a more global representation. Not saying that in previous years we weren’t, as indie films have been cracking the nominations a number of times in the award category’s sixteen-year history. That’s a whole other post I’m excited to dive into! But for now, let’s take a look at the 2017 Oscar nominations.

I have to be honest. I love the Oscars. But it’s also one of my biggest pet peeves as an animation fan. There have been a lot of debates about the validity of the animation categories, particularly feature animation, and how votes are cast. They have tried to fix this by adding more voting members, but one can’t help but continue to be a little cynical about it all. Again, I do enjoy watching the Oscars–for me personally, growing up, it was always a yearly motivation. It’s a very self-indulgent night for film. It also tends to be a fun night to poke fun at animation, either by having a comedian introduce the section with disparaging jokes, or have a director whose film is 95% VFX win and then thank everyone except for the artists who literally made it. It’s also been dominated by the same company for years, which, as the article I linked previously highlights, does have you asking questions. And that issue doesn’t just plague the Oscars, but rather every awards show. Even the Annie Awards–a show specifically for animation–has had its share of controversy in the past, and like the Oscars, have taken steps to remedy it, such as revamping the voting and adding an Independent Animated Feature category, a debatable move in itself.

Another thing that often irritates me during awards season is, sadly, the fans at times. I have had enough debates with animation fans of forums such as ASIFA-Hollywood president Jerry Beck’s Cartoon Research Facebook group to know that there are many self-proclaimed “Disney purists” out there who will blindly support the company. I think we’ve all seen that in some degree, whether someone says they loved the new Star Wars because they just love Star. And we are all very guilty of it too. I love Disney, but I’m not so blinded that I can’t criticize it.

I think the thing that frustrates me about these types of people is that their mind is made up before it even gives any other options a chance. Or even worse, they pick their clear winner without having actually seen all of the nominated films. That, in my mind, immediately invalidates your opinion. You can’t be a fully-informed voter if you are NOT fully informed. You can’t judge based on some of the information. You may have loved Moana, but perhaps The Red Turtle will blow you away. You can’t know that unless you see it. I remember sitting with friends after seeing Inside Out wondering how any Disney/Pixar film could top that, and then Zootopia came along and knocked me completely on my ass. I saw pictures for My Life as a Zucchini and didn’t know what to make of it at first, but gave it a try, only to realize that it was one of my favorite films–animation or otherwise–of the year.

Animated Feature Films

As someone who has seen all five nominations, this is a tough one for me personally. It basically does boil down to Zootopia and My Life as a Zucchini. I think Zootopia is going to win, because , frankly, history has shown us that Disney or Pixar is probably going to win. But refreshingly so, I fully believe that Zootopia deserves it on its own merit rather than Academy voters just mindlessly going for the familiar. There have been past winners that also deserve it, but it certainly has never been a true meritocracy. The whole of the Oscars has never been so. So often there are alternative options that have been grossly overlooked. Smaller films that had a narrower reach but deeper impact.

That is Zucchini. It takes very adult topics that, sadly, many kids face, and show them through that lens. It doesn’t shy from the harsh realities, and manages to find the silver lining. And it just happens to be a gorgeous, tangible, strange stop-motion film. Impressively, it was made for only $8million–which is 5% of Zootopia‘s budget. This is a cool example too of an animated film that very easily could have been a live action film, but they chose animation as the medium, as it was a very grounded film. I personally just love when that’s the case. I’d love to see it win, but I just don’t think it stands much of a chance. Zootopia was so, so topical, and of course well-made and funny, and helped push the idea that even big budget feature animation can be thought-provoking film-making if given the chance. It’s a solid genre pic; we don’t often get a detective thriller-mystery aimed at all-ages.

Kubo and the Two Strings and Moana were technical achievements (especially Kubo, which also earned a nomination for Best Visual Effects) but the stories faltered a bit or played it safe, respectively. The Red Turtle was gorgeous and meditative, but I don’t think it will appeal to many people. It was very slow, almost painfully at times, and the story could be seen as very simple rather than deep and complex. It got a lot of mixed reactions when it was screened at my studio, so I see it being too polarizing to get enough votes to win. I still am not sure how I feel about it, to be honest. A part of me wonders if it’s a bit like The Emperor’s New Clothes, where you jump on the bandwagon a bit. I felt really silly after the screening feeling that, although beautiful and possessing some very interesting moments, was not the groundbreaking cinematic masterpiece I was promised. Speaking with others, I was not alone, and yet there were those moved to tears by it. To each their own I suppose. 

Another film I fear being overly hyped about, that sounds like it was widely considered snubbed, was Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, which has been doing amazingly globally. I have not seen it, and despite it screening next month as part of the New York International Children’s Film Festival (along with Zucchini, both of which I wrote about here), I won’t be able to see it until April when Funimation does a limited theatrical release. As such, I can’t really comment on it, and where I feel it stands. Cartoon Brew has mentioned it a number of times, stating:

“If the Academy doesn’t recognize Your Name with a nomination, it will be impossible to take the category seriously this year.”

Cartoon Brew seems to think that the Academy has stigmatized non-Ghibli Japanese animated films, much like how anime in general is often written off or generalized. From that same article, Cartoon Brew made a case for Sausage Party, a problematic (both in the production and the content itself) yet surprising attempt, that, as much as I laughed, is just not my cup of tea. My opinion of course, has nothing to do with the fact that it wasn’t any less deserving of a nomination than many of the other films that were nominated, or qualified but didn’t make the cut. If the feature animation category ever expanded to ten films rather than the previous three and now five, than surely it would have been one of the ten. Maybe Your Name would have too. And The Little Prince. Totally snubbed, in my opinion!

Visual Effects

At what point is a live-action film actually an animated film? If Disney had chosen to enter The Jungle Book in the animated feature category, it absolutely would have qualified. Would it have won? Who knows. It was a very well received film, after all. But having that real human play Mowgli has allowed for plenty of blue screen sound-stages to show before and afters for, so I can’t say I blame them for going for this category. It’s very impressive what they accomplished, and makes me all the more curious for the remake of The Lion King, which, with no humans, would likely be fully CG animated.

Deepwater Horizon, Doctor Strange, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story are you standard VFX films. I say this knowing that, although the breakdown videos, the sizzle reals will some times blur together (especially if you watch like six in a row at SIGGRAPH), but that doesn’t for one second diminish the crazy amount of work, time, technical prowess, and artistry required to pull this off as seamlessly as these films have.

An unexpected competitor in this category is the stop motion animated Kubo and the Two Strings, which, as all of Laika’s films have done, pushed the limits of stop motion into new, untouched ground. Where Coraline showed us the power of 3D printing, ParaNorman refined that while introducing more complicated puppets and body rigs. The Boxtrolls took those larger, more diverse puppets a step further with even larger rigs and puppets, and more heavy use of CG. Kubo has upped the ante on large puppet rigs, like the 16-foot skeleton, as well as a seamless blend of practical effects with CG effects, animation, green-screening and compositing.

It’s refreshing to see an animated film (arguably two!) nominated in this category this year. Only once before was an animated film nominated: The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993. It lost to Jurassic Park, so us animation fans really can’t be too displeased…

Interestingly enough, while scrolling through past years, it looks like Ub Iwerks was nominated in the category’s first year (1963) for work on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Iwerks, for the uninitiated, is the creator of Mickey Mouse (and Oswald, among other amazing accomplishments). Mary Poppins won in 1964, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks did in 1971. Both which, of course, are Disney films that contain 2D animated characters integrated in live-action stories. Lots of intrigue for future posts. 😉

I’d love to see Kubo win, because, as I said before, some times we just blindly support things. I want Kubo to win, but I frankly think Doctor Strange will, due to it’s Inception-esque reality bending. Or The Jungle Book.

Original Song

Whenever there’s a Disney musical…there’s usually a Best Original Song nom. While it’s not Alan Menkin this year, we have our dear Hamilton-meister, Lin Manuel Miranda at it with his first Oscar nom for “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana. If he wins, he’ll have achieved an EGOT, that is an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. It was especially refreshing to hear Moana being played (both acting and singing) by Auli’i Cravalho, who is 16, and the only voice of a Disney princess who is actually around the same age as the character they play.

Another one that comes a bit unexpectedly is Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” which was the original song from Dreamworks’s Trolls. Now, I say unexpectedly only because I’d heard the song so many times, for months and months before this film came out, that I had completely disassociated it from the film. Like most pop songs on Top 40, it was super catchy until it was super annoying. But I definitely rediscovered my appreciation for it in the film itself, which I enjoyed despite some story and character hiccups. This seems to follow the trend that Pharrell set forward with Despicable Me 2 and the song “Happy,” which was also nominated, which, at the time, was the highest-charting song ever nominated for an Oscar, but lost to “Let it Go” from Frozen.

Feature Documentary

An animation-related documentary I saw was nominated this year, which was very exciting. I’m sure the subject of the film, Owen, a young man with autism, is absolutely thrilled. I’m also quite positive he wants Zootopia to win at the Oscars, as he is a massive fan of Disney movies. So much so that, for a while, they were the only way he, as a mute child, could communicate with his parents. I wrote a bit about it in a previous post, if you are interested. This is the only film in the category I’ve seen, so I have no valid contribution to the debate. Of course it would be cool to see it win, but just a nomination is enough to boost interest in this one.

Animated Short Films

Oh man, this post is already pretty long. But this section sadly won’t be very long, as I haven’t seen all five nominated film and therefore cannot weigh in on my choices. Though if I had to judge based on the three I did see, it would be very challenging, so adding two more that I’m sure are just as good, if not better than the three I saw would make it a daunting task.

The three I saw were PiperBorrowed Time, and Pearl. The two I have not yet seen are Blind Vaysha and Pear Cider and Cigarettes. I was surprised that none of the smaller films showcased at the 18th annual Animation Show of Shows this year made the cut. I hope I can get a chance to see the other two before the ceremony in February. Often, they will have some screenings of all the nominated shorts–I’ll have to keep an eye out.

Piper, which is the Pixar short that preceded Finding Dory was, for me, better than Dory and was worth the $8 movie ticket in itself. It was just standard Pixar flare–clever, cute, beautiful, heartfelt, and pushing new tech.

Borrowed Time was a short made through Pixar’s Co-Op program. A lot of people keep referring to it as a Pixar film, but that’s the thing–it’s not. The creators retain the rights. They just happened to make it at Pixar, which is pretty awesome of Pixar. Hopefully with this success we will see more original shorts. Or Disney will can the program since Inner Workings (which debuted before Moana) didn’t get a nom. 😉 I wink, but I really hope that’s not the case. It’s a short that was too grown up for the Pixar brand, and man it is a gem.

Pearl has the honor of being the first VR film nominated for an Oscar, which is pretty amazing. It’s a short film/VR experience by Patrick Osborne, best know for directing Oscar winning Disney short Feast. He made Pearl through the Google ATAP program, which was also responsible for Glen Keane’s short/VR film Duet. Can’t help but hope they tap all the animation greats for more films.

I haven’t seen Blind Vaysha or Pear Cider and Cigarettes and I don’t want to look them up or leave trailers since…trailers for short films seems a bit spoiler-y. Though a quick google shows me that it looks like Pear was crowd-funded on Kickstarter!! Wow! That’s awesome! I also heard it’s got a 20-30 minute run-time. Blind Vaysha is a film I’ve only ever seen the posters for, and seems to continue the great tradition of Canadian indie animators getting backing from their National Film Board. Lucky ducks.

This will be an exciting category to watch, because this one often is very surprising. Well a lot of times. It’s also much older than the feature animation category, so there’s a lot more data to crunch for the feature.

So there you have it. Some thoughts on the happenings. The Annie Awards are in a few days, and the Oscars aren’t until February. So it will be interesting to see how these two compare. I think my one wish for the Academy Awards is that the announcers for the animation categories don’t turn it all into a punchline, and that the artists/crews are sincerely thanked.

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