Every year the same question is asked about the Best Animated Feature category: can anyone beat Disney? Walt Disney Studios, along with subsidiary Pixar, has won 14 Oscars in the Best Animated Feature category since the category began two decades ago, followed in a distant second by DreamWorks Animation’s two wins. 26 animated features are eligible to be nominated this year, and with only five slots, who will make the final cut?
Walt Disney Studios is coming on strong again with their competitors this year, including Pixar’s Luca. Enrico Casarosa makes his feature-length directorial debut with this coming-of-age story inspired by his childhood in Genoa, Italy. Although the theatrical release of the film was canned due to the ongoing pandemic, that didn’t hinder the film’s popularity. It tells the story of Luca Paguro (Jacob Tremblay), a young sea monster boy who has been living a sheltered life under the water while dreaming of seeing the human world. Upon meeting another young sea monster named Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), Luca discovers his ability to take human form while outside the water. The boys become fast friends and venture into the human town of Portorosso. While concealing their identities, they meet a young girl named Giulia (Emma Berman) and the three of them team up to enter a children’s triathlon to best the local bully and win enough money for the boys to buy a Vespa and travel the world. Having come from a seaside town himself, Casarosa employs the sea monster folklore of his upbringing in this story of friendship and belonging.
Another big contender for Walt Disney Studios is Encanto, which released at the end of last year. Directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard, who previously won in 2016 for Zootopia, are joined by co-director and writer Charise Castro Smith for this musical fantasy set in Colombia.
Encanto takes place in a magical town sheltered by mountains. As she is fleeing from her home, Alma Madrigal (María Cecilia Botero) loses her husband and prays for a miracle to save her three children. The candle she was holding becomes magical and builds an “encanto” around the refugees, blasts away the invaders, and builds a sentient house for her family to live in. The candle gave magical gifts to Alma’s family for 50 years, until her granddaughter Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) mysteriously receives no gift. Mirabel starts to notice cracks forming in the house and goes on a quest to fix the magic of the candle, without the aid of any special gifts herself. Although the theatrical run was shortened due to the Covid pandemic, Encanto was still the highest-grossing animated film of 2021.
Raya and the Last Dragon brought Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess, who is also voiced by a Southeast Asian lead. Directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, along with writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, brought an amalgamation of Southeast Asian culture to create the mythical world of Kumandra. The story takes place in Kumandra, a once prosperous land ravaged by evil spirits called the Druun, which turn people and dragons into stone. The last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), gives up her physical form to create a gem that dispels the Druun and brings all of the humans back to life. A betrayal 500 years later leads to the destruction of the gem and allows the Druun to return. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) goes on a quest to find Sisu, who she believes still exists, and save the world.
Locksmith Animation’s first feature-length film, Ron’s Gone Wrong, rounds out the contenders under the Walt Disney Studios umbrella. Writer-director Sarah Smith, along with director Jean-Philippe Vine and writer Peter Baynham, crafts a satirical look at the evolution of technology and how it affects children.
The film follows Barney Pudowski (Jack Dylan Grazer again), a lonely middle-schooler who has trouble connecting with his classmates who all have B*Bots, a robot companion that claims to be “your best friend out of the box”. After a disappointing birthday, his father surprises him with a B*Bot named Ron (Zach Galifianakis). It soon becomes clear that Ron is defective, which leads Barney to want to return him. However, when Ron saves Barney from a bully in a way that normal B*Bots couldn’t do, the two quickly connect as Barney tries to teach Ron everything there is to know about how to be a friend. As his popularity increases among Barney’s schoolmates, Ron’s defective nature draws the eye of Bubble, the tech-giant that created B*Bots, which leads Barney on a journey to save his new friend from being erased.
While not originally a Disney film, it was co-produced and distributed by 20th Century Studios, which was acquired by Disney while the film was in production. The film has gone largely unnoticed in the Oscar race this year, despite receiving praise from both critics and viewers and being on the longlist for the BAFTA Award for Best Animated Film.
Netflix’s frontrunner The Mitchells vs. the Machines, produced by Sony Pictures Animation, has a similar theme of the dangers of technology becoming too advanced. The sci-fi family comedy, written and directed by Mike Rianda, follows the Mitchell family, based on Rianda’s own family. Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is an aspiring filmmaker with a dream to go to film school far away from her family. Her father Rick (Danny McBride) is an outdoorsman who doesn’t understand technology and is dismissive of her interests. After a fight leads to Rick accidentally breaking Katie’s laptop after she gets into film school, he decides to make a last-ditch effort to save his relationship with his daughter by cancelling her flight to college and taking the entire family on a cross-country road trip there instead. They are accompanied by his wife Linda (Maya Rudolph), a mother with a fear that her family isn’t as perfect as their neighbors, his son Aaron (Rianda), a dinosaur-obsessed boy who is afraid of his sister leaving, and their dog Monchi. While on the trip, a technology entrepreneur’s flippant choice to declare his AI, PAL (Olivia Colman), obsolete results in the AI ordering robots to capture all of humanity. As they managed to avoid capture, it falls on the dysfunctional Mitchell family to save the world as the last remaining free humans.
While Netflix has a few contenders in the race this year, none of them have been as big as Mitchells. In just the first 28 days, the film was streamed by 53 million member households, making it Netflix’s biggest original animated feature to date.
Neon’s Flee is a triple threat this year, as an international animated documentary. The film has made the shortlists for both Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature as the Danish entry for the Oscars, with critical praise for the animation as well. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen co-wrote the script with “Amin”, the anonymous subject of the film.
Flee takes place as Amin is about to marry his husband Kasper. Amin decides to share a traumatic story about his hidden past, which he has never told anyone before. Recreated in animation, Amin tells the story of his perilous escape from his home country of Afghanistan as a refugee. The film is animated around personal one-on-one interviews between Rasmussen and Amin, where Amin tells the stories of his escape, coming out to his family, and living a lie in the fear that he would be deported if the truth ever came out. Flee has already won awards across the world, including the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary section at Sundance and Best Feature Film at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. With such praise on all fronts, Flee is sure to be nominated in at least one of the categories it is eligible for, if not all three.
GKIDS has another foreign language film up for consideration with Belle. Director Mamoru Hosoda, previously nominated in this category in 2019 for Mirai, tells this story inspired by the French fairy tale Beauty and the Beast set in modern-day Japan. In Belle, Suzu (Kaho Nakamura), a shy high school student, loses her ability to sing in public after her mother passes away. Her depression has led to her alienating herself from most of her classmates. When her friend Hiro (Lilas Ikuta) suggests she tries out a virtual reality program called “U”, she finds her ability to sing once again hidden behind an avatar and she becomes a global superstar. During one of her shows, a mysterious beast disrupts the event as he tries to escape from a group of vigilantes, leading Suzu to go on a journey to discover his identity and save him.
The virtual reality world of “U” was created by British architect Eric Wong, who designed the 3D virtual world as an industrial city with an ever-present twilight sky. Hosoda wanted the virtual world to be expansive and ever-growing, with a tessellating metropolis of skyscrapers to contrast the magical surrealism of the avatars. Belle was the third highest-grossing domestic film in Japan of the last year and was met with a 14-minute-long standing ovation at its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
With four animated features up for contention, Walt Disney Studios will prove difficult to beat this year. GKIDS, however, has been getting consistent nods in the category with 12 nominations since the company was founded in 2008, and a 13th nomination for Belle could prove to be the upset needed. Netflix has been nominated twice over the past two years, and The Mitchells vs. the Machines has been more successful than either of their previous nominees. Along with Neon’s Flee, Disney’s ongoing monopoly on the Best Animated Feature category will be threatened even if they do ultimately secure most of the nominations.
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