Phil Lord and Chris Miller: Hollywood Should Elevate, Not Diminish Animation (Guest Column)

Phil Lord Chris Miller Mitchells vs Machines
Eric Jamison/Invision/AP; Courtesy Sony Pictures Animation

Last Sunday, at a very eventful Oscars, it was easy to miss when three actors identified as Disney princesses presented the best animated feature award by reading, “Animated films make up some of our most formative movie experiences as kids. So many kids watch these movies over and over… and over and over and over and over… I think some parents out there know exactly what we’re talking about.”

Framing the five Academy Award nominees for best animated feature as a corporate product for kids that parents must begrudgingly endure could be dismissed as simply careless. But to those of us who have dedicated our lives to making animated films, that carelessness has become routine. The head of a major animation studio once told an assembly of animators that, if we played our cards right, we would one day “graduate to live-action.” Years later, an exec at another studio said a certain animated movie we made was so enjoyable that it reminded them of “a real movie.”

There are, of course, far more important things in the world — and more important things to think about in the wake of this year’s Oscars, including some true high points we shouldn’t overlook: Beyoncé! Compton! “CODA”! Questlove! But the repeated diminishment of our art form is at the top of animators’ minds. We are currently negotiating with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to get studios to pay animation workers fairly, especially when animation is such a large and important part of their bottom lines. (Look up #NewDeal4Animation to learn more!) During the pandemic, when much physical production was shut down, animators began working from home immediately. These films kept our business afloat.

Animated films routinely demonstrate excellence in photography, design, costumes and performance. They are some of the most carefully and cinematically directed films of the year. They have some of the most intricate scoring and sound design.

They are also hits! When broadcasters bemoan the fact that so many of the nominated films have not been widely seen, they must be forgetting that animated nominees “Luca,” “Raya and the Last Dragon” and “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” were three of the 10 most-streamed movies of 2021. (Seven of the 10 were animated!) Or that 13 (25%!) of the 50 highest-grossing films of all time are animated. Or that a huge percentage of the theatrical audience for mainstream animated films is made up of adults unaccompanied by children. Animation is for everyone. And the studios know it. That’s why we’re seeing unprecedented investment in animation production.

This year’s winning film, “Encanto,” had a sophisticated theme of how family trauma is passed on generationally that many adults with and without children connected to on a deeply personal level.  “Flee,” a heart-wrenching animated documentary about an Afghan refugee, isn’t kids’ stuff, and neither are past nominees “I Lost My Body,” “Waltz With Bashir,” “Persepolis” and on and on. As best animated short winner Alberto Mielgo reminded the audience on Sunday, “Animation is cinema.” A sentiment that bears repeating.

Which leads us to a simple pitch: Next year, invite a respected filmmaker to present the award and frame animation as cinema.

Guillermo del Toro, who produces, directs and deeply appreciates animation, could remind the audience that animation predates cinema, that without the zoetrope, there is no American Zoetrope.

Bong Joon Ho could present while explaining why he listed two of this year’s animated feature nominees (“Flee” and “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”) among his top 10 favorite movies of the year.

Mahershala Ali, as compelling a performer in animated films as he is in live-action, could tell the world that animation is not a genre, but a medium that at its best observes and amplifies the nuances of our humanity so that we can see ourselves and ourselves be seen.

This year, as we celebrated the 30th anniversary of “White Men Can’t Jump,” we might also have celebrated the 20th anniversary of Hayao Miyazaki’s Academy Award winner “Spirited Away.” It’s not too late to have him present the award next year. It would, incidentally, be the first time he has ever graced the stage at the Oscars.

And if in 2022 we marked the 28th anniversary of “Pulp Fiction,” in 2023 we can celebrate the 31st anniversary of the historic best picture nomination for “Beauty and the Beast.”

That nomination caused such a stir that some worried an animated movie might win best picture every year, a sentiment that, in part, led to the creation of the best animated feature award, both to acknowledge the contributions of animation to the current cinema, and, for some, to keep animated films from winning the “real” prize.

At least we used to be taken seriously.

Surely no one set out to diminish animated films, but it’s high time we set out to elevate them.

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller wrote and directed the animated films “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and “The LEGO Movie,” and won the Academy Award for best animated feature as producers of 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” They also produced 2021’s Oscar-nominated animated feature “The Mitchells vs. the Machines.”