The Oscars in Restrospect: 2002 Best Animated Feature

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During the second year of the award, the magic number of submissions was met, so for the first time there were five nominees (this wouldn’t happen again for another seven years, and it’s now pretty much the norm). There were 17 contenders, most of them traditionally animated. The odd thing about this batch is how many of them were TV show adaptations as Hey Arnold! The Movie, The Wild Thornberrys Movie (this did go on to earn a nomination for a song written by Paul Simon), and The Powerpuff Girls Movie. I guess you could add Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie in that pile since it was the first big-screen adventure of the characters that originated in a straight-to-video series. It’s easy to see why these didn’t get nominated as you’d need to be a pretty hard-core fan of the original shows to be into the movies (as the critic scores showed).

As usual, we had a selection of foreign films submitted in hopes of getting some press: El Bosque Animado from Spain, Eden from Poland, and Alibaba & the Forty Thieves from India.

There were also a couple of independent American productions. The first one is The Princess and the Pea, directed by Mark Swan who worked in the animation department of many of Don Bluth’s films. The second one was Bill Plympton’s first ever submission for the category: Mutant Aliens. Now I gotta take some time out to write about Plympton & the Oscars. I’m not very knowledgeable of his films having only seen The Tune, but I know what he’s about and I’m surprised he’s so passionate about the Oscars. I saw and interview with him last year promoting the Oscar qualifying run of Cheatin‘ and he went on and on about how an Oscar is great for independent productions (they can be) and how this year with so many big studio animation disappointing it could be the year when independent animation ruled in the category. He seemed genuinely hopeful that he’d get a nomination. Alas, it was not to be (more on that when we get to the 2014 entry). But for a guy who churns out animated shorts like crazy, with a feature film every once in a while, and has only gotten two nominations (in 1988 and 2005) I’m surprised he hasn’t given up on the Oscars. But still- you go Bill Plympton! Keep doing what you are doing!

Anyways, the rest of the contenders that weren’t nominated  were Stuart Little 2 (live-action/animation hybrids just don’t cut it in the category), Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights (the reason for not being nominated is obvious), and the straight-to-video quality Peter Pan: Return to Neverland.

Looking at those eligible titles, it’s easy to see why we ended up getting the nominees that we got. And looking at those, it’s pretty easy to tell why we got the best winner in the history of the award.

The Contenders

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Ice Age (Chris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha)

I was excited about Ice Age back in 2002. How could I not be? I’ve always  liked animation and CG Animation was still an exciting prospect, and the commercials were fun. Once I watched it I had a lot of fun and watched it many times (it was one of the first DVDs I bought). But then then time passed. Lackluster sequels were released, and I forgot why I liked the movie in the first place. Watching it again for this project made me wonder why I even liked it in the first place.

I wish I could look back on it with nostalgia, but even back then, as much as I enjoyed it, I wasn’t completely enamored with it. So, having learned a bit about cinema in general I can’t help but judge it. First, there’s the animation. Obviously, having been released 12 years ago (WTF?!) the animation won’t be up to par with today’s stuff, but compared to, say, Toy Story, it has aged horribly.

Then there’s the story. Even back then critics complained about it being a Three Men and a Baby knock-off, and even today that feel like a legitimate complaint. Also, having seen it recently, I can’t help but see some similarities it shares with Shrek. It’s not just that they are both road movies, but some pretty big things happen in a similar fashion. The first one is how Sid and Diego meet in similar circumstances as Donkey and Shrek, with the big guy defending the little guy from some thugs, and not the big guy gets stuck with an annoying sidekick. The second one might not necessarily be just similar to Shrek, but it’s the montage where we get to see the “herd” bonding. I understand how the two films must have been in production around the same time since it takes so long for an animated film to be made, but still there’s something fishy about it.

To makes matters worse, the pacing of the whole thing is terrible. A comedy, particularly an animated one with wacky comedy must move at the right pace. This one moves at  glacial pace (/Gene Shallit). This especially hurt it when it came to the physical comedy.

But with that said, it’s not a terrible movie. There’s some charm to the central story as well as a few inspired visual gags (Sid’s encounters in the ice cave). I get why it got nominated considering it was a bit of a box office phenomenon (back then having a final gross of $176 million was still a big deal) and that it was a thin field of contenders, but even so, it’s one of the lowest points in this category’s history.

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Lilo & Stitch (Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois)

No new insights with this latest viewing. It’s still one of the best films Disney has ever done. For more, read my previous write-up for my Disney project (though it’s not quite my finest moment as a writer).

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Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (Kelly Asbury, Lorna Cook)

This is actually the one to have gotten a nomination in this category that I had not yet seen. I had always been aware of it (I remember seeing the commercials when it was going to be released), but it just never interested me. Now that I watched it I can see that my initial instincts were right.

Spirit is supposed to be a majestic adventure about an indomitable wild horse that goes on a life changing adventure. This is a great premise for an animated film, but sadly this doesn’t even come close to it. First off, the animation is merely okay at best. There’s nothing particularly attractive about how the landscapes were designed or animated, and the character design is as bland as it could possibly be. One thing that doesn’t help it’s case is how it uses CG animation for the grass, some of the rocky landscapes, and even people from time to time. It doesn’t blend well at all, and it’s always distracting.

But what really hurts it is how uninteresting the story is. The horse’s adventure is supposed to be epic, but it pretty much consists of him running, being caught, being stubborn, being caught again, then being playfully stubborn, and that’s it. Horses have been given great personalities in movies before, including in animation, so it should not have been too difficult to give the lead character some personality. Then there’s the music. Hans Zimmer is just sleepwalking through this, but the worse offender is Bryan Adam’s dreadful song score. Since the horses don’t talk and there’s very little dialogue for the humans (the one thing I do appreciate about this), the songs are supposed to tell the story, and they are no better than having a film filled with poor dialogue.

In the end, the film is harmless, though it does feel like it was Jeffrey Katzenberg’s last “Fuck You” to Disney, and he even failed miserably at that.

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Treasure Planet (Ron Clements, John Musker)

I’ve written about it before for my Disney project and I mostly still stand by what I said then, so for a more thorough take on the film read that. I did change my mind on is the animation. Back then I wasn’t completely impressed as the mix of CG and traditional animation takes some getting used to. I can now see how great that experiment was, and despite some flaws, it worked out beautifully. Watching Spirit try to do the same thing and failing actually made me appreciate this effort more.

The Winner

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Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)

And on the second year of the category’s existence, The Academy made the boldest choice they have yet made. Spirited Away might seem like the obvious choice given the generally weak competition , but they could have easily voted for the simple delights of Lilo & Stitch. Instead they chose to reward what was until then the greatest achievement of the most influential animation director of all time.

I’ve always liked Spirited Away from the first time I saw it. I liked it for the same reason that everyone does, but it always left me a bit cold because I felt that there was no emotional hook and Chihiro’s journey was kind of pointless. But this time it hit me. When we first meet her, Chihiro is appropriately sad because she was moving into a new house and away from her friends but she was also kind of a brat about it. Her Journey, as wild as it is, is just about her growing up and learning that she will always face more challenging events than having to move to a new house. Whether or not she remembers everything that happened in the spirit world once she gets out in the end doesn’t matter. She will remember the lesson, and won’t’ worry too much about the small stuff.

So, although the specifics of her adventure don’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things, there is no denying that it’s a fantastic adventure. From the first time that the spirit elements are introduced, I was completely taken in, and every subsequent event, from her trying to get the job from Yubaba and to her final showdown for her parents, gets only more thrilling. Joe Hisaishi’s score is perfect in every way, and then there’s the animation of course. As lovely as the moral of the story is, it would not have taken off as it did without the perfect, intricately detailed animation. Although Miyazaki’s films are known for their great animation, this was until then his greatest achievement in animation (though I think he surpassed it with every subsequent film of his).

Like said, in 2002 the Academy could have taken the easy way out, but I instead they made their most interesting choice to date. It’s a choice that looks especially great today given how the film became a cinematic landmark and it once again showed the world that there is great work being done in animation all around the world.

Did the Right One Win? Though Lilo & Stitch was a worthy competitor, yeah, there’s no doubt the right one won

Should anything else have been nominated? If so, what should have been left out? Despite the number of qualifying titles, there wasn’t much to choose from. But even so, I would have taken the place of Treasure, Ice Age or Spirit to give Bill Plympton a nomination.

Up Next: We get back on track and jump to 2006, with a world populated by cars, an ice wasteland populated by dancing penguins, and kids facing against a haunted house.

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One thought on “The Oscars in Restrospect: 2002 Best Animated Feature

  1. Really enjoy these posts and pretty much agree with everything here. It is nice to find someone else who likes Lilo and Stitch as much as I do…though agreed, Spirited Away is the better film.

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