Feature animation offers one of the most confusing awards races this year. And that’s really saying something.
For one thing, Pixar, the category’s answer to the New York Yankees, doesn’t have a 2014 release — the first year that’s occurred since the 2006 Disney-Pixar merger.
An animated feature nomination for a Pixar original has been the safest bet in Oscar-land for a long time. With no film in the competition, voters will have to look at some of the perennial bridesmaids with fresh eyes.
And while the Mouse House is still represented via the Walt Disney Animation Studio, it’s an open race. And the contest is perplexing for many reasons, some positive.
1. It’s a diverse lineup.
The slate of eligible films includes hand-drawn animation, CGI and stop motion. One of the reasons for this diversity is the number of eligible films. In past years, Oscar has nominated three films, because only eight-16 animated features were released within those calendar years. This year, the number was more than 20. (Fox and Disney accounted for a combined eight films.)
Aside from format, the cornucopia offers a range of styles. There are funny, touching actioners (“Big Hero 6” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2”), subversive comedy (“The Lego Movie”), versions of folk tales (“Song of the Sea,” “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”) and serious subjects (Signe Baumane’s “Rocks in My Pocket,” about depression and madness in the women of her family).
2. It’s an international race.
Outside of Oscar’s foreign language category, no awards contest looks so international. Among the countries represented are France, Ireland, Japan, the U.K. and Latvia, with “Rockets in My Pockets,” which is also the country’s submission for foreign language Oscar. Mexico is repped with “The Book of Life.” There’s a growing awareness that Oscar attention helps toons locally, and shines a light on their work in other countries. And, as a bonus, a country will have a better chance with animation than in the foreign language category. The Academy this year received a record 83 foreign language submissions, while animated features have one quarter of that amount.
3. Each voting group has its own rules.
Here’s where it gets especially confusing. During every awards season, pundits like to see each prize as an Oscar bellwether. But in fact, the various voting groups have such wildly different criteria that no patterns are possible. Things always vary in awards categories, but it’s still the Wild West in the relatively new animated feature races.
4. What’s in a name?
Voters might be scratching their heads over the titles of nearly each contender. “Boxtrolls” and “Big Hero 6” are confusing, until you see the films. Several films are sequels or spinoffs (“Dragon 2,” “Planes: Fire & Rescue,” “The Penguins of Madagascar,” “Rio 2,” “The Pirate Fairy”), which sometimes makes voters wary, as is a product name in the title (“The Lego Movie”). And most of the other films have no name recognition a voter can hook onto: Last year, some people couldn’t remember “The Wind Rises,” so it was called “that Miyazaki movie.”
5. The billion-dollar question.
And underlying all of this is a deeper, even more confusing question. So why does Hollywood not give animation more love during awards season? Animation is a consistent profit-maker for the studios. This year, Hollywood has globally earned $1.5 billion from just three films: “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” “Rio 2” and “The Lego Movie.” On rare occasions, a toon will get an Oscar nomination for screenplay or sound, or even best picture — but what about costumes, production design, editing, cinematography, directing, visual effects?