Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Oscar Watch: Best Animated Feature

Okay, so the blogosphere is probably alight with people yammering on about the Oscar noms from this morning, and while I certainly have my opinions (as my previous post makes no secret of), the fact is, I've hardly seen any of the movies up for the major awards this year. Some of it is due to a lack of enough interest, some is due to a lack of money, and some is due to a lack of time and/or availability (there's only one movie theater left where I live and their selection can be very skimpy when it comes to independent movies and certain subjects-- let's just say they didn't carry Brokeback Mountain, Milk, and likely will not carry A Single Man). To be fair, I still haven't seen any of the nominees for Best Picture from last year either, despite a Netflix subscription and two movie rental places at my disposal.

Getting back on topic, so while I can run around screaming that I want so-and-so to win such-and-such for whatever reason, the fact is, I've only seen Inglourious Basterds and Up for the Best Picture category, and Julie & Julia for the actresses and actors' awards. I feel a bit underqualified to be talking about these categories as a result. Instead, I'm going to be talking about my favorite category anyway, and the one from which I've seen the most nominees: the Best Animated Feature category.

First off, I have to eat my words from the other day: Up is indeed nominated for Best Picture. I am thrilled to see a second animated film make it to that category finally (the only other one was Beauty and the Beast in 1991), and I think it deserves to be there as much as anything else this year. So a big tip of my hat to the Academy for recognizing that it's not only a good animated movie but a good movie, period. Having said that, it won't win. I'm pretty sure Avatar's going to be taking that prize (why that isn't listed in the Animated Feature category is a little beyond me, but you can't win them all, I guess), and if it doesn't, one of the other live-action ones will. But it's okay, because it's also nominated for Best Animated Feature. (Has that ever happened before? I know the animation category is pretty new, and all, but I'm not sure I've seen even the Golden Globes double-book one movie for two different Best Feature awards like that.) So Up will win Best Animated feature, no real shocker there, and it is deserving. What's both frustrating and gratifying is that there are actually five movies in this category this year, and several of them are very good in their own right and I'd love to see them win, too. It's great to see more worthy contenders here at last, and there's even a diversity of media, too! In fact, I think for the first time ever, Up is the only CGI movie nominated, with two stop-motion films (Coraline and The Fantastic Mister Fox) and two traditional films (The Princess and the Frog and The Secret of Kells), making for a nice display of the variety and diversity that animation can offer as a medium. I will say I'm surprised Miyazaki's Ponyo didn't make the cut. Seems like there could have been room for it somewhere in there.

While I know what movie will likely win, I'd still like to give my impressions of the other nominees, too, because I think they're very deserving of attention as well. Each one is unique and imaginative and skillfully made.


Clearly the frontrunner to take this one, since Pixar nearly always wins and it's also up for Best Feature. It totally deserves every award, ticket sale, and word of praise it's received. It's a lighthearted adventure, a nostalgic story, a tearjerker, a comedy, and a buddy movie all at once, and yet it never feels constrained by any of those categories, either. It literally is all of them at the same time, never moving jerkily from one idea to the next, and it's all wrapped up in this warm-heartedness that permeates every aspect of it. It manages to convey a lifetime in ten minutes and have it mean something to the people watching it, so we understand Carl's attachment to things like a mailbox and a painted wooden bird. The lesson he learns is one that the audience learns with him, instead of watching from a superior vantage point, already knowing the answer and just waiting for him to get there. It's a lesson a lot of us have a hard time accepting, and maybe afterward still don't want to accept. It challenges us there without ever feeling like it's condescending to us. Someone remarked that it felt more like a Miyazaki movie than any other Pixar movie had managed to do so far, and I agree there. That envelopment in a sense of nostalgia and sentiment that never seem cloying, that ability to literally create a world from nothing that still feels like it has life in it, the gentleness and the heartfelt desire to really create something of quality and emotion and meaning is all there, as it is in every Miyazaki film I've seen. I may complain about Pixar winning this category every year, but it's only because I think they deserve either better competition here, or to be competing for Best Picture. They deserve it.


I've blogged about this one before, but time hasn't lessened how much I like this movie. Henry Selick has a way of capturing an atmosphere and almost indefinable charm that I find lacking in a lot of other stop-motion (Wallace and Gromit being a big exception), and he really deserves a lot more recognition than he gets. Most people still think Tim Burton directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, and it gets tiresome correcting them all the time. Of course, I'm also partial to this movie because it's based on a book by Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite authors since I was sixteen. Some things were changed for the film (like the existence of a major supporting character), but it's part of the process of adaptation from one medium to another, and I thought it was very well-handled and done with a lot of respect to the source material. One of the most distinguishing aspects of Selick's design style that I'm very fond of is little physical irregularities, like a mouth being lopsided. It makes the characters more interesting to look at without being distracting, and it adds a quirky charm to everything that I really love. I also love that he wasn't afraid to keep it creepy. My favorite movies when I was a kid were the ones with creepy or even outright scary moments in them, like The Dark Crystal (which I think I've seen in English once, since the only friend of mine who had it in my childhood had it taped off TV from Costa Rica-- I couldn't understand what they were saying, but I loved it anyway), The Neverending Story, and Return to Oz, which also features some of my favorite pieces of claymation animation. (Honorable mention goes to The Adventures of Mark Twain-- even though I didn't see it until I was much older, parts of it unnerved the hell out of me and it probably would have fit right in on that list.) I was personally glad to see a return to the kids movie with some teeth, since it always gave me the impression as a kid that something really was at stake in these stories, and what these characters were doing mattered. It made the triumph at the end mean more because they had something very threateningly real to overcome. That's very much the case with this movie, and I have to give a lot of credit to Terri Hatcher for her performance as both Coraline's mother and the Other Mother-- such subtle things she did with her voice that gave the animators a lot of room to get the acting just right to hit that balance of honey-sweet overlaying something terrible. I also love that all the women in this movie have a witchiness about them-- real witch, not "w-to-rhyme-with-b" witch. There are so many subtle touches in it, and I'm a sucker for detail, and I felt it was a wonderful adaptation of an equally wonderful children's book. Growing up, this one would have been an absolute favorite for me, the adventure/coming of age story I'd always wanted without having to superimpose myself on a boy to get it.

The Fantastic Mr Fox

Okay, I have to admit, this is the only one in this category I haven't watched yet. I wasn't sure what to think of it judging from the one or two very short promos I ever saw for it, but I did hear from friends that it was a lot better than they'd been expecting, and was even downright good. It never came anywhere close to me, but it'll be on my Netflix queue as soon as it's available. On a side note, I really wish George Clooney would do more voicework, he's got what they call "a voice with character" in spades, and he has a great range of emotive capabilities to draw from. I think the medium would suit him nicely.

The Princess and the Frog
(Pretty long, since I never got around to writing an actual review for it before.)

Disney finally returns to the media that launched the mega-conglomerate in the first place. I could not believe the short-sighted stupidity at play when they closed down their traditional animation studios after 2004's Home on the Range. I was ecstatic when I heard they were (finally!) reopening them after the merger with Pixar and Lasseter finally brought a little common sense back to the creative decisions. (Really, assuming that tepid ticket sales on the traditional animation movies with the booming sales for Pixar movies meant that traditional animation was dead as an art form is asinine-- evidently no one paused to consider that it was the stories that were lackluster, not the medium itself.) The directors in charge for this movie were Ron Clements and John Musker, the directing team behind The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, and Treasure Planet, which I felt was a pretty wise choice, as well as a symbolic one, given that Mermaid kicked off Disney's '90s renaissance and saved it from going under. The end result was pretty fine, a return to the traditional fairy tale stories that the company is known for, with some really beautiful animation (almost show-off beautiful in places) and the sort of charming, plucky, independent heroine that Ron n' John love to showcase. Bonus feature that the prince was also charismatic, charming, and cocky (an actual personality, something lacking in Mermaid's prince-- or most of Disney's classics, for that matter), and they both felt like a lot of work had gone into their development as individual characters, not just their designs. You could tell that they really wanted to get this one right, and in a lot of ways they did. The beginning was wonderful, the villain was incredible, the animation was absolutely lovely (and in places spooky), and it featured Jim Cummings doing his wonderful Cajun accent, which I'd only heard once before in a direct-to-video Scooby-Doo movie.

I loved that the heroine wanted a career, and I love that she didn't have to choose between it and her romance-- even if the romance part was incredibly rushed and sort of came out of nowhere and smacked me upside the head with its randomness 2/3 of the way through the movie. That really was the biggest beef I had with this one, was I did not buy the suddenness of the romance at all. It jerked me completely out of the movie and I found thoughts like "really? you've known her for a day!" to be very distracting for much of this part. I would have been totally fine if they'd implied more of a passing of time at the end, or if they hadn't set up such a constrained time limit for the action to take place in initially, or if there was some attempt to show that they had spent more than a day together before falling in love. But it was literally a day. And this wasn't one of the love at first sight relationships, either, it was one they were clearly supposed to grow into, so that just made it even more jarring.

The middle in general is a problem, since it seems to dissolve into random comedic relief elements for the sake of waking the kids up and filling space until the end. There's also a character here who seems to serve no real point to the story whatsoever (aside from padding things out and giving the leads something to do for the middle part) and while I get that she was supposed to be the representation of the "proper" form of voodoo in contrast to the villain's misuse of it for personal gain, I felt like giving her a gospel song and lots of Christian church imagery sort of undermined that idea. Oh, and there are some issues with astronomy at one or two points (the Evening Star is the planet Venus, not an actual star, for instance, and there's something that happens later on that sort of made my head explode a little) but it wasn't anything so major that I lost any sleep over it.

It does come back together at the end again, and there's a really wonderful dynamic between Tiana and the female supporting character whose name I have forgotten (but who may have been my favorite character next to the villain just because she was hilarious), as well as the prince, once we get past that really awkward phase in the middle and I was able to pretend they'd had more time to get to know each other. And yeah, there are subtle mentions of racism, and a contrast drawn between the means Tiana's family lives in and the means her friend, the rich, white debutante lives in. It's subtle enough to keep any nagging feelings of guilt at bay, and some things may be unrealistic for the time frame this is set in, but it doesn't try to sweep these problems under the rug, either. So, in summary, yeah, the movie has some flaws, but honestly, they didn't keep me from enjoying myself a great deal, and overall I was pretty pleased with it as a return to good ol' hand-drawn animation. It's probably the most flawed of the films in this category, but I think it does still deserve to be in here, and it's worth seeing.

The Secret of Kells

I'm probably one of the very few people on this side of the Atlantic to have been able to see this one yet, and I was both very surprised and very happy to see it nominated. First-off, it's really, really beautiful. Astonishingly beautiful. Very reminiscent of a little-known masterpiece of traditional animation called The Thief and the Cobbler, by animation legend Richard Williams. It's done in that same 2 1/2-dimension style that's reminiscent of medieval art, and it draws inspiration from the Book of Kells and traditional Celtic artwork as well. There's a mix of magic and faeries and the old nature-worshipping religions of the British Isles and the Christian religion that was trying to stake its claim there as well. I never felt like it was disrespectful of either one and seemed to be leaning more towards the idea of mutual cohabitation and respect, which I always appreciate. There are definitely ideas under the surface here, and it never felt like it was pandering exclusively to a young crowd, nor did it feel like it was trying to exclude them. There are also interesting changes in perspective, between the way a young Brendan sees the events happening around him, and the way the adults do, and there's a wonderful sense of trust on the part of the filmmakers to allow audience members of all ages to consider both without pandering to either. There are some tense moments, and a few that I was really shocked to see in a film with such a fun and colorful design. There are more of those creepy/scary moments towards the end that I would have been afraid of but secretly loved as a kid, and again, it serves to add some real weight to the story and create a sense that something important is at stake. It's a stunningly beautiful film that probes some ideas that most kids movies don't like to, and there is a surprising intensity to some of the later scenes that not all kids are going to be comfortable with. But I like that the filmmakers took some risks, and I'm really happy to see it get recognized. I hope that means we get a DVD release soon.

Well, that's it for that category. I have to say, I'm really pleased with the diversity and quality of the selections this year, and I really, really hope it's a trend that continues.

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