The Oscars in Retrospect: 2011 Best Animated Feature

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Although there were a couple of strong films ultimately nominated, the final showdown felt weak when compared to the previous year when three certifiable instant classics made the cut. The eventual winner came out in March, and despite being critically acclaimed, many didn’t even think it had a chance to be nominated since it was expected that there would many other contenders that would surpass it.

In fact, from the beginning, before anyone even saw the films, bloggers were dead certain that it was going to be a redo of the 2006 race when Cars and Happy Feet went toe-to-toe for the win and with the Steven Spielberg produced Monster House along for the ride. Alas it was not to be because as we all know Cars 2 is Pixar’s worst film, Happy Feet Two tackled more ambitious topics that alienated audiences, and the Spielberg-directed The Adventures of Tintin, despite being one of his best films, barely qualified due to mostly using motion-capture, which is probably why it was not nominated in the end.

Then you look at the rest of the field, and you can see that we almost ended up with the best possible set of nominees given the competition. Maybe Rio had a chance, but despite having some good music, it was mediocre. Alois Nebel captured the attention of cinephiles with its trailer, but then when the movie came out critics said there really wasn’t much to it, and since it was rotoscoped, it had even less of a chance. Aardman’s Arthur Christmas is a lovely film that has become a yearly tradition in my home, but for some reason holiday-themed films rarely do well with the Academy, and the animators probably didn’t want to reward a CGI film from the studio that is famous for its stop-motion creations.

There were two films, however, that I feel were robbed. The first is Winnie the Pooh. Despite its simplicity and short running time, it is an absolute masterpiece, and it would have been nice if they had nominated what is likely to be Disney’s last tradtionally-animated film. The other is Wrinkles, a story about an old man’s days in an assisted living facility as his memory is lost to Alzheimer’s disease. It’s the kind of mature work that would have been more likely to be seen had it been nominated, but I guess the Academy voters felt that nominating a film featuring full frontal nudity showed enough maturity.

Besides that, there’s nothing that really had a chance. I mean, Hoodwinked Too! Hood Vs. Evil? Gnomeo & Juliet? The Smurfs? Mars Needs Moms, aka “one of the biggest financial bombs of all time”? Alvin & the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked? Yeah, no.

The Contenders

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A Cat in Paris (Alain Gagnol & Jean-Loup Felicioli)

Prior to the nominations, very few people had heard of A Cat in Paris. It was, along with Chico & Rita, a very surprising inclusion. It had been nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Annies, but there were ten other nominees, or pretty much every decent animated film released in the year. I have to admit that the first time I saw it I wasn’t too thrilled with it. I thought it was fine, but then again my viewing conditions weren’t ideal as I saw it in a low-quality stream and it was in French with no subtitles. This time around I liked it more as I watched it in HD and in English (there wasn’t a French option in Netflix but the dub is excellent), and but even then it’s not particularly great.

From a visual stand point, it’s obvious why the animators fell in love with it as it’s rare that American animation has such stylish and different designs and feel to them. It’s like watching a picture book come to life, and it’s absolutely beautiful. There is one particular sequence that takes place in the dark and we see the characters drawn with white lines against a black background (kind of like the “Backson” sequence in Winnie the Pooh) that is inspired and breathtaking.

Where it falters it’s in the story department. The film is about 64 minutes long, or about 59 if you don’t include the credits, and it tries to tell too big a story for such a short running time. It’s about a little girl whose policeman dad was killed Costa, public enemy #1, and she is rarely seen by her mom (who is also a police officer) as she is trying hard to catch the man who killed her him. By days she owns a cat, but at night it leaves to hang out with a thief. Eventually, the two halves of the cat’s life come together as Costa tries to steal a priceless artifact, and it concluded in a chase across the rooftops of Paris.

Although it tries to tell a big story, the film ends up feeling like an okay TV pilot. There is much more back story that could have made all of these characters compelling, but we get none of it. Perhaps the filmmakers just wanted to tell a simple crime story, and I appreciate that, but I can’t help but be irked by the potential the story had. Even so, it’s a good nominee, if only because it put the spotlight on a couple of filmmakers that clearly have talent. Hopefully their follow-up, Phantom Boy, due out next year, is a better showcase.

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Chico & Rita (Fernando Trueba & Javier Mariscal)

It’s easy to see why the members of the animation branch of the Academy would fall for Chico & Rita. Although there had previously been nominees and submissions about serious topics like Persepolis, The Illusionist, and Mary & Max, most of these are more or less told from a comedic point of view. Serious, grounded animated dramas are hard to come by at the movies, particularly ones that use the freedom of animation to tell the tales in ways that wouldn’t be available for live-action productions. This is one of those rare movies. It’s got a lovely and very stylish design, and it’s also a serious love story that features full frontal nudity, sex, drug use, and violence. Shame it’s a story telling failure.

The story is yet another retelling of “A Star is Born” with Chico, referred to in the beginning as “the greatest piano player no one knows about, luring Rita, a gifted singer, to join him in a singing contest and to fall in love with him. They live in Cuba during the 1940s so their dream is to be able to make it big performing Jazz in New York. After they win the contest they get that chance, but due to petty jealousy on Chico’s part, Rita goes alone. A short time later, Chico leaves Cuba to join Rita just as she is on the cusp of stardom, but it might already be too late to save their relationship.

I don’t like to complain about story, but I really have to do so in this case because they do absolutely nothing with this familiar framework. I’m not saying they should have found a way to make it “new,” but rather “exciting.” All of these big things happen, and yet no emotions are felt. As much as Chico professes his love for Rita, there is zero spark. This probably has a lot to so with the animation. This obviously had a low budget, and they most definitely make the most it, but the character animation remains clunky. This doesn’t allow the emotions to properly come through facial expressions and especially body language, which is very important since dance is a major component of the film.

Speaking of dance, it’s disappointing how little they do with the music. The film is pretty much about bolero and jazz, two of the most emotion-driven genres of music. And yet every music scene feels flat and lifeless. This I’m going to blame on the directors. With animation there are no boundaries to what they can do on screen. The music could have worked wonders if accompanied by inspired visuals, but instead, with the exception of one dream sequence, they are told in a very ordinary manner.

Chico & Rita was a disappointment when I first watched it sometime before the nominations, and it was a bigger disappointment this time around. Although they had almost every tool at their disposal, the directors failed to capture the beauty and emotion of the music and dance, and the essence of the rime the film takes place in. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing this as we do need more dramatic animation out there and the designs are great, but it just doesn’t work for me.

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Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson)

When I watched this for the first time my mind was blown. At this point I wasn’t a big fan of the first Kung Fu Panda (I liked it but didn’t come to love it until recently), so my expectations were lower for this. But from the first scene where we see the origin story of Shen, the film’s villain, told through animation that resembled shadow puppets I was hooked. From then on director Jennifer Yuh-Nelson keeps the film just moves at an incredible place that never lets up. There is a musicality to the whole thing, with the action scenes playing more like musical scenes with incredible choreography (which is something Chico & Rita should have striven for). It really has a great directorial personality, which is something that a lot of big American animation lacks, especially ones from Dreamworks.

But that’s not the only thing that makes it so damn great. Even with all the incredible action scenes and the hilarious lines that fill the script, it manages to tell a fantastic story. A lot of animated and family films have covered topics of coming of age and becoming your own person in one way or another, but this filmtells it in a surprisingly mature way: through a relatively dark depiction of genocide and survivors remorse. Not quite what you would expect from a film about a panda whose two main loves are kung fu and food.

It is also a tremendous technical achievement. The first film was already a great achievement in production and character design, but thanks to an expanded scope and advancement in animation techniques, this is even better. The score by Hans Zimmer and John Powell is also a thing of beauty, a high mark in the composers’ oeuvres.

I’ve already seen this many times since it came out. It continues to thrill me every single time. It’s one of the greatest animated films of all time.

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Puss in Boots (Chris Miller)

The thing that stood out to the most about Puss in Boots the first time around is now the only thing that stands out now: the production design. Looking at it from that perspective it’s one of the great achievements in computer generated animation. Sadly, that is all there is to it.

The story is about Puss trying to redeem himself from something theta happened in his oh-so-dull backstory and this involves, Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill, magic beans, a giant beanstalk, a golden goose, and a cat voiced by Salman Hayek. There isn’t anything particularly bad about how all of these elements are brought together especially coming from the world of Shrek. What really brings the film down is the incredibly lazy direction. Sure, the animators did a terrific work of crafting incredible-looking images, but there is zero energy behind it. Every scene happens is succession and they all have the same feeling of dullness. There are dance-offs, chases across the desert and exotic abandoned castles in the sky, and yet it there is zero excitement to be had. They just happen, and when they do it’s like they didn’t even matter in the first place. Compare this to Kung Fu Panda 2, which starts out with a bang and then takes us on a rollercoaster ride of emotions and it’s obvious how much of a failure this is.

I understand why the animators of the Academy would fall for this, but it had no business being nominated the year when The Adventures of Tintin, Arthur Christmas, and especially Winnie the Pooh were in contention.

The Winner
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Rango (Gore Verbinski)

Rango pulled off something that very few films manage to do: win an Oscar a full year after it had been released in theaters. Sure, being up against three weak films and a sequel to a film that didn’t win when it was nominated helped, but it’s also one of the best winners the category has seen.

The brilliance of Rango doesn’t necessarily come from its plot or its theme. As many people noted during its release, it is basically an animated remake of Chinatown in a western setting, with desert animals and a moral about finding your true self and standing for what you believe in. Its brilliance rather comes from how it is told. First, from a writing stand point, it’s a fantastic send up of western genre. It doesn’t make fun of the genre or its archetypes, but through the casting and the animals chosen to portray the characters they give it a fresh and fun look into them. Plus, it really has a very trippy feel, about it. From the opening scene with Rango rehearsing a play to the out-there humor and the character designs you just know that this may have at some point experimented with hallucinogens, and the film is better for it.

Also, it’s a brilliant action film. Gore Verbinski showed in his Pirates of the Caribbean films and in The Lone Ranger that he is a master of the chase scene. This is no exception. I mean, all those previous were already 80% CGI, so it probably want that hard to oversee these, but they may be even better since there is now no disconnect between the characters that we care for and the computer-generated backgrounds. And so, with every twist and turn, with every logic-defying happening, I was completely into the action and the sense of danger is there even though we know the hero has to win, the bad guy has to lose, and things can’t get too scary because it is a film for children.

But as great as it is from a storytelling stand point, the technical side is what makes it truly shine. It was the first time Industrial Light & Magic had done a fully-animated film, and it was as beautiful as one would have expected, every surface, from the wooden houses in the town of Dirt, to the fur and scales of its residents, looks so realistic that I want to reach out and touch them every single time. This adds to the trippy atmosphere of the film as its odd seeing these stylized animal characters in Western clothing have ultra-realistic texture yet feeling so right. It also helped having someone like Roger Deaking being a consultant so that the computer-generated desert setting would look as cinematic as something the Maestro would have cultured in the real world.

Rango is a just a blast from a start to finish. This may have been the obvious choice for voters given the competition, but it would have been the right one (or one of the right ones) in any year.

Did the right one win? If not, what should have won? For me either Rango or Kung Fu Panda 2 are great choices, so I’m going to have to say that the right one did indeed win.

Should anything else have been nominated? If so, what should have been left out? As much as I like it when indie animation bets nominated, Chico & Rita and A Cat in Paris had no business being nominated. Also, Puss in Boots was terrible. Had The Adventures of Tintin, Arthur Christmas, and Winnie the Pooh been nominated, this would have been one of the strongest sets of nominees the category had ever seen.

Up Next: A princess changes her fate; A boy faces his destiny; A video game baddie finds meaning; A dog is resurrected; Pirates go on an adventure with scientists.

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2 thoughts on “The Oscars in Retrospect: 2011 Best Animated Feature

  1. I actually dont get the Rango love. To me it isnt artistically interesting and the story doesnt get started for 45 minutes into film.

    But I really liked A Cat in Paris. I thought the story there really worked in addition to looking beautiful. It would be my pick.

    Different strokes for different folks I guess

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