OSCARS: Time For A Toon To Take Best Picture

What is it going to take for an animated pic to shatter the Best Picture live action ceiling?

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created an animated feature category back inAwardsLine 2001, it was an official nod to the fact that the genre has evolved into a true art form. Before the category’s existence, it was a rare feat for a toon to earn a best picture nomination, which happened just once, in 1992, with Beauty And The Beast. The fact that Up and Toy Story 3 recently managed to get best picture and best animated feature noms after the animated category was created and the top category was enlarged shows just how much Academy voters love and respect these films. Yet despite this progress, no animated film has turned a best pic nom into a win.

Beauty-and-the-Beast-beauty-and-the-beast-309492_1024_768But times are changing, and it is now conceivable that an animated film could take home a best picture statuette in the next decade. The universal appeal of toons—proven by the enviable worldwide box office a majority of them earn—coupled with an emerging generation that blurs the assumed boundaries between live action and line drawings, bodes well for this prospect.

Related: The Croods’ Creative Team Tells How They Pulled Off A Big Win For Dreamworks Animation (Video)

“I certainly think it’s possible,” DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg says. One of the insurmountable architects of the animation resurrection, Katzenberg cut straight to the creative heart of the matter. “The reason I think it’s possible is that some of the best storytelling and filmmaking in Hollywood today is in the animation genre.”

The variety and scope of the films thatfrozzen55 earned animated feature Oscar noms this year—The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest & Celestine, Frozen and maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song The Wind Rises—proves the DWA boss’ point. Not only has animation seen stunning advances in technology and technique since Beauty And The Beast, it has become a truly global genre.

Related: OSCARS: Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘The Wind Rises’ Clip

One just need look at the career of Miyazaki, whose work has been nominated several times in non-animated categories at film fests and international film academy awards (Spirited Away won best pic at the 2002 Berlin fest). It’s a far cry from the early days when 1940’s envelope-pushing Fantasia was pilloried and praised for being either too highbrow, too adult, or, as Time magazine put it, “stranger and more wonderful than any of Hollywood’s (premieres).”

fantasiaToday take the ground breaking Fantasia and the legacy of Walt Disney plus the determination of his nephew Roy to keep the animation department open at the studio in the 80s and the renaissance that followed and a dash of unconventional wit and wisdom of The Simpsons. Add to that the force of nature known as John Lasseter and Pixar, the leaps forward in not just tech but technique, the critically and financially successful Shrek franchise, some Steven Spielberg and Roger Rabbit, the universal charm of Finding Nemo, a plethora of voice-over talent, a slice of Waltz With Bashir (the only animated film nominated for a foreign language Oscar)then throw in some Miyazaki, artful use of 3D and of course 2008’s game changing WALL-E and you have a truly global genre that is putting out some of the best films today. “Look, you’ve got (Chris) Meledandri, Disney, DWA all knocking it out of the park with top notch talent and crossover appeal,” one studio producer told me. “People love these movies. My kids love these movies. My parents love these movies. I love these movies.”

Now take the love and do the math.

In 1992, Disney’swall-e-and-eve Beauty And The Beast became the first animated film to get a Best Picture nomination. Though overlooked five years ago, it is pretty much universally agreed now and then that the staggering and poignant WALL-E should have been a contender in a very strong year that saw Slumdog Millionaire ultimately win. Since the Academy enlarged the Best Picture category to a potential 10 films in 2009, two more animated features have graduated to the big prize league. While neither Up nor Toy Story 3 won Best Picture, both did win the Best Animated Feature for which they were respectively simultaneously nominated in 2010 and 2011. Like the Best Picture, all 6,028 Academy members can vote for the Best Animated Feature and obviously some are voting for the same film in both categories. So already probability theory is in play.

Then consider the fact that over the next decade, as new members are added, the current Academy members’ average age of 62 will start to fall. “There’s a new generation growing in numbers and they are much more comfortable with the digital landscape and dimensions of modern movies,” says one Academy insider. “They don’t discriminate about genre the way some older members still do,” he added

despicable_me_2_minions-wallpaper1Also, the populist factor is a huge reason why Academy members should be paying attention right now. When the little-seen Hurt Locker took best picture back in 2010, it caused a ripple of criticism that the Academy was too elitist. (Plus, there’s always the concern that a year in which low-earning films are nominated for best picture equates to low viewership numbers for the telecast.) With animated features, unlike teenage boy-centric blockbusters or lofty, “Oscar-y” fare, there is something for everyone, as the box office often reflects. That’s real money—and it’s coming from a big, all-inclusive audience in which all the studios are investing. Both Despicable Me 2 and Frozen have taken in close to $1 billion worldwide, while The Croods has earned almost $600 million globally. No film can tally numbers like that without transcending genres and having mass appeal.

Animation’s ability to cross borders and overcome language barriers is aided by bringing specific talent onboard to give the films a local flavor. Look at the Oscar-nominated Ernest & Celestine. In its native France, the pic from Triplets of Belleville producer Didier Brunner is voiced by Lambert Wilson of Matrix fame and Pauline Brunner. However, for the recently released stateside English version, Oscar-caliber talent such as Forest Whitaker, Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti and William H. Macy handled vocal duties. Building on the success of the first film and voiced by local talent, Kung Fu Panda 2 smashed Chinese weekend box office records when it premiered in the early summer of 2011.

The bottom line is thatlego animated features are not just for kids and their dragged-along parents anymore. Yes, about half of the audience falls into that category, but the remaining half is a bricolage of kidless fans that come of their own free will. In fact, the most recent animated release, Warner Bros.’ The LEGO Movie, boasts the second-highest February debut— with a $69 million opening weekend—because of its cross-generational, cross-demographic appeal.

“I love the films that push to be more exciting and complex and tell really rich stories,” says Frozen director Jennifer Lee. “I think that all of us in animation at all the studios are pushing ourselves to surprise the audience. We are doing some of the most fearless things in animation, and the world is beginning to see that.”

That’s why an animated feature will win best picture in the next decade. The films are getting better all the time; they are both creative and popular; and they are inclusive. However, the intriguing world of Academy predictions is strewn with failures and trip-wire mines, so who knows what 10 years will bring? Perhaps the words of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the 18th-century painter and co-founder of the Royal Academy, bear consideration here. A great painting should have the “profound humanism, mellifluity of utterance, the aptness of language, measure and imagery, the grandeur of scale, and moral discourse of the most exalted poetry and poetic dramas.” Sounds like many an animated film of late. Sounds like a best picture in the making, too.

A variation of this report appeared in the February 19 edition of Awardsline.

  1. If Gravity wins Best Picture, I think the case could be made that your prediction has come true. The ratio of animated imagery to what actually represents light captured by a camera is overwhelming. Similarly, WALL-E (which you mentioned) was accepted as an “animated film” even though it involved actual “footage” and a Fred Willard performance.

  2. You’re underestimating the snobbery of the voters. They won’t even vote for a comedy in the major categories; what makes anyone think a “cartoon” has a chance, even a serious one like THE WIND RISES?

  3. Something within your article plays against the very message you are attempting to disseminate – animation is not a GENRE. It is a storytelling device. As long as animation is seen as a genre, it will lessen the odds of an animated feature film ever winning Best Picture.

    To my point, consider: Sleeping Beauty is a fairytale; WALL-E is a science fiction movie; The Croods is a period piece with slapstick humor; The Incredibles is a superhero movie that feels like a Bond movie; Cars is a racing movie; Triplets of Belleville is a family dramedy.

    The genres are: fairy tale, science fiction, period, superhero, racing and family dramedy. Animation is simply the device used to best tell the story. Until Academy Award voters accept this as reality, the odds of an animated film winning the Oscar for Best Film remain dim – in a ‘genre ghetto’ for a genre that really isn’t one to begin with.

  4. It’s been years since I’ve seen a film have the powerful moment that ‘Up!’ had, in those first ten minutes. Those first ten minutes of that film stand amongst the best filmmaking in any genre. You cover life, love, the loss of a child/miscarriage, illness, death, grief.

    It is an unbelievable journey; and while the film has comic moments (I would argue no more than Life is Beautiful) the ending, in which Carl ventures out to become a father – the one journey he had never really experienced in his life – is a moving moment.

    Toy Story 3 also had one of those moment where you think – the filmmakers nailed this. There aren’t many adult films that handle the complicated emotions that happen in that incinerator when our protagonists, facing their deaths, grab hands together, nod at each other, and find solace in the comfort of facing death with friends. It is a beautiful silent moment that is fantastic.

    I loved Frozen, I don’t think I can put it in the category of those two, but it was a beautifully well done film, and I would contend it’s a significantly more complete film then ‘Philomena’ or ‘Captain Phillips’

  5. Next year’s Oscars just might be the one to do it. Between LEGO, How To Train Your Dragon 2, and The BoxTrolls, it looks like there will be some formidable animated movies!

  6. If the Best Animated Feature Oscar category was established, then why bother putting animated films in the Best Picture Oscar ballot? I still believe the Best Picture Oscar should be left only to for the live-action films. An animated film winning the Best Picture Oscar? I doubt this will ever actually happen.

    You want an animated film to win the Best Picture Oscar? Then you may want to establish Academy Award categories for Best Voice-Only Performance in an Animated Film (Male and Female). Anyone who does a voice-only performance in an animated film, should they be nominated in the Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor categories? They should even get a Best Director for an Animated Film.

    Fairy tale, science fiction, period, superhero, racing, family dramedy: You can’t tell those stories well in live-action?

    1. Your point was made back in 1993 with Robin Williams being snubbed for an Oscar nom for his amazing voice over performance as the Genie.
      He got the special golden globe award honoring his performance, but when it came to the academy they just wouldn’t recognize his amazing vocal performance.

      We are long over due for a V.O. actor to get an Oscar Nomination

  7. Actors make up the largest voting bloc of the Academy, always have and always will. A film without actors will not take home a Best Picture statue in the next decade. Or ever.

  8. Part of the problem is people like Harvey Weinstien campaigning the crap out of films that play right up the Academy’s alley. Garbage like Gangs of New York, Chocolat and Cider House Rules all got in due to Harvey lobbying for votes.

    Another problem is timing. Beauty & Beast got lucky because it didn’t have to contend with the likes of Schindler’s List, Titanic, all three LOTR films and Forrest Gump (A potentiall headline: Beauty didn’t kill the Beast, Forrest Gump did).

  9. In commentary to Mr. Jim J. Terrell, I think it’s a cultural division. For example in the Japanese Academy Awards, they have already had two animated films win Best Picture (Princess Mononoke in 1998 and Spirited Away in 2002, both for Hayao Miyazaki). One should take into consideration what is the current member constituency of the voting bodies for the two Academies. The Japanese open committee opened membership to a wide array of participants in the entertainment industry and thus, the voting body tends to reward artistic merit across different media (i.e. two animated films winning both Best Animated Film and Best Picture). AMPAS has a more conservative membership body, and their voting records reflect as such. Granted, there are surprise wins for their top honors, but there is a traditional influence of which movies tend to do well due to the preferences of the individuals able to participate in the vote.

  10. I DO agree that an animated picture deserves to considered for best picture. One only has to look at Disney’s BEAUTY & THE BEAST to see that. People think that animated movies aren’t worthy of much compared with live action, but as an animation fanatic for over 50+ years, who has had 3 different online animations forums over the years, the work that goes into animated movies is every bit as complex as live action movies, & deserves to be considered as such.

    And as for those who consider animated movies as nothing more than cartoons, you have it wrong! Cartoons are generally no more than 7-8 minutes to 30 minutes. Shorts are generally 30 minutes or so, & full length animated movies are an hour or more, as a rule. Please stop calling animated “cartoons”-because they are not.

  11. Why thinking on this now??? Just because of this LEGO Movie? Gimme a break, you know this phrase: “this the best animated movie ever made”? people were saying the same thing about Toy Story 3, and previously about others animations. You know what I see? Just another animated movie that will soon move out from the top of this list because people are terribly fickle. Maybe right now you think: “No! No one will surpass The Lego Movie” well, it happened to the others right? So it WILL happen to The Lego Movie. Just wait.

  12. I clicked on a link from a previous story about the only “3” nominated animated films for the Academy Awards.. Make that four! They forgot that little movie about a pig named Babe. It was nominated for an Oscar.

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