The Oscars in Retrospect: 2012 Best Animated Feature

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2012 was easily the most competitive year for this category. Even before the nominations were announced, there were four mortal locks (Brave, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, and Wreck-it Ralph), and all of them had just about an equal chance to walk away with the trophy. But it wasn’t just competitive at the final stage. The competition for the fifth spot was fierce, with about ten of the remaining 17 contenders having a shot.

Right from the start we can see that Adventures in Zambezia, Delhi Safari, Hey Krishna, and Walter & Tandoori’s Christmas had no shot because they are those cheap foreign films that use the submission process as their greatest marketing strategy. The Mystical Laws doesn’t look as cheap, but it literally is religious propaganda so, it was out.

On the studio side of things two were getting nowhere close to a nomination: Ice Age: Continental Drift and Secret of the Wings. The former had no shot because it’s the fourth and worst film of a franchise that had only managed one nomination before. The latter, lovely though it is, was just filler to get the number of potential nominees up to five.

And now on to the ones that did have a shot. Let’s start with DreamWorks, who had Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted and Rise of the Guardians. You’d think that Madagascar would go on the “no chance” category, but it actually got some of the best reviews of any film from the studio (and rightfully so). But instead they chose to focus their efforts on Guardians. On paper it seemed like the right choice since the story seemed epic and the animation looked amazing. However, the film ended up being a dud critically and financially. It still could have gotten nominated just on its visuals, but the studio should not have bet it all on that one.

Other studio films in play were The Lorax and Hotel Transylvania. The former is a good film that could have appealed to many on a political basis, but isn’t particularly great. The latter plays like an animated Happy Madison film, but it’s visually fantastic and it was directed by Genndy Tartakovski, one of the most respected animators working today.

Then we have the independents. A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman stood out amongst these because it’s very rare that a true story finds its way in the category, particularly a biopic of a beloved comedian who led a tragic life. Not only that: it was made in various styles of animation to capture Chapman’s varied and turbulent life. But in the end, the subject matter might have proven too dark.

But the general consensus said that the last nominee would be from GKids. This was the year after they shocked the world by sneaking in two films very few people had heard of in a category that tends to be dominated by widely-seen stuff or critical darlings. They had four films, all very politically charged. The first was Zarafa, about a boy who sets out from Africa to prevent his friend giraffe from being given to a French politician. Next was The Rabbi’s Cat, a hilarious and thought-provoking adventure about a talking cat who wants to convert to Judaism and a Russian refugee who wants to find a mystical city. The Painting is a visually astounding achievement that gives the Toy Story treatment to the art world, where finished paintings rule and unfinished ones are treated poorly, so a few of them set out to find their creator to get them to finish his work. Finally, there was Studio Ghibli’s From Up on Poppy Hill, the story of a group of school children who try to save their clubhouse from being demolished as Japan is eager to modernize in the wake of World War II and as they prepare to host the 1964 Olympic Games (with some potential incest issues thrown in for good measure).

Any of these four could have gotten in, but in the end the nomination went to the one people took for granted the most, and was actually the most obvious choice.

The Contenders

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Frankenweenie (Tim Burton)

I think I’ve written about it before on this site (at least on my Best of 2012 post), and oddly enough I still feel the same way about it as I did when I watched it on its opening weekend: it’s excellent. Following the relative disappointments that were Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows this shines even brighter as you can see that Tim Burton is finally working on something that he is 100% passionate about. On a script level it falters a bit when it comes to the climax as there is so much happening that it’s easily loses its focus from time to time. However, it is still filled with a lot of clever and important ideas about childhood, science, and family that give heart to Burton’s usually fantastic visuals. Frankenweenie is one of Tim Burton’s best. I wish he had won his Oscar for this (I actually thought he would), but at the very least it seems it put his career back on track.
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ParaNorman (Chris Butler & Sam Fell)

ParaNorman is the type of film that you come away appreciating more every time you watch it, even if you don’t find anything new. The first time I was simply taken by the whole experience and you come away loving every single aspect of the production. In subsequent viewings is when you can really tell how brilliant this whole thing really is.

The first time you see that it’s just a generally great film with a great story, great animation, performances. The second time you really notice how smart the story is, and how in the tradition of George A. Romero the zombie film is being used to tell an allegory relevant to today’s society.The third time you may notice how beautiful and essential Jon Brion’s score is. The fourth time, you come back to how perfectly written the whole thing is, not just in the moral, but in how every moment and character matter. And so on.

What struck me this time around was how aesthetically beautiful the film is. About how the visual compositions are very meticulous due to the nature of stop-motion animation, but every single shot looks like a work of art, something that should be displayed in a museum. But my favorite thing has to be the colors. Despite the fact that it is a horror film that takes place in the fall, it never completely relies on dull colors. Rather, it looks like something the creators of Technicolor would be proud of.

So, that was this time around. I’m going to keep watching it at least once a year, possibly in October, and I will possibly come away loving one more aspect of it. That’s how you know you have a great film in your hands.
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The Pirates! Band of Misfits (Peter Lord)

I remember how excited I was about The Pirates! Band of Misfits before it came out. The marketing did a brilliant job of selling its bizarre humor that I just couldn’t help but falling for it. Once I watched it I was disappointed because the best bits of irreverent humor were in the trailers. Much like other Aardman films, particularly Wallace & Gromit stuff, there is no shortage of jokes throughout, but unlike them, the story is not strong enough to keep us interested when they don’t stick. Thus my disappointment.

However, overtime I’ve come to appreciate it more. Perhaps it is because the first time around I was so overwhelmed by the number of gags that I never even noticed them all, but every time I’ve see it since then I’ve found new stuff to laugh at and eventually came to terms with the thin, super silly plot about pirates trying to win the highest honor a pirate could win and a society of powerful people that likes to eat endangered animals.

What has always been clear about the film, and probably the reason why it ended up being nominated, is that although it is not as aesthetically stylish as ParaNorman, Pirates is a masterful achievement of animation. The sets, from the interior of the many ships the characters visit, to the streets of Victorian London are unbelievably detailed and ornate. The same can be said of the characters, with each having a very unique visual identity, and incredibly expressive facial movements and body language. This is the aspect that kept me coming back for it even after my initial reaction to the film.

Perhaps any other year I would have rooted for it for the the win, but the year the competition was incredibly stiff. But times has proven it to be a very worthy nominee.
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Wreck-it Ralph (Rich Moore)

When the movie came out I wrote about 1,000 words on Wreck-it Ralph and I still stand by everything I said then. So, just go ahead and click on that link to know how I still feel about it.

The Winner

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Brave (Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman)

As with Frankenweenie and Wreck-it Ralph, my feelings towards Brave have not changed. When I watched it for the first time in the Summer of 2012 I walked in with lowered expectations not just for the barely-positive notices from the critics, but due to its troubled production history. But I walked out thinking it was one of the best films of the year so far.

I will admit that it film does have its problems. The biggest one has to be the humor. The movie starts with a relatively somber scene, then immediately after that the jokes and physical gags begin. There is in theory nothing wrong with this, especially since it is a film aimed at families, but it becomes troublesome because it feels too modern and the timing of it is almost always completely wrong and can bring the film to a screeching halt.

Thankfully, the humor is not the core of the film, but rather the mother-daughter story, and that part is extremely lovely. It is very simple, and the bad comedy does intrude a couple of times, but it’s generally beautifully told and makes the other problems seem irrelevant.

It also helps that is a gorgeous looking film. Most of the film tries to recreate the true look and feel of the beautiful Scottish landscapes and it looks so lush and detailed that even 20 years after Toy Story came out I’m still in awe of what computer animation can do.

Even today Brave continues to feel very underrated. I guess that winning the Oscar over mist of the other nominees didn’t do its reputation any favors. I wouldn’t have voted for it, but it’s a good winner.

Did the right one win? If not, what should have won? Brave has been underrated since the beginning, but it really was the safest choice so it of course won. But I go back and forth as to what should have won. Though it may come as a surprise, having seen these films many times, and knowing that Disney Animation Studios would go on to win the next two years, I feel ParaNorman should have been the winner.

Should anything else have been nominated? If so, what should have been left out? It is actually hard to argue against any of the nominees. I would have loved it if Madagascar, Poppy Hill, The Painting, or The Rabbi’s Cat had been nominated instead of Pirates, but its just as worthy, at least on an artistic level.

Up Next: An unlikely friendship threatens the fabric of society; Cave-people must evolve; Minions continue to annoy; Hayao Miyazaki releases his swansong; Disney releases their biggest hit.


2 thoughts on “The Oscars in Retrospect: 2012 Best Animated Feature

  1. I agree on Paranorman! That would have been my pick. I will read your post on Wreck-it Ralph. I like the film but dont love it like others. I wish it had explored more games and gets mired in Sugarland which is a land and story I’ve seen a million times

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