Since the inception of the Oscars’ Best Animated Feature category in 2001, the race has been utterly dominated by powerhouse American studios—the most notable examples being Walt Disney Studios and its Emeryville subsidiary, Pixar. Having claimed eight Oscars over the last decade, and 13 overall, these studios have become almost insurmountable over time.
This year, they once again pose fierce competition with two titles, the clear frontrunner being Pete Docter and Kemp Powers’ Soul. Meditating on the origins of the human personality, Docter’s follow-up to Oscar winners Up and Inside Out centers on Joe (Jamie Foxx), a frustrated middle-school band teacher, who seeks to return to Earth, after a sudden accident separates him from his body. Striving to return to New York City to realize his dreams of performing as a jazz musician, the character finds that his only way back from the celestial realm known as The Great Before is to mentor a stubborn, fledgling soul known as 22 (Tina Fey). Gorgeously animated, and bolstered by original jazz tunes from Jon Batiste—along with a Golden Globe-nominated score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross—Soul is a history-making title, as the first Pixar film to center on a Black character, its first to call upon the talents of a Black co-director, and the first to debut on the Disney+ streaming service, amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
Pixar’s other contender, Onward hails from director Don Scanlon (Monsters University). Premiering in Berlin and debuting theatrically in March prior to Covid shutdowns, the adventure pic draws on Scanlon’s experience of loss, as a child, following elven brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt), as they quest after a magical artifact that will bring their father back to life for one day. Bolstered by a score from Jeff and Mychael Danna, the film’s voice cast also features Octavia Spencer and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
While this pair of titles makes Disney a lock for at least one Oscars slot, a number of smaller titles and studios newer to the race are giving them a run for their money. Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, Wolfwalkers places Apple TV+ in the competition for the first time. Recognized as Best Animated Film by the Los Angeles and New York Film Critics Associations, the third and final installment in Moore’s ‘Irish Folklore Trilogy’ features the voices of Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Simon McBurney and Sean Bean. Set in 1650s Ireland, it tells the story of an apprentice hunter who journeys with her father from England to take out a pack of wolves. Raised in a Puritanical society, Robyn experiences true freedom for the first time only when she befriends a girl from a mysterious tribe, which is said to transform into a pack of wolves by night. Reflecting Moore and Stewart’s love of carefully crafted 2D animation, the film hails from Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, which has been nominated for four Oscars since 1999, and may be on the cusp of a breakthrough.
Notching its first pair of Oscar nominations in 2019, Netflix returns to competition this year in search of its first win, its strongest contender being original musical, Over the Moon. Marking the long-awaited feature debut of pioneering animator Glen Keane—who illustrated many of the most iconic characters in the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios—the film centers on Fei Fei, a Chinese teenager, who grew up being told the legend of Moon goddess Chang’e. Struggling to cope, following the loss of her mother, the young woman builds a rocket and heads out into space, in order to prove that the immortal being is real. Produced by Pearl Studio, and scripted by the late Audrey Wells, the film stars Cathy Ang, Phillipa Soo, Ken Jeong, John Cho, Ruthie Ann Miles, Margaret Cho, and Sandra Oh. Its original songs were written by Christopher Curtis, Marjorie Duffield and Helen Park.
The debut feature of award-winner Gitanjali Rao, Bombay Rose is a painterly romantic drama that was brought to fruition over the course of six years. Centered on a young Hindu woman whose difficult existence, as a flower seller and nightclub dancer, is changed when she strikes up a romance with a young man, the film powerfully brings to life both the chaos and beauty of life in Bombay, premiering in 2019, as part of the Venice Film Festival’s International Critics’ Week.
The streamer’s third entry, The Willoughbys, adapts a book of the same name by Lois Lowry. Kris Pearn’s follow-up to Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 centers on the Willoughby children, who grew up with parents who could not be more disinterested in them. Exploring the sometimes-wide gap between the families we’re born into and those we choose, it watches as the kids send their selfish guardians on vacation, and, forging new connections, set off on a globetrotting adventure. Featuring the original song “I Choose”, performed by pop star Alessia Cara, the film’s cast includes Ricky Gervais, Will Forte, Maya Rudolph, Cara and more.
The final title distributed by Netflix, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon hails from Aardman Animations, a British stop-motion studio that has crafted a legion of beloved characters, over the course of decades. The first feature from Will Becher and Richard Phelan picks up with Shaun the Sheep—a character first introduced in 1995—as he and his farmyard pals encounter an alien named Lu-La, looking to get her home before she’s discovered by forces that would cause her harm. Paying homage to a range of sci-fi classics—everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Jetsons—this high-concept sequel to 2015’s Oscar nominated Shaun the Sheep Movie was nominated for Best Animated Featured at the BAFTA Awards, among other accolades.
Up next in contention are two sequels produced by 12-time nominee DreamWorks Animation and distributed by Universal Pictures. Following up 2016’s Trolls, which garnered a nomination for Best Original Song, Walt Dohrn’s jukebox musical Trolls World Tour will look to break into Animated Feature, while contending once again in the former category. Starring Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick, the infectious celebration of diversity and inclusivity follows trolls Poppy and Branch as they learn of six tribes within their world, each representing a specific musical genre. When the fuzzy friends discover a plot by the Queen of the Hard Rock trolls to take over all of the kingdoms and eliminate other kinds of music, they set off on a journey to stop her from pulling it off.
Following up 2013’s The Croods, which secured a nomination for Best Animated Feature, The Croods: A New Age picks up with a family of prehistoric cavemen known as the Croods, as they move into the residence of a clan that claims to be more evolved, contemplating the meaning of home, as well as their future as a pack. Marking the debut feature of Joel Crawford, the comedy sees Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, and Cloris Leachman, who has sadly since passed, reprising their voice roles, with Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann, and Kelly Marie Tran joining the cast.
Then, there are a range of acclaimed international titles, including Gorô Miyazaki’s Earwig and the Witch, from New York-based distributor GKIDS—which last contended with 2018’s Mirai, and brought Wolfwalkers to theaters nationwide. Produced by Studio Ghibli—which is vying for its seventh nomination—Earwig tells the story of a 10-year-old orphan girl in England, who is adopted by a witch, coming to learn about a world of magic, with which her mother was involved. Based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, the official Cannes selection was Ghibli’s first to be fully realized in 3D CG.
Also embracing this medium, Takashi Yamazaki’s Lupin III: The First brings a classic manga character into a 3D computer generated world for the first time. Based on a character created by the late artist Monkey Punch, the first Lupin film to be made in over 20 years follows the charismatic thief, as he battles with Nazis over control of a mysterious artifact.
Third up for GKIDS is Masaaki Yuasa’s Ride Your Wave, the story of the romance that develops between a surfer and a firefighter. And then there’s Kenji Iwaisawa’s debut feature, On-Gaku: Our Sound, a dry comedy based on comics by Hiroyuki Ohashi, which follows a group of delinquent schoolkids that set out to form a band.
A Scooby Doo origin story directed by Tony Cervone, Warner Bros.’ Scoob! rounds out a stellar slate of studio pictures. At the same time, there are a number of other notable contenders, including Rémi Chayé’s Calamity, a Childhood of Martha Jane Cannary (Agora Films) and Mariusz Wilczynski’s Kill It and Leave This Town (Outsider Pictures).
After an awards season protracted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Oscar Shortlists will be announced on February 9, with the Academy Award nominations following on March 15. With a slew of strong independent films contending, and newer studios looking to fortify their positions in the world of animation, it’s difficult to decisively forecast a winner in the feature category, though Wednesday’s Golden Globe nominations solidified the status of Soul, Onward, Over the Moon, Wolfwalkers and The Croods: A New Age as top contenders. To see if the behemoth that is Disney prevails once again, we’ll have to wait until the virtual Oscars ceremony, scheduled for Sunday, April 25.