Will The Success Of 'Brave' Put Pixar Back In The Oscar Game?

Can Brave help Pixar make a comeback at the Oscars this year?

I know that may sound strange to say about a company that has won the Animated Feature AcademyPixar Brave Oscars Award an unprecedented six times — including four times in a row between 2007-2010 — and been nominated eight of the nine times it has been eligible since the category was established in 2001. (Of Pixar’s previous 12 films, Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and A Bug’s Life came before.) It even managed two Best Picture noms along the way. Who else can boast of that kind of track record? But last year, the Oscar nomination streak in the Ani category came to screeching halt with Cars 2, a movie that also bottomed out with the critics, managing only a 38% fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes, where the company had been accustomed to rating in the high 90s — at or near the top of the pack of all the year’s releases. In fact, out of all Pixar films released before Brave, the only movie to score below a 92 on RT was the original Cars, which garnered a still-respectable 74% fresh score. Brave stands right now at 75% fresh, good by most standards but still the smallest number for a Pixar movie outside the two Cars movies.

Will it matter? Its smash $66 million haul in opening-weekend boxoffice certainly was heartening, if underwhelming, to some analysts, as Deadline reported today. They seem to unrealistically expect the moon where Pixar is involved, even though Brave marked the studio’s remarkable 13th No. 1 opening out of 13. Its ‘A’ Cinemascore audience-satisfaction rating is also a big plus in carrying momentum forward. But is the bloom off the Oscar rose as far as the animation committee that chooses nominees?

Last year there were five nominees instead of the usual three. Yet Cars 2 still managed to miss the cut, with two obscure indie toons — Chico & Rita and A Cat In Paris, from a tiny company called GKids — getting the slots instead, leaving a Pixar entry out in the cold for the first time. (The company’s animated short La Luna, which is playing in front of Brave, did land a nom in its category.) Is this the beginning of a trend, a feeling that Pixar has had enough Oscar glory? Have they become the Goliath of animation ready to be slayed by all the underdog Davids out there? Or is it simply that some voters, like many critics, did not love Cars 2, making it just a small bump in the road to be corrected by a “comeback” Brave nomination this year?

When you attain the unparalled success of a Pixar, it can breed contempt. And detractors are out there still gunning. “I just don’t get it. It seemed full of platitudes”, one top studio executive, who will have a film competing for that animated Oscar, told me this morning. “Brave was good but it is like a poor sister compared to something like The Incredibles or Ratatouille. It’s not groundbreaking at all, and that’s what I expect from Pixar”.

A person closely associated with Brave strongly disagrees and isn’t worried, saying industry screenings have gone exceptionally well (although admitting that last weekend’s official Academy Brave showing, held in the morning, drew only about 300 people — “but about 200 of them were older and without kids and that was a good sign for the film at that hour”. That group also stayed for a Q&A with the film’s creators and seemed to respond strongly, at least so I am told by others who were there).

The striking animation alone should probably be enough to guarantee an animation nomination this year, although not land it in the kind of Best Picture territory enjoyed by Up and Toy Story 3. In fact, some of it might be lost in 3D, which tends to darken the picture by about 15%, and Brave is already dark in many spots. In 2D the attention to detail really pays off (the filmmakers spent two research trips to Scotland where the film is set, trying to get everything just right). But it was the story on which they worked hardest. “Creative differences” led to a dismissal of the film’s original sole director Brenda Chapman, although she retains a directing credit with Mark Andrews, who took over the herculean task of reshaping the movie and getting it ready for release in only 18 months (he also was a co-screenwriter). Last week after a screening of the film, I talked to Andrews and producer Katherine Sarafian about the challenges of getting the movie made under difficult circumstances.

“It was not easy. The biggest challenges at Pixar are always the stories,” Sarafian said. “We want really original stories that come from the hearts and minds of our filmmakers. We take years in crafting the story and improving  it and changing it, throwing things out that aren’t working and adding things that do work. All of that  is just the jumping off point for the technology and how we are going to make this happen”.

For Andrews the Pixar method is the best model in the business. “It’s great. It’s fun. I’ve worked in a lot of studios but this is the first one run by the artists. They understand the process is an organic and difficult  process, one of trial and failure.  That’s what we do. We’re  trying to change lead into gold and everytime we manage to change lead into gold we say to ourselves, ‘wow, how did we do that?’ , ” he said adding that from Chapman’s original pitch  (inspired by her young daughter) to the finished film it was about seven years of work. Two years were spent just developing the technology for lead character Merida’s hair alone. “I am pleased to work at a place that does push the boundaries and makes animation not just for kids, but adults too,” he said.

Andrews also defended the darker , scarier tone of some of the film comparing it to Disney classics  that didn’t stint when it came to sometimes frightening images. “John Lasseter likes to quote Walt Disney when he said ‘ we make films for kids from 6 to 60′.  We did think  ‘it it too violent, are we going to worry about our audience?’  But when you water things down  for our kids you are doing a disservice. You’re in good hands with Pixar. It’s not blood and guts streaming on to the screen , but it is properly thrilling. Just look at Pinnochio, Dumbo, Bambi. We are right in a long line of very damaging therapy for children that’s meaningful and impactful, ” he laughed.

Sarafian added,”Brave is quite different and we were aware it does explore these darker tones and themes but it’s a cautionary tale. We were inspired by Grimm’s fairy tales.”

Stay through the credits and you will notice the movie has been dedicated to Pixar co-founder Steve Jobs. “It was a joint decision between us  the filmmakers and our executive team lead by John Lasseter and Ed Catmull who were co-founders of the studio with Steve Jobs and it really became a matter of ‘how could we not?’  We miss him so much. He was so much a part of every creative endeavor we’ve done. He’s responsible for the existence of our studio and all the wonderful things we have to work with as a studio,” said Sarafian. “Steve was involved  in the earliest stages of Brave. In fact  he saw the reels , he made notes. He was very, very excited  we were making this movie. We hoped he’d be proud of the way it turned out and we’re disappointed he didn’t get to see the final film. We’re very honored to be able to dedicate it to him.”

  1. ‘Can Brave help Pixar make a comeback at the Oscars this year?’

    Well, BRAVE is infinitely better than Cars 2, but it’s likely to be seen as too safe a film to warrant a nomination – even though it turns the standard tropes of ‘princess films’ on their collective heads in many ways.

    I think it deserves a nomination. It’s a better film than , say, Madagascar 3 (which is a very entertaining movie), so I can’t really see it missing (though that is a very real possibility…).

  2. “…put Pixar back in the Oscar game?” Isn’t this a little premature? It just came out and there’s over seven months of movies yet to see the light of day. It’s too hot for Oscar hype and the question on par with “how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.”

  3. They’ll probably get a nod, but from what I’ve heard wreck-it Ralph is going to be the one to beat. It may finally be Disney Animation’s year.

  4. what’s going to beat it out? Madagascar 3? Ice Age 4? The Lorax?

    just give Pixar the Oscar now

    1. That’s the real question. The animated feature race is usually one or two decent movies and a bunch of slop. It’s the very most shoo-in award there is. Brave isn’t very good, but it’s likely only to have actual competition from one or two other movies if that.

  5. Lest we forget the Academy hits limits with Oscar winners as the membership wants to spread them around especially when the competition is close.

    For example this year Hugo won for best visual effects. Rob Legato was certainly worthy (also won for Titanic), but had not Weta dominated the Oscars for Avatar and Lord of the Rings, it might well have beaten Hugo with Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

    ILM has not won an Oscar for a decade after dominating them for years. This, too, had impact when Mike Fink (Golden Compass) beat ILM and Transformers.

    So, unless Brave is hands down the best animated film nominated…I believe the Oscar will not be coming Pixar’s way. Of course, the competition must be great.

    1. FTCS,

      As far as Best Feature Animated Film goes, you are mistaken. I am an Academy member and have, for five years, sat on the nominating committee for feature animation (it’s voluntary but you must see 80% of the eligible films in a theater either during scheduled AMPAS screenings or must attest to having seen them in theaters — DVD viewing for feature animation nominations is not allowed). The committee is open to all Academy members but is largely made up of Feature Animation & Short Film Branch members.

      There is a clear bias among the members towards certain studios and clear preference towards others. Part of that has to do with personal likes and dislikes within the community and some of it has to do with the perception of quality. Pixar regularly benefits from the later while Dreamworks has heretofore generally suffered from the former.

      Because the screenings are held In LA, Dreamworks has seen a larger number of DWA Academy members attending the nominating screenings over the last two years, while Pixar members are generally limited by geography. Hence DWA’s two noms last year and Pixars exclusion. It didnt help Pixar’s cause that Cars 2 was so bad (even though John Lasseter is on the board of Governors for the Feature Animation & Short Films Branch which sponsors the screenings).

      There are a fair number of older animators and traditionalists who sit on the nominating committee each year who feel as if 2-D will somehow be saved if it is supported for nomination. That explains marginal films like a Cat In Paris or that crappy one about the dog the year before, being nominated. With the exception of Spirited Away (an award more for Miyazaki’s career than that one film), they never win.

      The final voting for the category is opened up to the entire Academy membership on the final ballot — most of whom I supect do not bother to watch the animated films save for the Pixar movies (based largely on reputation). This explains the disproportionate number of Pixar wins (though most were worthy and/or deserving), when a Pixar film is nominated. It has very little to do with spreading the wealth around – so to speak – as you suggest, though admittedly I think that is probably the case to one degree or another with most of the other awards.

      Last year’s winner Rango, was awarded largely without the general membership having seen any of the nominated animated films – since no Pixar film was nominated – and was probably awarded based on Johnny Depp’s and Gore Verbinski’s featured roles. Frankly the membership at large likely didn’t know anything about the other nominated films.

      1. Dear Tooner,

        Well said. But, and perhaps I am misreading this, you are stating that general membership apathy to animation is a major factor in who wins the Oscar.

        If so, this is even more disappointing.

        Thank You

  6. “Brave was good but it is like a poor sister compared to something like The Incredibles or Ratatouille. It’s not groundbreaking at all, and that’s what I expect from Pixar”.

    Like I the customer care what you expect, meaningless studio executive person.

  7. The Oscar will go to Wreck-It Ralph, Frankenweenie or ParaNorman.

    I think Wreck-It Ralph or Frankenweenie will prove more satisfyingly heartwarming, though, so I’m going to narrow it down to them.

    Frankenweenie was written by John Logan (Rango, The Aviator), so it certainly has that going for it.

    Then again, Walt Disney Animation Studios is long overdue for the Oscar, considering the award honors a medium the studio helped pioneer. If Disney Animation doesn’t take the Best Animated Feature Oscar for Wreck-It Ralph, it still should win for Best Short (Paperman).

  8. FTCS,

    Apathy is a strong word. When first I became an Academy member many years ago I would watch every single movie I was sent and go to every screening I could. I don’t think I am exagerating when I tell you I probably saw 100-150 films or more each year. I don’t do that any longer and I don’t suspect my fellow members do either. It becomes more about choices — which films will I spend my limited time watching/seeing. I just don’t believe that Kung Fu Panda 2 or Puss & Boots or Rango meet that criteria for the vast majority of Academy members. By the time nominations are announced I think most members have seen almost all of the films they are going to (particularly if you also volunteer for foreign films, documentary films or short subjects). Besides, there is a perception among many of the membership (the largest percentage of which is the Actors Branch), that animated films are kiddie flicks. I wish that wasn’t the prevailing attitude but I am aftaid it is.

    1. Tooner,

      I fully get what you are saying. As a member of the other Academy, I too, cannot see every film. If, however, there is a category (for me it is often ‘films in another language’) in which a member is uncomfortable voting for whatever reason…we simply abstain.

      Does AMPAS offer the same option? Voting is a responsibility for my membership, and we are encouraged to see all that we can through screenings, screeners and actually paying for films. We are also encouraged to abstain when we feel we have not the proper oversight to vote with integrity.

      Again, thank you for your candid comments on this subject. I find them quite honest and refreshing.

      1. FTCS,

        They don’t actively encourage you to abstain from voting for a category in which you do not feel qualified or informed — you can always leave that section of the ballot blank — but I do not remember anyone ever advising that. I suspect some members do so (I have in the past), or, as I also have done, if they are uncertain about a category in which they are not expert or are uncertain (make-up or sound mixing/design etc. for instance), they will ask friends or colleagues who are either in those disciplines and are better informed what their opinions are before making a decision and filling out their ballot. Usually I have seen enough of the nominated films to vote in almost every category on the final ballot and I do believe there is some element of spreading the awards around as you initially suggested (and which started this exchange between us). I don’t think doing so means that the votes lack integrity, but I also think it is somewhat naive to believe that at the end of the day the winners in any category are the ‘BEST’, since art of any type is completely subjective and there have been plenty of winners over which we have all scratched our heads.

        There are categories like Documentary, Foreign and Short Subjects for which you cannot vote UNLESS you have seen the films as part of the official AMPAS screenings, the argument being that the films are otherwise not readily available and therefore to qualify your vote you must see them in screening. If that was the case for final voting in Feature Animation, I suspect the outcome each year would be much different than it has been for some if not many of the years in which the award has been given.

        I guess ultimately, my hypothesis is simply: if Pixar is nominated it will likely win. Pixar is usually nominated if the quality of the film meets a certain undefinable threshold which Cars 2 did not but Brave probably does. I guess we’ll see in a few months time…

  9. Just you all wait till November with Rise of the Guardians. Academy members will be like “Brave what?”

  10. With all respect, Brave outperforms a lot of films from other animation studio’s. The graphical quality of the scenery, the water, the movement is just outstanding. By far better quality than any animated film so far. Although the story does take some time to grasp you, it comes to gather very well.

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