This is part of The LAMB Devours the Oscars.
The Academy Award for Best Animated Feature is only as old as 2001. Ten years prior, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast broke out of the animation ghetto and was nominated for Best Picture. In the next decade, Pixar would explode onto the scene with Toy Story, a technical breakthrough that ironically brought us back to animation’s sentimental, universal roots. The sequel Toy Story 2 came in 1999, and surpassed the original in both visual and emotional achievements, and in my mind, should have been nominated for Best Picture. It won the Golden Globe that year for Best Comedy/Musical, and I have a niggling feeling that the Academy recognized that animation just ain’t for kids anymore, and that influenced their decision to give them a separate but equal category.
And yes, I chose words with bad connotations for a reason. For while it is nice for animated film to be recognized at the Oscars, it is unfortunate, especially now that CG has become so prevalent, to be shuffled off into their own little category. Is 300 an animated film? Is Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Should Persepolis be forced to compete with Ratatouille? Both are excellent films, but one chose a simple visual style over Pixar’s insanely detailed character designs, where you can count rodent hairs, if you want a future job as an FDA food inspector. By pigeon-holing them in the same category, Persepolis is at a distinct disadvantage. Perhaps it’s no different than comparing Frost/Nixon‘s simplicity with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button‘s visual excess, and giving Animated Features their own category helps raise awareness for them.
However, the rules for the category seem to favor the big 3. The rules state:
In any year in which 8 to 15 animated features are released in Los Angeles County, a maximum of 3 motion pictures may be nominated. In any year in which 16 or more animated features are submitted and accepted in the category, a maximum of 5 motion pictures may be nominated.
So if fewer than 16 animated films are released in L.A. County, the Academy only nominates 3 films. And if fewer than 8 are released, there’s no category that year. There have not been 5 nominees since 2002, when Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away won.
This year it’s just the big three: WALL-E (Pixar), Bolt (Disney) and Kung Fu Panda (Dreamworks). The rules are why the excellent Horton Hears a Who! was overlooked, and I found it to be one of the most beautiful films of the year, and certainly better than Bolt and Kung Fu Panda for storyline. And I really liked Panda! Blue Sky Studios, who made the Ice Age movies, did a great job adapting Horton to the big screen and expanding it to feature length. It’s a shame it couldn’t be nominated. Waltz with Bashir, an Israeli soldier’s nightmares after the first Lebanon war, sidesteps the animation cubbyhole by being in a foreign language; Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea didn’t get a U.S. release, so it’s out.
But let’s get on to the Big Three.
Bolt is the story of the star of a TV show I can summarize as “24 meets Inspector Gadget– he’s a super-powered cyborg canine protecting Penny, a kidnapped scientist’s daughter from the maniacal clutches of Doctor Calico and his Cackling Kitty Accomplice. The show depends on him thinking everything is real, so one day after a cliffhanger episode, he thinks he really needs to rescue Penny- and gets shipped in a packing crate to New York. Having lost his powers, he takes a street cat hostage, thinking she’s the cat from the show, hooks up with a fanboy fuzzball in a hamsterball, has harrowing adventures, and learns the power of love, friendship and perseverance.
I enjoyed Bolt, but don’t think it deserves nomination over Horton Hears a Who!– it’s good fun, and has an emotional ending, but you can still see the Disney formula from stinkers like Home on the Range affecting it. For example, superstar Miley Cyrus voices Penny, but her character is given no real depth. She’s there to get Hannah Montana fans into seats. In fact, according to IMDb, Chloe Moretz (Dirty Sexy Money) had already voiced the role of Penny before Cyrus was brought in to overdub it. They should have stuck with a real actress. John Travolta voices Bolt and does a fine job disappearing into the part. Susie Essman- the foul-mouthed wife of Jeff Garlin from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” steals the show as Mittens the New Yawk street cat who shakes down pigeons and teaches Bolt how easily humans throw away their pets like so much garbage. She’s nearly upstaged by the crazy TV fanboy hamster Rhino (Mark Walton), who was just a little too crazy for me. I’m sure the kids loved him.
The humans are all Hollywood caricatures, meant to make us feel like little Hollywood insiders. Part of me wanted the whole “He’s a TV star who thinks it’s real!” gimmick to go away, and actually watch Penny and Bolt escape from endless attack helicopters, but kids have to get their dose of vitamins and irony these days. I can see Disney not wanting to tread on Pixar’s toes when Lasseter & co. have had a lock on the classic sentimental cartoon for decades, but this story feels a little too much like a Hollywood pitch. There’s a hilarious and exciting sequence where Bolt & co. escape from a shelter, and I found the ending genuinely touching, but there was just a little too much cliche here and there for me to consider this great instead of good, even in the small pond of Best Animated Features of 2008. Horton got robbed. TraBolta!!!!
Disney has gotten a lot better. Despite dropping their classic animation department for 3-D after the spectacular micro-managerial bungling of the otherwise good Treasure Planet, they’ve finally managed to claw a toe-hold and stand with the big boys in CG. Bolt may not be great, but it’s a big move in the right direction. Maybe one day they will continue where Lilo & Stitch and The Emperor’s New Groove left off.
2. Kung Fu Panda
I reviewed this in great detail here. I loved Kung Fu Panda, despite it being another Dreamworks film chock full of celebrity voices, because it has heart. It takes a standard kung fu story that could be a Sammo Hung movie, with a fat panda who works in his father’s noodle shop, but wants to be a Shaolin warrior. When he tries to spy on the choosing of the legendary Dragon Warrior at the Temple, he gets inadvertently chosen by the Master for training, and hilarity ensues. Can a clumsy, goofy fat glutton save the village from Tai Lung, the sinister snow leopard?
Dreamworks learned that you don’t need to recognize the voice actors to get asses in seats. Jack Black does his Jack Black thing, but everyone else blends into their character and doesn’t go all Robin Williams wacky on us. Seth Rogen and David Cross are delightfully amusing as Mantis and Crane; Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu have understated spots as Tigress, Monkey and Viper. As you can see from the animal choices, they did some kung fu movie research before they made this, as the “Furious Five” are modeled after the 5 Animal Styles of Shaolin Kung Fu. And while much of the gags are on panda’s big belly and goofy nature, when Master Shifu- played perfectly by Dustin Hoffman- decides to train the big galoot, the fantastic “chase the dumpling” sequence is as exciting as any such “battle” from a real kung fu film.
They even inject some emotion into the tale with Mr. Ping (the always-excellent James Hong), Panda’s unlikely father, who is a duck. I expected this to be forgettable but fun, and it ended up surprising me. I would not mind being forced to watch this a dozen times with kids, and while Jack Black may grate on my nerves on the sixth viewing, Dustin Hoffman’s wizened red panda and James Hong’s hilarious duck characters will keep endearing the story to me. And the tragic character of Tai Lung, voiced by Ian McShane, is not your typical villain. It also helps that the animation is gorgeous; if this is the first kung fu film you’ve seen since critics told you to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
My full review has plenty of gushing, so I’ll try to hold back. Imagine a simple story about a trash-compacting robot in the far future, the last of his kind still dutifully cleaning up our mess on Earth. His only friend is a cockroach, until one day he gets a visitor from above. And for the entire first act of the movie there is no real dialogue. Now imagine being in a theater full of kids watching this first act, with few if any big splashes or booms to keep them occupied. I thought it would be a nightmare of squalling and kicking and whining. But when I saw WALL-E at an early show, the kids were silent. It was as gripping for them as it was for me, watching this comical little robot go through his daily routine of crushing junk, saving little doodads that caught one of his mechanical eyes, finding Twinkies for his cockroach pal to sleep in, and watching a battered VHS tape of Hello Dolly. When Eva, a flying robot seemingly designed by Apple’s SETI division arrives, we get a touching cybernetic love story that brought tears to my cynical old peepers.
It’s so damn effective that you almost don’t want WALL-E to have his adventure, where he meets the apex of human consumerism on a space ark where they await Earth’s renewal. This was a terrific gamble, sticking such an obvious jab of social commentary in such a sentimental film. Chaplin did it, but he was Chaplin. Well, Pixar got away with it because they’re Pixar- I think they only people who complained were Fox News and the Fat Acceptance wackos who envied the Buy-n-Large hoverchairs. The movie doesn’t give us easy solutions or perfect endings, which is even braver. It says that fixing things will be hard work, but we can do it. It speaks volumes more than the insipid Oscar-bait of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and if I had my druthers it would be competing there instead of this category.
So, my conclusion?
This year Pixar has it cinched- WALL-E is not only a new masterpiece on a visual and technical level, but simply one of the best stories this year, animated or not. If people think The Dark Knight got screwed out of a Best Picture nomination, WALL-E fans should be even angrier at the Animated Feature category. At least the Globes separate Comedy/Musical from Drama, which seems a bit more fair. I think as more movies like Beowulf, 300, and Sin City blur the lines between animated and traditional film, this category may disappear, or perhaps used for only traditional hand-drawn animation. Time and technology will tell. Disney is returning to traditional feature animation with The Princess and the Frog this year, and both Kung Fu Panda and Ratatouille have credit sequences that seem to yearn for the old days of hand-drawn. Let’s hope we see more of it, and this category can get more than 3 nominees in the years to come.