In Coco, there’s contemporary Mexico and the land of the dead; in The Breadwinner, early 2000s Afghanistan and a world of imagination. At the Oscars, there are waves upon waves of contenders passing through, and those precious few who make it all the way to the big show.
Once again, the Oscar fields have narrowed, leaving five films to compete for Best Animated Feature. Winning a Golden Globe, a PGA Award and 11 Annie Awards so far, Pixar’s latest is the presumptive frontrunner this season—but in a strong and unpredictable year, no nominee can be counted out.
Among the list this year, there’s Ferdinand, revisiting a classic tale of a pacifist fighting bull, with a message tailor-made for today; DreamWorks’ wonderfully inventive The Boss Baby; Loving Vincent, the first fully painted animated feature in cinema history, and the aforementioned Breadwinner, a tale of a young Afghan girl providing for her family by dressing as a boy.
Take a look below to hear about this year’s worthy animated nominees.
Long holding onto the dream of a Día de Muertos-themed animated feature, Lee Unkrich saw the opportunity to make an entertaining, funny, colorful and celebratory film that retained a strong emotional core, the defining quality when it comes to stories Pixar pursues.
Following aspiring musician Miguel (newcomer Anthony Gonzales) on his journey through the land of the dead, Coco sees the boy reconnect with long-lost ancestors while pursuing his musical dreams.
Musically oriented, though not a ‘break-out-into-song’ musical, Coco’s portrayal of Mexican families and their shared cultural identity was backed by a number of journeys into Mexico itself, in which Unkrich and his team took hundreds of thousands of photographs and experienced the Día de Muertos celebration firsthand.
“I knew from the beginning that I needed to endeavor to make a film that was free of clichés and stereotypes, and tell a story that was culturally authentic,” Unkrich says, looking back at Coco’s inception. “That responsibility never left me for a single day in the six years I worked on the film.”
Fortunately, Mexico’s affirmation of the film is clear: Coco became the country’s biggest box office hit ever, outgrossing previous leader The Avengers with over $57 million in receipts.
Beyond the Animated Feature category, Coco is nominated for Best Original Song, for Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s “Remember Me.”
Based on a 1936 children’s book by Munro Leaf that was previously adapted into an Oscar-winning Disney short, Carlos Saldanha’s Ferdinand hopes for a similar fate on March 4. Telling the story of a Spanish bull who was built to fight, born to love, the Fox film resonated strongly last year with its universal message.
“The true message for me was being true to who you are,” Saldanha says. “With tolerance, Ferdinand changes the world around him.”
Aiming to support the classic feel of the book while presenting a more colorful, textured take, Saldanha set out to capture the palette of Spain. “My previous movie was Rio, and I wanted to capture the palette of Brazil. But that was a lot easier because I’m from there,” the director says.
Landing on a warm palette of reds, oranges and earth tones, Saldanha was helped along in the process of making his film by a large contingent of Spanish artists. “I was relying on them as a gauge to understand what is right for the story,” he says. “I think in the end, if you know Spain, you probably will see yourself in that world.”
The Boss Baby
Going from soup to nuts on DreamWorks’ The Boss Baby—starring Alec Baldwin as the baby in the black suit—Tom McGrath created a charming story about sibling rivalries that would play like “Inception for kids”.
Following seven-year-old Tim, who is met—disagreeably—with the sudden appearance of a briefcase-carrying toddler, The Boss Baby was a love letter to McGrath’s brother, visually imaginative in its hodgepodge of styles.
Telling the story principally from the perspective of a child’s imagination, McGrath saw an opportunity to harken back to ’50s animation, looking to the works of Mary Blair, Maurice Noble, and painters from the Chuck Jones era, as well as classic Disney animation.
Then, there was Baby Corp., a slick corporate space inspired by movies of the ’60s and ’70s, like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. “We tried to stay true to that era of architecture. We had great images of the Johnson Wax Building of the ’60s—these huge columns, and this palette that was ’60s colors,” McGrath says. “Because Baby Corp. was a fantastical place, I wanted to shoot it with tilt-shift photography, meaning everything looks kind of miniature, kind of toy-like.”
Composed of 1,000 canvases and 65,000 individual, hand-painted frames—including 77 replicating the exact work of an iconic Post-Impressionist painter—Loving Vincent is the first fully-painted feature in history, an anomaly on every level.
The initial concept behind the film, for directors Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela, was to tell the story of an artist through his own works of art. Looking for a subject, the pair landed on Vincent van Gogh, an artist whose every painting was a window into his world.
“Vincent painted his shoes, his bedroom. He painted his food,” Welchman says. “You can actually get a picture of his world in a way that’s not possible with other painters.”
Loving Vincent involved training a workforce of highly-skilled oil painters—most of them from Poland—putting them through animation tests and 100 hours of training in the particularly difficult style of Van Gogh.
For Welchman and Kobiela, oil paints were an ideal format for the same reason they worked so well for van Gogh. “One of the great things about oil paints is that people can get a very intricate picture, particularly of human faces,” Welchman explains. “Computer animation really cannot do this.”
Based on a best-selling novel by Deborah Ellis and executive produced by Angelina Jolie, Nora Twomey’s The Breadwinner tells the story of Parvana, a young Afghan girl who must dress up as a boy to provide for her family, after her father is unjustly thrown in prison. Reminiscent of Disney’s Mulan and tales from all cultures, the film depicts Parvana with naturalism and humanity, while capturing through cut-out animation the fantasy world into which she escapes from her life’s challenges.
“The whole film is really about contrasts, characters moving out of shadows and into light,” Twomey says of the film’s dichotomies. “It’s about the contrasts between that one room where her family spends a lot of their time, and the expanse of Kabul. It’s about Parvana’s interior life.” Designed by Twomey as a meal that should consistently cleanse the palate, The Breadwinner is an empowering, relevant story, with a strong, dimensionalized female protagonist.
“In areas of conflict, women and children are always the first to suffer. I’m a feminist, but I really feel that inequality hurts everyone,” Twomey reflects. “In an unequal society, the world is not as good as it could be.”