It’s always a surprise to me when the Academy Awards do something that’s actually SURPRISING. Unfortunately, the surprise I’m referring to this year; that The Lego Movie didn’t receive a nomination for Best Animated Feature, is more on the “I just found out my whole family died from choking on Captain Crunch” end of the surprise spectrum vs the “I just found an extra prize in my Captain Crunch box” end.
Yes, Emmet and crew were snubbed from the Oscar’s this year. Despite being a hilarious, touching, expectation-defying juggernaut that made Lego a bigger marketing presence than it already was, while also birthing the current wave of Pratt-mania that’s set to continue with Jurassic World; The Lego Movie just wasn’t worthy of an Oscar, apparently.
But this article isn’t meant to whine about the injustice of this snub. There’s a billion articles to that extent already on the internet. No, what I intend to do today is find the answer to the question: “Who’s getting Emmet’s Oscar?”
It’s very rare that I manage to see EVERY nominee in an Oscar category BEFORE the actual ceremony. Through luck and persistence, I’ve managed to see all 5 of the Academy’s nominees for the Best Animated Feature of 2014. With all of the contenders weighed and measured, let’s now rank them from LEAST to MOST deserving of the Oscar.
Big Hero 6
The first animated take on a Marvel property stays worlds away from the live action continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But even without the connection, this movie contains everything you'd expect from a Disney backed adaptation, right down to a Stan Lee cameo. Its pedigree aside, Big Hero 6 benefits from being an unapologetically fun, action- packed romp with well written jokes, creative action set pieces, and a winning character in Baymax.
However, what holds Big Hero 6 back from being a stand-out is how uninspired and even unintentionally “samey” it feels in some of its biggest moments. Hiro and Baymax's first flight reeks of Hiccup and Toothless's epic test flight in How To Train Your Dragon. The team's epic, sweeping one take action shot during the final battle is far too reminiscent of a similar shot in The Avengers constructed by Joss Whedon and cinematographer Sheamus McGarvey . And Baymax's big sacrifice and heartwarming rebirth was a lot more poignant when Wall-E did it.
Big Hero 6 does a lot right, and it’d be a worthy contender in any given year. But, it unfortunately doesn’t do enough to stand out from the shadows of its live action superhero brethren, or from other animated fare that hit the same beats in better ways.
As a follow up to Laika's ParaNorman, Boxtrolls falls painfully short of the standard set by the stop-motion giants. Where ParaNorman told a story that managed to be smart and dark while also charming and (to an extent) relatable; Boxtrolls’ story is sloppy despite a ton of obvious ambition. It’s rife with crude gags, and cuts corners that are meant to get us to big moments of pathos faster, but instead undermines the emotional pace of the film.
Still, when it works, it’s a wonder. A comedic satire of a classist society terrorized by Ben Kingsley as Snatcher, easily one of the best animated antagonists of all time. All of this is made even more engaging by the miraculous stop motion efforts of the wizards at Laika. If that post-credits sequence of two puppets pondering the meaning of life as they are manipulated by Laika’s Travis Knight DOESN’T put a grin on your face, you must be made of stone.
An uneven swing, but in no-way a strike-out for Laika. Still, when we’re talking about the best of the best, The Boxtrolls feels like it got in more on its looks and less on its personality.
How to Train Your Dragon 2
When first announced, I feared How To Train Your Dragon 2 would continue Dreamworks’ tradition of squandering the quality of their IP’s like they did with the Shrek sequels. How to Train Your Dragon was lightning in a bottle, an emotional rollercoaster of a film bolstered by dazzling animation and a winning cast. Why ruin it with sequels?
I’m delighted to say then that How to Train Your Dragon 2 is everything a good sequel should be. It expands the world while increasing the stakes. It takes the characters in significant new directions while being mindful of where they’ve been. It introduces new elements into the story and takes time to make sure they meld with what comes before. The Empire Strikes Back comes immediately to mind as a comparison (director Dean DeBlois even cited the Star Wars classic as an inspiration).
Combine it all with jaw-dropping visuals created with the aid of the great Roger Deakins, the return of composer John Powell and his impeccable scoring, and most importantly the continued exploration of the bond between Hiccup and Toothless, one of the strongest friendships in cinematic history.
While some see “sequel” as a dirty word, How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes the word back and runs wild with it, emerging as one of the most memorable films of the year.
The Tale of The Princess Kaguya
A Studio Ghibli production from director Isao Takahata, the genius behind the gut-punching classic Grave of the Fireflies, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is a hand-drawn masterpiece that captures the imagination from frame one.
In translating the ancient Japanese folktale about a bamboo cutter who finds a tiny princess in a bamboo stalk, Takahata delivers a fable about mortality that will warm your heart as easily as it will break it. A cast of strikingly unforgettable characters surround the titular Princess as she experiences the joyous highs and crushing lows of human life. Her arc is as complex as it is familiar, and the bonds that she forms with the films many wonderful characters make every scene an engaging marvel.
Combining its narrative strengths with a beautiful charcoal/watercolor animation style, the film serves up several sequences that are so remarkable in both animation style and scoring that I'd be a liar if I said I didn't get a bit teary-eyed.
Miyazaki may not be as active a force at Studio Ghibli after his 2013 hit The Wind Rises, but The Tale of The Princess Kaguya demonstrates that the studio is still a force to be reckoned with even without the master at the helm.
Song of the Sea
Irish animator Tomm Moore's follow up to The Secret of the Kelles is a bitter beauty, and as its the first picture of Moore’s that I’ve seen, it left an incredible impression on me. Combining a simple narrative rich in familiar fairy/folk tale tropes and themes with a winning animation style similar to the works of animators Hiroshi Ikeda, Sanane Yamamoto, and even the 2003 video game The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker; Song fo the Sea stands as the most delightful surprise of 2014.
Moore starts small, presenting an interesting story about a family torn apart by grief and loss. But as the story progresses, the introduction of more fantastical elements drives the narrative while allowing each of the characters to grow. Life, death, familial responsibility, all are handled intelligently and sympathetically, drawing you in as the film unfolds.
The journey of young hero Ben and his mysterious sister Saoirse is full of unique sights and memorable moments; their efforts to undo the damage done to their family ultimately pays off so powerfully that it puts most Pixar gut-wrenchers to shame.
This is all aided by the simple but elegant animation style of Moore and company, who create a world populated with gorgeous sequences of underwater landscapes, sweeping countrysides, and sinister lairs. Designed just as well is the film’s mythical creatures, with the film’s climax playing out via an encounter with an antagonist so eloquently designed and well executed, she could go toe-to-toe with Miyazaki’s Spirited Away baddie Yubaba.
Simple, beautiful, powerful. Song Of The Sea is phenomenal. Its inclusion may have cost The Lego Movie its guaranteed win, but Emmet’s loss is unquestionably a win for this small, intimate treasure.
WHO WILL WIN THOUGH?
Odds are heavily favoring How To Train Your Dragon 2, as it has mouted an award season comeback after The Lego Movie shut out. It’s the perfect combination of critical approval and commercial success, plus it allows the Academy to make up for not rewarding part one (which unfortunately had to compete against another gem: Toy Story 3).
But, it’s a weird year. And we won’t honestly know until the envelopes are opened.
Regardless, all of these nominees are unique beasts in their own right, and you’d be a fool not to check them out for yourself. No matter what the Oscars say, when it came to animation in 2014, EVERYTHING was awesome.