The Oscars in Retrospect: 2014 Best Animated Feature

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2014 was probably the most controversial year for this category. This wasn’t necessarily because of the content of the films that were eligible or nominated, but because the nominations announcement showed that the Academy, as antiquated and predictable as they may seem, can definitely go their own way when you least expect them.

If you ask anyone that even remotely follows the Oscars what the one sure-thing about this particular year would be, 95% of them would say that it was a nomination in this category for The LEGO Movie. Its critical and commercial success remains one of the biggest surprises in the cinematic world in recent years, so even though it opened even before the 2013 Oscars were handed out, it was seen as a lock for recognition. As the year’s mainstream animation offerings proved to be weaker than expected, it was thought it was going to be a lock for the win. How could it not look like that when other than the two big movies that did go on to be nominated the mainstream options were Rio 2, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and Planes: Fire and Rescue. There definitely was no competition from The Pirate Fairy (the latest straight-to-video Tinkerbell adventure) or from Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, one of the biggest flops of the year. I bet The Book of Life and Penguins of Madagascar had their fans but if they would have gotten nominated it would have been alongside it, not instead of it.

There really wasn’t supposed to be much competition from the independent/art house submissions. There only were two strong contenders, but it was thought that only one would be nominated. Although the Academy in general likes to nominate emotionally manipulative films, the animation branch is not as easily swayed unless it also happens to be an amazing technical achievement, so Henry & Me had no chance with its dreadful-looking cancer storyline that looked like it was directed by Don Bluth’s worst protégé. Bill Plympton’s Cheatin’ is one of the best films of the year, but with its grotesque and rough animation, and unpleasant subject matter, it really had no chance unless the branch felt like giving Plympton a career award. The Japanese Giovanni’s Island looks like a lot like Grave of the Fireflies, but in a year with an actual Isao Takahata film in contention it had no chance. The Hero of Color City was just bad. Jack and the Cuckoo-clock Heart may have been acclaimed in Europe, but the English-dubbed version was submitted, and just judging by the trailer it did a disservice to the cool steampunk designs. Miniscule- Valley of the Lost Ants looks like nothing more than a very cool student film, the type of film that would easily be nominated for a Best Animated Short Film Oscar if it qualified. Rocks in My Pockets got a decent release, but its very personal take on depression proved to be too divisive.

So, yeah, there was absolutely no reason why The LEGO Movie should have missed out on a nomination. But instead of giving it one they decided to reward the latest, not-so-warmly-received  film from Laika, a sequel to a beloved film, the new film from a previous surprise nominee, a Disney hit, and the swan song of one of the greatest storytellers in animation.

The Contenders

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The Boxtrolls (Anthony Stacci, Graham Annable)

The Boxtrolls is a technical marvel. The animators at Laika go above and beyond when it comes to designing and bringing to life the worlds they create. I guess you could say the same of other animation studios, but what Laika does feels more impressive since a lot of what they do is done by hand with only part of it being enhanced by computer generated images. It’s a shame that this time around directors and writers didn’t put as much effort into the actual storytelling.

The movie is not without ideas as it has a lot to say about politics, parenthood, and ignorance, but the script goes about it all in the most derivative way. It doesn’t help that the direction is so lazy. There are all of these complex sequences going on, but they feel lifeless, as if the directors are going through the motions. Yes, the animation impresses and makes the movie worth watching, but it’s not enough.
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How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean Deblois)

How to Train Your Dragon 2 does everything that a sequel should do: it has a bigger scale, it builds on the world of the first film, the characters grow while remaining as lovable as they were the first time around, and there are bigger stakes at play. The filmmaking is excellent all around, from the sound design to the breathtaking animation. It’s everything it had to be.

But that’s also it’s problem. It doesn’t even try to do any more than what it must do. As a result, I’m completely into it while it is on (how could you not when some of the action sequences are breathtaking) but when it’s over, it almost immediately leaves my mind. It’s not forgettable, but it’s a movie that just doesn’t leave much room for thought. It’s a very good film, but there’s not enough there for it to stand on its own without its predecessor’s reputation.
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Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore)

I tried to come up with something new to say for this masterpiece, but my write up of this film from my Best Films of 2014 post still perfectly captures my feeling for the film this time around.

Song of the Sea is a simple coming of age story about a boy whose mother disappears mysteriously one night after giving birth to his sister. He then finds out that she’s a mystical selkie, and that it’s up to her to save the spirit world, and it’s his job to protect her from the evil forces who want to take over control. But as simple as that is, it’s still one of the most moving and thrilling films of the year. Irish director and animator Tomm Moore, who first gained international attention after getting a surprise Oscar nomination for his first film, The Secret of Kells, absolutely loves the folklore of his homeland, and you can actually feel that love as you watch the film. It’s obvious that he loved listening these stories as a child as the intricate designs and animation make the film feel like a living storybook. Watching this work of art actually made me feel like I felt while listening to my culture’s folk tales. It’s only Moore’s second film, but now with Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata retired from filmmaking, I can’t help but feel like he’s become the gatekeeper for international animation. This is not just because of his awards success, but because he’s that good.

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The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata)

As with Song of the Sea, I’ve got nothing new to say. It is still a masterpiece, so I’ll just re-post what I worte in the same “Best of 2014” piece linked above:

Although perhaps Isao Takahata will mostly be remembered for his harrowing The Grave of the Fireflies, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is his grandest achievement in every possible way. In terms of narrative, it’s his most ambitious, taking one of the oldest recorded tales in Japanese history and rather than telling it straight, turns it into a critique on the role women traditionally had in society during those times (and maybe still have). It’s a story filled with as many joyous moments as well as sad and tragic ones, and they are made very powerful by animation. Rough, yet very detailed, the animation makes it feel like you are watching an old painting come to life. Takahata started experimenting with similar animation techniques in Only Yesterday, where the flashback scenes looked hazy and incomplete, as memories tend to feel. He then advanced on this technique with My Neighbors the Yamadas, where he made seemingly-simple watercolor doodles to tech us silly life stories. And here he brought this powerful tale to life with a combination of watercolors and rough-looking charcoals. It’s so goddamned gorgeous that I actually got teary eyed from the first minute, and felt a rush of excitement when we first see Kaguya come to life (where the screenshot on top comes from). It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that we won’t see anymore films from Takahata, especially when he made something this monumental, but at least he we out with a bang.

The Winner

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Big Hero 6 (Don Hall & Chris Williams)

Although How to Train Your Dragon 2 was the heavy favorite to win the award, when you think about it, it makes sense that Big Hero 6 won. Although this and the original Dragon films were made by different studios and different creative teams, and are based on different source materials, they share some similarities in that they are “Boy and his dog” kind of stories. So, when it comes to voting I can see some voters thinking about voting for an original film rather than the slightly inferior sequel to the movie that lost against and unstoppable sequel.

With that said, although it doesn’t compare to the greatness of Song of the Sea or The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, it’s very much a worthy winner. What BH6 had that the original HTTY didn’t was a strong emotional hook. The latter was about overcoming prejudices with some dad/son issues thrown in, but the former, like most Lasseter-era Disney and Pixar films, are driven by a character overcoming a personal loss. This particular aspect is used very well which lead to some moments that genuinely got me emotional. HTTYD2 also had big scenes that are meant to be emotional but they feel shoehorned in.

Not only that, but the film is just damn cool. The perfectly cast and diverse group of characters, the animation, the music, and overall design make it feel fresh despite the fact that there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking going on in the story department.

It’s simply a fantastic film. It was in my list of the 25 films of 2014, and I still stand by that. In fact, I learn to appreciate it more every time I watch it.

Did the right one win? If not, what should have won? Big Hero 6 is an excellent winner, but in a year with Princess Kaguya and Song of the Sea, it just feels wrong. I wish Takahata had won if only because it would be his only chance to get this award, but I would have voted for Moore’s film.

Should anything else have been nominated? If so, what should have been left out? I probably would have put in Cheatin’ and The Lego Movie instead of How to Train Your Dragon 2 and The Boxtrolls.

Up Next: The most interesting year for the category so far as Pixar’s look into what makes the mind work goes head to head four independent productions about varied subjects such as a man’s existential crisis and mental breakdown; a girl coping with her depression and seeing ghosts from the past; a meditation on socioeconomic struggles of the people of Brazil; and a flock of sheep trying to rescue their owner after causing his loss of memory.

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One thought on “The Oscars in Retrospect: 2014 Best Animated Feature

  1. Great write up. I have seen all of the movies that you mentioned except for Giovanni’s Island which I am still trying to get a hold of. Minuscule: the Valley of the Lost Ants is actually really wonderful and I would give it a shot. Definitely better than a student film.

    The rest of your assessment I agree whole heartily on. Song of the Sea and Tale of Princess Kaguya are masterpieces and The Lego Movie should have been nominated. If none of them were going to win than I think Big Hero 6 deserved to win. I like HTTYD2 actually better than the original but I think it gets a little muddled with the alphas and I don’t like the way they let the Mom off the hook for abandoning her family.

    On the whole 2014 was a really strong year for animation. I love so many films from that year.

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