The Oscars in Retrospect: 2006 Best Animated Feature

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2006 was a huge step up from the previous year in this category as far as the nominees go. The whole field was also a bit stronger even though only a couple of them truly deserved to be in contention.

First, Dreamworks had two contenders. The one that was most likely to be nominated was Over the Hedge, which is one of the most underrated films in the studio’s canon. The other was Aardman’s first foray into computer animation: Flushed Away. Given that Aardman/Dreamworks won the previous year for Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-rabbit, it would have been easy to think that they’d at least be in the running for a nomination. However, the film is as good as a certain something that is flushed away every day.

This year, four of the major studios only had one films contention. Disney only had The Wild, and while I remember it being a good film, it was a huge flop that year and it was just to similar to Madagascar. Fox, meanwhile, had Ice Age: The Meltdown, a huge box office hit that sadly did not match the quality of the original. Paramount had Barnyard: The Original Party Animals, which is about male cows, so yeah. Finally, Universal had Curious George, the first big-screen foray for the beloved literary character (but as we have seen in previous years, that doesn’t really factor into their decisions).

As far as independent animation goes, there were a few. First there was Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. Like I’ve said in the 2003 write-up, as great as he was, his films are not easy to get into, and this is particularly true of Paprika as bizarre and disturbing imagery abounds, and as the movie progresses the lines between the dreamworld and reality are blurred.

There was also Everyone’s Hero, a story about a kid who finds Babe Ruth’s bat (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg), and tries to return it to him before the final World Series game. This film was notable because it was Christopher Reeve’s final film, which he directed, along with Colin Brady and Daniel St. Pierre. Sadly, the film was dreadful, with a thin plot that couldn’t even hold together for 88 minutes, and with annoying character that made the journey even more grating.

This year there were a couple of rotoscoped projects in contention. The most notable of them was Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, which had okay reviews and terrible boxoffice (though it has since gained a cult following). The other was Renaissance, a noir starring Daniel Craig, which was released by a Weinstein-less Miramax and only made $70,000 at the U.S. box office. But as we all know, the animators don’t like rotoscoping so they had no chance. A few years after this, the Academy implemented rules that forbade these types of films from being eligible.

The other contenders that walked away empty-handed came from studios that got nominations for other films. From Sony there was Open Season, where Ashton Kutcher and Martin Lawrence play a deer and a domesticated bear, respectively. WB would go on to win the category, but not for The Ant Bully, which was a failure in every conceivable way.

In the end, the obvious choices ruled as the dancing penguins, the homage to 80’s Steven Spielberg productions (produced by Spielberg), and Pixar were the ones to make it to the dance.

The Contenders

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Cars (John Lasseter)

Upon it’s release, Cars was seen as the worst film the studio had ever made. I loved it at the time, but as time has gone by my esteem for it has decreased. I still like the film, but now I see why it would be considered a disappointment. The plot is by far the least inspired that any Pixar film has ever had, and it just doesn’t lend its self to be played by talking cars, which results in moments that drag towards the middle.

With that said, there is plenty to like about it. First, it’s still a gorgeous movie. The animation still very much holds up, and some of the images are jaw-dropping beautiful.Also, the races are fantastic, being matched by very few other movies. It’s in these scenes (and in the “Our Town” montage) that Lasseter’s love for the automotive industry comes through. Finally, every role is perfectly cast. It’s one thing that the concept of a world inhabited only by cars doesn’t completely work (it’s much better in the sequel), but the actors, particularly Paul Newman and Larry the Cable Guy give the film its soul and allows it to stand above other animated films, flaws and all.
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Monster House (Gil Kenan)

Generally I’d say that a motion capture movie had no business being nominated, but given the quality of the rest of the field, and that at this point there were no strict rules about motion capture, I’m all for the inclusion of this film. The fact that it’s a truly great movie helped me in forming that opinion.

Produced by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis Monster House very much has the spirit of the films the pair were involved with in the 80s, like The Goonies and Back to the Future. For the first 45 minutes or so, it’s a truly frightening film. Ever since the first time I saw it, this first stretch keeps me on the edge of my seat. For this reason, it has become an annual Halloween tradition. Once we see the house come to life, the film changes, but not for the worse as it becomes a great adventure.

It’s not without it’s flaws as the animation and early motion capture work hasn’t aged particularly well, but given quality of the content, it’s easy of forgive and just enjoy the ride.

The Winner

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Happy Feet (George Miller)

Happy Feet is an odd film. It was sold solely on the fact that it was about a cute and cuddly penguin dancing. And really, this was all that had to be done given that in 2005 thanks to March of the Penguins, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary and became the second-highest grossing film of it’s kind, penguins were all the rage. But then you sit down and watch it and you get much more than you bargained for. Sure, you get cute penguins singing and dancing in fantastic musical numbers, but you also get a tale about being expelled from your community for being different, scary set pieces straight out of early Disney films (the first time I watched the orca scene I was on the edge of my seat), and that third act. The third act is something that I never expected, where our cute and cuddly hero ventures on an unexpected and dark journey that is merely there to teach us about protecting our environment.

And even with all the shifts in tone and the places the story goes, it works. There is never a dull moment it grabs your emotions early and doesn’t let them go. Perhaps the best thing is that it achieves all this without resorting to cheap manipulation.

So, in the end, 27 years after staring his film making career, George Miller, director of the Mad Max series, The Witches of Eastwick, and Lorenzo’s Oil won his Oscar for a movie about how a dancing penguin saved the environment.

Did the right one win? I would have been very happy if Monster House won as it’s the best of the bunch, but Happy Feet was very worthy, so I’ll say yes.

Should anything else have been nominated? If so, what should have been left out? I like Cars and all, but I would wave preferred to see Paprika get the nomination.

Up Next: A rat cooks, a girl goes through two wars, and penguins surf.

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