This year’s animated feature Oscar race is considered a foregone conclusion for many. Disney’s “Zootopia,” a March 2016 release that speaks to the modern climate with socio-political, zeitgeisty elements — indeed, one of the year’s best films, full stop — is far and away the frontrunner. And with over $1 billion in global box office receipts, it’s hard not to call it the biggest pop-cultural phenomenon in the category as well.
But the Academy can’t seem to shake this instinct to spring for the hottest ticket when it comes to animated features. Due respect to “Zootopia’s” considerable merits, but brand recognition and ubiquity play a heavy hand when films like this, “Big Hero 6” and “Brave,” to name a few recent examples, walk away with the gold.
Meanwhile, the best of the nominees might arguably be Laika’s “Kubo and the Two Strings,” a meticulously crafted fable straight from the heart of director Travis Knight, founder of the Portland-based animation company. With a $60 million budget — not even half of “Zootopia’s” $150 million treasure chest — Knight and his team produced a dazzling stop-motion wonder that towers over Laika’s previous achievements.
Moreover, “Kubo” cracked the Academy’s below-the-line categories with a surprise visual effects nomination. Outside of aural fields like sound and score, it was the first time an animated film was recognized in these areas since “The Nightmare Before Christmas” 23 years ago. Costume designer Deborah Cook even received a nomination from the costume designers guild in the fantasy category, a first for animated features and hopefully a sign that the hand-made efforts of artisans on these films might have a shot at Academy recognition in the future.
Beyond all of that, isn’t it simply time to recognize Laika? Each of the company’s movies — “Coraline,” “ParaNorman,” “The Boxtrolls” and now “Kubo” — has made it to the dance. But so far, no wins to show for it. And it’s not like this is something on the fringe with a modest cheerleading squad; “Kubo” has won 18 critics awards by my count, to “Zootopia’s” 19. Plus, though they’re neck-and-neck when it comes to the thumbs-up/thumbs-down metric of Rotten Tomatoes (“Zootopia’s” 98% to “Kubo’s” 97%), “Kubo” is the more critically acclaimed film when you drill down further (an 84 rating on Metacritic to “Zootopia’s” 78 — though to be fair, “The Red Turtle” and “My Life as a Zucchini” are even higher at 88 and 85, respectively).
I point all of that out only to show that what we’re really dealing with here is the reach of the Disney marketing machine versus the reach of a smaller distributor like Focus Features. Competing with that brand will be daunting on a number of levels going forward, not just in the animated space. But Academy members aren’t voting on brands. They’re voting on work. And the work from Laika artists simply deserves some serious consideration this time around.
That’s not too much to ask, is it?