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 in 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.
But 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.
“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 that 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.
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).”
Today 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’s 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
Also, 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 that 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.