The Oscars in Retrospect: 2013 Best Animated Feature

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While the 2012 race was exciting due to large number of films actually having a chance at being nominated and the final race being wide open, 2013 was a bit of a let down. A number of truly great films were actually nominated, but besides those, the nomination stage was pretty boring.

I mean, there really was no way famously bonkers stuff like Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie – Rebellion had a chance. Neither did Brazil’s Rio: 2096 A Story of Love and Fury or South Korea’s The Fake have any chance due to their darker themes and unimpressive animation. One of these foreign, dark, and distributor-less films that did have a chance was O Apostolo, a stop-motion film about religious persecution. But there was already a foreign film with mature themes and impressive animation locked to be nominated, so there was no room for it. And of course, neither South Africa’s Khumba or Canada’s The Legend of Sarila were going to stand out by being Dreamworks/BluSky ripoffs.

As for the studio stuff, it really wasn’t a very good year. Turbo became more known for its financial failures than anything else (the fact that the movie was a terrible mix of pretty much every Pixar film didn’t help). Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 lacked the zany energy of its predecessor. The Smurfs 2 was The Smurfs 2. Free Birds was a thing that happened. Planes was nothing but a cash-grab. And Epic, well, that did have a chance since the animation was pretty great, but it was a mediocre, unoriginal film overall (though that didn’t stop one of the actual nominees).

The most exciting thing about the nominations stage was whether or not GKids would nab another nomination (they had Ernest & Celestine and A Letter to Momo in play) or if Despicable Me 2 would get in due to its gargantuan financial success. It turns out that both of these would be true, at the expense of the underrated Monsters University, which was thought to be a lock for a nomination.

All of this would be for naught though, as for a while it was thought to be a horse race between two Disney-released films, but in January, before the nominations were even announced, the race was over as the eventual winner officially became a phenomenon for the ages.


The Contenders

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The Croods (Chris Sanders, Kirk DeMico)

Prior to this viewing, I had seen The Croods two times before the year it came out- once in theaters and once at home. Both times I really enjoyed this film about a family of cavemen who must face their own version of the apocalypse, but it left no laying impression on me. So, this time, although I knew where the story was headed, it almost felt as if I was watching it for the first time.

So, like that first time, I had problems with the opening sequence, which in usual DreamWorks ways, it feels like it is pandering. But at the same time I wondered at how beautifully-rendered the animation is, at how extraordinary camera work and lighting inspired by Roger Deakins is, and at the visual inventiveness of this world. I was mostly impressed by the film’s drive: the father-daughter relationship and the moral about venturing out of your comfort zone. It’s really beautifully told, and made effective by the voice work front the actors, particularly Nicholas Cage as “Grug” the overprotective father. Just in his voice you can feel more effort and passion than what you can see in most of his live-action offerings. Because of him the emotional climax is as effective as it is.

And yet here I am, one hour after watching the film and I can already feel it fading from my memory. I remember a couple of the big moments, but I’m having a hard time picturing any memorable smaller ones. It is most definitely a good movie, and given the Oscar shortlist it is as good a nominee as we would be able to get that year. It is not going to stand the test of time though.

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Despicable Me 2 (Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud)

I really wasn’t looking forward to rewatching this. When I saw it for the first time I immediately put it in my list of the worst films of the year. Perhaps it was because of these extremely low expectations this time that I actually found the film to be not terrible. It’s by no means a good movie as the humor is the absolute worst and the Minions are the Devil in cinematic form. But the core story of Gru leaving evil to keep his girls happy and being afraid to pursue a love interest is lovely. It’s got a good heart, mainly due to the performances by Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig. It’s a damn shame about everything else. It really has no business being nominated no matter how financially successful it was. Also, because of this Pharell’s “Happy” exists, so that’s another mark against it.
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Ernest & Celestine (Benjamin Renner)

When I wrote my big “Best of 2013” article I named Ernest & Celestine the number one film of the year. Here’s what I wrote about it then:

Ernest & Celestine delivers on the cuteness, whimsy, and entertainment that the promotional materials promised, but it also gives us much more. When it comes to the story, it reminded me of stuff like Dumbo and Bambi in that the main plot is simple, cute and accessible to everyone- until stuff gets real and it becomes a powerful allegory featuring nightmarish imagery. When it comes to the filmmaking, however, it’s more in line with the works of Isao Takahata- not just because of the use of watercolor backgrounds and character style (a deceptively simple art form that makes us think of the film that way), but because of it’s patience in developing both the characters and setting that make this 80 minute film feel so complete. All of this, combined with a fantastic, emotional ending, makes for one great viewing experience that is hard to shake off even days later. In the end, despite the fact that I watched and loved films about, among other thing, broken dreams, spiritual rebirth, and true-life struggles, the one film that managed to touch and wow me the most is the tale of two outcasts from different societies finding friendship and life purpose in each other.

Since then it has dropped to be my number two film of the year. But I still stand by this. It’s a masterpiece.
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The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki)

A new Hayao Miyazaki film was always something to look forward to, but when it was announced that The Wind Rises would be his last full-length project, it became the cinematic event of the year in some circles. When it finally opened in theaters, my excitement could not be contained, so it was perhaps inevitable that it would not live up to my expectations. Although I am grateful to have had the experience of witnessing Miyazaki’s art the way it was meant to be seen, it left me cold. The English dub had something to do with it, but I was ready for that because there was no way the original version would play here in Kansas. But rather it was because I wasn’t ready for how internally complex it would be. Though many of his films have dealt with complex subjects, everything he is trying to say is laid out on the surface. Jiro Horikosi’s life is not very interesting at first glance, especially when compared to other Miyazaki protagonists like Nausicaa or Princess Mononoke, so it was puzzling why he would want to tell this story, besides his love for flight. Miyazaki’s signature deliberate pacing didn’t help either. Then the love story seemed tacked on to create a little bit of excitement. It may not have been what I had hoped, but the animation was such an achievement that it made my list of the 25 best films of the year at number 13.

Upon a second viewing everything changed. I watched it at home and in its original language and I already knew what to expect so sensory overload wouldn’t be an issue. It was then that I was able to see what Miyazaki saw in the story in the first place. Jiro may not be the greatest protagonist, but his journey is what makes him such a strong anchor for the film. His life exemplified how one simple dream can change the course of history for better or worse. He always dreamt of flight, and since he couldn’t be a pilot, his goals crane to design beautiful flying machines. Sadly,  he lived in a time and in a place where if he could only achieve his goals by working on designing war planes. The consequences of his actions don’t escape him and he remarks how his designs would be more effective if they didn’t have to have weapons attached, but he only receives laughter for these thoughts. Its sad to see this happening, but under hands, it becomes incredibly powerful.

As for the love story, its importance became much clearer in repeat viewings. The character of Naoko is introduced early in the film (during the breathtaking earthquake sequence), but comes back into Jiro’s life in a most crucial moment. It comes at a time when his career is at its lowest point, but she comes in and not immediately has a connection with her unlike any he’s had with another human being. She gives his life new meaning and gives him the will and inspiration to continue working on the weapon that would bring a turning point for World War II.

The story telling, the animation, Joe Hisaishi’s score, and the performances of the Japanese cast work in perfect harmony to create what could very well be Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest achievement, which is saying something. It’s sad that he won’t be making any more full length films, but at least he got to end his career on his own terms and with one of the greatest cinematic achievements in history.

The Winner

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Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee)

I thought about just linking to my previous review for this, but this really deserves a more complete look-back, especially since that review was written just as it was proving to be more successful than the average Disney film and it was not hard for a fan of the studio’s films to get a bit overexcited. This does not mean that I have completely changed my mind about it. I still love the film, even after having seen it countless times with my young nieces and listening to “Let it Go” even more times. Although it’s only a couple of years old, this shows that it has a great shot at becoming timeless.

It’s still an extremely well-paced film that gives us fully-fleshed characters. It’s still a feat of production and costume design. The performances are still fun and the songs are still lovely. But despite all of this, its flaws really stand out. First off, some of the animation, particularly of the ice elements don’t look quite as good as most of the environments. They look as if they weren’t finished rendering the animation and they were forced to leave it as it was to meet the deadline.

But perhaps the most glaring flaw is the musical aspect. It was brought up a lot during its original release, but seeing it many times over just makes this problem stand out more. The music is great like I said earlier, but there just isn’t enough of it. For the first 30 or so minutes, from the opening sequence to “Let it Go” the music pretty much doesn’t stop for more than 5 minutes at most. But then the music just disappears for long stretches of time, and when it does it’s either a brief reprise or a nice but throwaway number. Maybe I would have been more forgiving if the denouement was a music number, but instead the last musical note was “Fixer Upper,” an almost unnecessary ditty that strikes the wrong tone given the dramatic events that led to it.

But then again, everything that doesn’t involve music is well-done. So, in the end, I can’t complain too much. Flaws and all, it’s a confirmation that Disney is back at the top of their game.

Did the Right one Win? I really can’t begrudge Frozen winning since it’s so likable, but my vote would have gone to Miyazaki.

Should anything else have been nominated? If so, what should have been left out? Like I said, Despicable Me 2 had no business being nominated. The underrated Monsters University not only should have been nominated, but it should have been in the race for the win.

Next up: A group of unlikely super heroes rise up; Sewer-dwelling monsters teach us about prejudice; Hiccup & Toothless face their biggest challenge yet (literally); A boy must help his sister fulfill her destiny; Another master of animation says goodbye.

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