The Oscars in Retrospect: 2009 Best Animated Feature

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In 2009 we get a set of 5 nominees for the first time since 2002 as there were 20 qualifying films. 14 of those films were backed by big name studios or got wide releases.

Sony had two submissions. The first one, Cloudy With a Chance Meatballs, was the biggest surprise of the year. It was the directorial debut of the future kings of Hollywood comedy Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and it became a hit due to it’s relentless energy and surprising pathos. Many thought that it was a shoo-in for a nomination but there was a lot of competition.

The other, Planet 51 was actually independently-produced in Spain for American audiences and picked up by Sony before it was completed. Also, it was terrible.

Focus Features had a couple of contenders. One would go on to be nominated, and the other, 9, seemed to be a shoo-in considering it was produced by Tim Burton was was based on an Academy Award-nominated short. Despite all that, the movie was not well-received by critics or audiences as it’s premise didn’t hold together for even 80 minutes.

Fox also had two contenders, one which went on to be nominated. The other was Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, which despite being better than its predecessor just wasn’t going to get by on that.

Dreamworks had Monsters Vs. Aliens, but the less said about that, the better.

Disney, meanwhile, had four submissions from pretty much every one of their animation divisions. The Pixar and the Walt Disney Animation Studios films went on to be nominated. Robert Zemeckis’s A Chrismas Carol and Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure wouldn’t be so lucky. The former’s motion-capture and the latter’s straight-to-video roots probably had something to do with that.

Disney also had Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo, but for some reason the critics dubbed it as “minor Miyazaki” and that talking point seemed to stick. But then again, the final list of nominees was so strong that it’s easy to forgive this film’s omission.

Then there were other pretty bad independent movies like Battle for Terra and Astro Boy, which got wide releases and didn’t make a lot of money. So the submission for awards consideration was a mere formality, a pipe dream.

As it has been the case since the beginning and even more since this year, the number of qualifying films is increased by independent and/or foreign productions that are merely looking to get some attention and maybe getting distribution deals. A lot of these times the overall quality tends to be sub-par at best. This was very much the case of The Missing Lynx and Dolphin- the Story of a Dreamer. Both of these were Spanish-language productions with low-quality animation. But although they had zero chance of getting a nomination, they got distribution deals and were exclusively released on video on Wal-Mart stores. Hardly a dream deal, but at least the movies got seen.

And then you have some of these that are thoroughly excellent and managed to get distributors after playing festivals. However, since these films tend to be more adult-oriented, the best they can do is get picked up by small companies that cam barely afford to give the films a limited release. IFC submitted Mary & Max, a stop motion film by Academy Award-winner Adam Elliot (for his short film Harvey  Crumpet) about a the friendship between a little Australian girl with a less-than-ideal home life and a grown, overweight, and autistic New Yorker. This film is a masterpiece about how even having an unlikely pen pal can change the course of our lives. It also features one of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s greatest performances.

Zeitgeist Films submitted A Town Called Panic another stop motion film, this one from Belgium. That one can be summarized as being about the misadventures of a cowboy, an Indian, and a horse, but anyone that has seen it knows that it doesn’t even begin to cover it. This film is also a masterpiece. It’s like watching your most insane childhood game come to life for 70 minutes in the most imaginative way possible.

Alas, the heavy subject matter in Mary and the lack of a coherent plot and non-stop insanity of Panic probably divided voters too much, and thus neither got nominated. Thankfully, there was a new player in town, a studio that would specialize in releasing independent animation, and would change the game.

The Contenders

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Coraline (Henry Selick)

I remember when I went to see this for the first time. It was at a crappy second-run theater in 2D from a 35mm print that wasn’t in the best condition, but even then I was astounded by it’s immaculate animation, production design, performances, cinematography, etc. And of course, I was thrilled by the contents of the film as it was scarier than I could have ever expected. There is a reason why Henry Selick is a legend in animation, despite the fact that he hasn’t done many films, and this film shows exactly why.

Watching it this time around, I still have the same admiration for it that I did way back when. I wish I had experienced some sort of thematic revelation, but no. In fact, I’ve seen it so many times since then, that I find myself checking out from time to time, so I’m going to have to put it on a temporary moratorium. But of course, this is not due to the film. It’s a great film that was very much worthy of a nomination, and I will always appreciate it for introducing Laika Entertaiment as a potential superpower in the animation world.

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Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)

In anticipation of this latest re-watch of Fantastic Mr. Fox, I decided to read Roald Dahl’s book. I expected it would be similar to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in that it tells a complete story in about 200 pages, so I was surprised to find out that it was actually less than 100. Even then I thought it would tell truncated, but still complete story similar to that which ended up being on the film. I was wrong, as the plot of the book pretty much only covers  the very basics of the second act of the film.

I already loved the movie, but reading the book made me appreciate it so much more. Wes Anderson (and co-writer Noah Baumbach) took a small book with a simple premise of a fox finding a way to survive, and turned it into a film that completely fits in with his complete oeuvre. It expands the story so much more to covers themes that he has done so his entire career, such as fatherhood and questioning one’s place in the world, all with that beautiful dialogue. The best thing is that it does so without sacrificing what has made the book a classic: it’s incredibly fun.

Visually, it was unlike anything he had ever done until then. His extreme attention to detail was destined for animation. Here he did everything that his detractors always hated but to the extreme. The result, however, was not what they would have expected. Rather, it turned out to be his very best film so far, and it showed that Anderson was only just getting started, and that his best was yet to come.

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The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements & John Musker)

I still stand by what I wrote about it back in 2011 for my Disney project. In short: it’s a great, gorgeous movie- one of the best Disney has ever done. I just wish the movie was as appreciated as Tangled or Frozen. And I wish Disney would make more hand-drawn animation.

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The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore)

I remember watching the Oscar nomination announcements on TV when The Secret of Kells was nominated. Many expected Ponyo or Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs to score a nomination since they were the most obvious choices. Despite great acclaim and a Best Animated Feature Annie nomination, no one really thought it had a chance. It didn’t have a name like Hayao Miyazaki, or even a studio like Sony Pictures Classics behind it. Rather, it was the debut of Tomm Moore, an Irish animator, and it was released by GKIDS, a tiny New York-based distributor.

So how did it manage to get in instead of other master film makers and campaigns with millions of dollars behind them? Watching the film makes it quite obvious: it’s a work of art. The backbone of the story has to do with the “Book of Kells,” an ancient illuminated manuscripts that not only contains the four gospels of the New Testaments, but also stories, myths, and legends that pertain to Irish history. Watching The Secret of Kells is like watching these ancient illuminations come to life. The animation is unlike anything that we had seen before, and I bet that this is what the animators who voted responded to.

It also has a great, little narrative that is not complex, but good enough to fill it’s 70-minute running time. It’s a funny, cute, and even intense coming of age tale that deals with the importance of our stories, as that is what is going to remain after we are gone.

I must say that the first time I watched it, a short time after it came out on Blu-ray, I wasn’t completely into it. I obviously thought the animation was incredible, but the narrative left me cold, with the last 15 minutes feeling completely wrong. This time, I was completely engrossed, and I’m so happy that I gave it another chance.

The Winner

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Up (Pete Docter)

As great as the four nominees were, once again, there was absolutely no chance that they were going to win against Pixar. Up was sold as an adventure that featured a floating house, a cranky old guy and an energetic kid, and it indeed was that. None of the advertisements prepared us for the various emotional sucker punches that the film was going to give us, whether it was the instantly-iconic, still highly-effective “Married Life” montage, Russell’s stories, or the scene where Carl finds out about his wife’s real adventure. That not only led it to be a lock to win in this category from the moment it opened the Cannes Film Festival, but it made it a lock to become the second animated film to earn a Best Picture nomination thanks to the number of nominations being expanded.

With that said, I have to say that from the first time I saw it, I wasn’t head-over-heels for it. I love it mainly for the first act, the other emotional moments sprinkled throughout, and other individual elements. Once Kevin and his subplot kick in, the movie loses steam (deflates?) and it becomes an ordinary adventure. It redeems itself by the time we get to the third act and see how this whole thing gave Carl a new outlook on life, and it leads to a fantastic denouement. But every time I’ve seen it since 2009, I can’t help but be slightly disappointed by that second act given the greatness of the material that surrounded it.

Did the right one win? If not, what should have won? Up was a great movie when it came out, and time has only solidified that fact. However, I’m a bigger fan of Mr. Fox, Princess, and Kells, so I would have preferred if any of those won.

Should anything else have been nominated? If so, what should have been left out? I really like Coraline but would have preferred it if Mary & Max, Ponyo, or A Town Called Panic were nominated instead.

Up Next: The toys are back in town to make us weep; dragons surprise us; and Jacques Tati sort of comes back 28 years after his death.

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2 thoughts on “The Oscars in Retrospect: 2009 Best Animated Feature

  1. This is a very strong year but Up is my favorite movie so I certainly think the right film won. It’s a film about overcoming grief, forgiveness and I personally don’t think it loses steam but that’s just me.

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