With Oscar nominated feature films like The Wind Rises and Ernest & Celestine still awaiting a proper Chicagoland release, the Animated Feature category at this year’s Academy Awards registers as especially commercial. The numbers don’t lie as Despicable Me 2 and Frozen are 2013’s top 3 and 4 grossers respectively (though that ranking could change by the end of this week). Meanwhile, The Croods rounds out 2013’s top 15 nearly 200 million in tow. While I may take umbrage with the homogenization and lack of personality in these animated films, these issues often get resolved when I peruse the corresponding short film options. With prior winners like The Lost Thing and Logorama (along with worthy nominees like Wallace and Gromit in a Matter of Loaf and Death and Adam and Dog), the category more often than not offers some of the best nominees of their year.
The 2014 selections represent a significantly better-rounded group of nominees, particularly in its emphasis on diversity. From mainstream American fare to animated films from Japan and France, each entry possesses a sense of singularity.
After securing a win last year with Paperman, Disney’s return to the category comes with a bit of nostalgic retooling in Get a Horse! Coupled with Frozen, Get a Horse! is certainly the most mainstream of the nominees and coincidentally the most flawed. While initially a charming exercise of acknowledged hyperviolence set in Mickey Mouse’s black and white realm, it accelerates into a vile denouncement of Disney’s hand-drawn tradition of animation. The forcible entry of 3D animation onto the delightful black-and-white figures serves as a sour reminder that indeed the age of hand-drawn animation has taken a seat to the imposing force of 3D. (3/10)
With Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University, Pixar’s new batch of animated films are a far cry from the impressive triad of pictures they made at the start of the aughts - most notably in Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up. But France’s Mr. Hublot speaks the language that has allowed Pixar’s most notable efforts to resonate. Set in a leather bound dystopian future, Mr. Hublot tells a narrative about a lonely man-machine with obsessive compulsive disorder. Running through his routine in solitude, he encounters a dog-machine on the street and houses him. The dog’s size and their affectation for one another balloon so big that it cannot be contained in Mr. Hublot’s tight quarters. It’s an impressive, albeit slight, piece of animation that’s above all an astute exercise in grounded human storytelling. (6/10)
Daniel Sousa’s Feral is a bare though visually-striking piece of animation that has a similar peculiarity as some of Bill Plympton’s animation - most notably in the perpetually shifting gray color palette that was utilized in Plympton’s Idiots and Angels. Its narrative is fairly simplistic as it tells the story of a young boy’s assimilation into middle-class culture after being raised by wolves. Feral can be seen as a statement on the problems of class-consciousness and one’s inability to move up the hierarchy that they’re born into. It’s not particularly riveting thematic material and the animation, while different, isn’t especially conducive in understanding the narrative trajectory of the picture. It’s an interesting, if not entirely successful, effort. (4/10)
Shuhei Morita’s Possessions is the most impressive picture from the batch of nominees. A beautifully rendered story about a man taking refuge at a shrine during a storm has all the making of a Studio Ghibli feature. Prefaced by a description of the meaning of tsukumogami - the idea that objects come to life after a century’s time - the film sees the wanderer accosted by a barrage of broken umbrellas and a giant shrine figure that takes the composition of a Katamari Damacy-like blob. The picture, unlike any of the other nominees, not only has a rich visual palette but genuinely feels like it could be fleshed out into a feature-length picture. (7/10)
Like Max Lang’s previous Oscar-nominated short, The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom is most deliberately aimed for children. And like The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom is very much reliant on typical storybook devices and a need for repetition to hone in on its thematic conceit. But what makes Room on the Broom far more successful are its far more interesting and visually-stimulating characters designs. Telling a simple narrative on the need to open one’s heart to the goodness of others, its beguiling temperament and cutesy animation - featuring an unimpressed cat, a dull-minded dog, a lonely bird, and a snobby frog - all make for a pleasant exercise in animated filmmaking. (6/10)