For this week’s entry in our Saturday Morning Cartoons series, let’s step away from the classics for a bit and take a brief look at the stellar group of features and short films that are up for Academy Awards at tomorrow night’s ceremony.
When the nominees for the best animated feature film were announced last month, there seemed to be a collective gasp of shock at the exclusion of the popular box-office hit The LEGO Movie (though that film did garner a nomination for its catchy theme song, “Everything is Awesome”–aaaaaand it’s in your head now). While legions of LEGO fans may have been sorely disappointed that the film did not capture a nomination, its exclusion indicates, in some respect, just how strong the field of potential nominees was in 2014. Indeed, looking at the list of the films that did score nominations, it’s difficult to even speculate which one could have been set aside in favor of LEGO–a testament to the quality work that was produced last year in a genre that continues to grow in ever more creative and artistic ways.
And the nominees are …
Animated Feature Film
Big Hero 6 (Walt Disney Animation Studios)
With the help of a kooky crew of genius teenagers, a young boy seeks to avenge his brother’s tragic death by using his invention, a robot named Baymax, to track down and punish the man responsible. A fun, bombastic, and moving addition (however unofficial) to the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) canon.
The Boxtrolls (Laika)
An abandoned baby, adopted by the titular friendly underworld dwellers, emerges into the cheese-adoring human world a decade later to thwart an evil exterminator’s plans to capture and destroy the Boxtrolls. The third feature film from Laika (after Coraline and the criminally underrated Paranorman) effectively mixes a playful spirit and some seriously sinister undertones to create their arguably strongest production to date.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dreamworks)
The further adventures of Hiccup the Viking and his pet dragon, Toothless, find the pair allying with an unexpected partner against a terrible foe who seeks to enslave all dragons. A worthy successor to the Oscar-nominated first film.
Song of the Sea (Cartoon Saloon)
This Irish film derives its fantastical tale from Celtic myth, telling the story of Ben and Saoirse, young siblings who embark on a magical quest to find their way home and discover the truth about their late mother. From Tomm Moore, the director of the Oscar-nominated 2009 film The Secret of Kells, this one boasts stunning animation that showcases some extraordinary uses of light.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Studio Ghibli)
An elderly bamboo cutter finds a tiny girl in one of his plants and raises her lovingly as his own, but as she grows, the sad truth about how she came to be found in the bamboo is revealed and threatens to take her away from her adoptive family. Adapted from an old Japanese folktale, the exquisitely crafted Kaguya is yet another phenomenal production from the geniuses of Studio Ghibli.
Who Should/Will Win: Incredibly hard to choose, let alone predict, which one of these fantastic films should/will nab the Oscar. All of them boast their respective strengths–impressive and inventive animation (whether hand-drawn, stop-motion, or computer-animated) telling well-crafted stories filled with wonderful characters. I think it’s safe to say, this is one of the strongest blocks of nominees in years.
But I (along with a good number of critics, it seems) would give the edge to How to Train Your Dragon 2. The Dragon films have neatly filled the void left at Dreamworks by the end of the ultimately played-out Shrek series, and they remain the most intriguing and entertaining properties in the studio’s stable. While the first film (released in 2010) had charm to spare, the sequel only improves upon the original, building an utterly heartfelt spectacle. The animation is simply breathtaking, and the film’s coming-of-age story is deftly and authentically composed. Of all the animated films I saw last year, this is the one that yanked from me the most unexpected emotional response–a commingling of intense joy (truly, the scenes with Hiccup and Toothless soaring through the air are intensely beautiful and moving) and a bittersweet empathy, for Hiccup’s painful transition into adulthood is abrupt and yet all too realistic. Dragon 2 is, in a word, a triumph, and it deserves every accolade it has received, and then some.
And on that note, it’s worth mentioning that Dragon 2 has already won the Golden Globe and the Annie Award, which bodes very well for its Oscar chances (though, interestingly enough, the BAFTAs didn’t even nominate it, and gave their prize to LEGO). So if you’re filling out your ballot for the office Oscar pool, there really is no safer bet.
The Bigger Picture (Daisy Jacobs and Chris Hees)
This inventive BAFTA-winning British short combines stop-motion and life-size wall paintings in a darkly comedic tale of two sons trying to care for their demanding, elderly mother.
The Dam Keeper (Tonko House)
The brainchild of two former Pixar art directors, this veritable moving painting–a gorgeously textured, emotionally deep cartoon (and the longest in the category at 18 minutes)–tells of the unlikely friendship between an outcast young pig and his only friend, a fox.
Feast (Walt Disney Animation Studios)
Life is a banquet for Winston, an adorable and endlessly hungry Boston Terrier–until his owner meets a woman who puts the kibosh on table scraps.
Me and My Moulton (National Film Board of Canada)
This bright and colorfully animated story, based on childhood memories of director Torill Kove, relates her and her sisters’ longing for a bicycle and their complicated relationship with their modernist architect parents.
A Single Life (Job, Joris & Marieke)
An abbreviated (three minutes), clever, and patently funny look at what happens when a woman discovers that moving the needle on her record player reveals past, present, and future glimpses of her own life.
Who Should/Will Win: The Dam Keeper is a (lovely, lovely) dark horse, but Feast has the momentum. Attached in theaters to box-office champ (and fellow Award nominee) Big Hero 6, Feast has undoubtedly managed to reach the widest audience this awards season, something that will likely aid its chances in snagging the Oscar (the fact that it’s a Disney entry doesn’t exactly hurt its chances, either …). But that’s not to say that this short is not entirely deserving of the top prize. Emotional, beautifully rendered (using the same software that produced 2012 Oscar winner Paperman), and truly moving, Feast is exactly what its title promises–a feast for the eyes and for the soul. And if you think that’s a touch melodramatic, then you must not be a dog lover, friend.
For this animation fan, Feast has no parallel in the way it made me feel–I both laughed and unabashedly bawled my eyes out in the theater during this cartoon. And, I’ll admit, it became even more poignant for me two weeks later, when I lost my own beloved dog, Bette Davis, in a terrible accident. So, look, I’m not even going to lie–I’m completely biased about this category, because this cartoon wrecked me (in the best way). Feast ALL the damn way.
(And again, it’s worth noting that Feast already won the Annie this year. So there’s that.)
Want to watch the animated short nominees? You can view all of them online–for a price. The four non-Disney nominated cartoons are now streaming on Vimeo. You can rent them for $3.95 or purchase the lot for $7.99. As for Feast, it’s available for purchase through Google Play ($1.99) and Amazon ($1.99 for SD or $2.99 for HD).