Numlock Awards: Best Animated Feature, The Best Category
Numlock Awards is your one-stop awards season newsletter. Every week, join Walt Hickey and Michael Domanico as they break down the math behind the Oscars and the best narratives going into film’s biggest night. Today’s edition comes from Walter.
This is a big weekend for our precursors with the DGA Awards tonight and the Critics’ Choice tomorrow. Expect an email Monday with an update on our top races.
Until then, as Michael continues his rundown of cool stuff in the below-the-line categories, we had a bunch of requests for something on Best Animated Feature and since that’s my favorite category I wanted to take a stab at something.
“Best animated feature? That’s your favorite category? Really?”
It’s incredible. Nowhere else will you have some claymation farce called Argyle & Lugnuts against Minions Take Manhattan against some serious European flick called Jeg Spiste Mest Aubergine Under Krigen and Tim Burton’s stop-motion Spooky The Mouse and yet they all lose to like Cars 4: Life Is A Highway. It’s like if the Kentucky Derby also had a race that was like camels versus greyhounds versus ostriches versus orcas and yes all of them are really fast and deserve to be there but it does look objectively funny.
It’s also pretty cruddy with the precursor prizes — I took a stab at it one or two years back at FiveThirtyEight but was never really happy with where we landed on it — and so it’s not actually worth analyzing from our numerical point of view. When the Oscars regularly weighs a special award for best popular film, I would gesture their attention to this very category.
This year, the nominees are Encanto (Walt Disney Animation), Luca (Pixar), Raya and the Last Dragon (Walt Disney Animation), The Mitchells vs. The Machines (Sony Animation, sold to Netflix) and Flee (a European co-production, released by Neon stateside).
Encanto won the Golden Globe, and the Annie Awards, which are given out by the L.A. wing of the International Animated Film Association, are tonight. It’s the same contenders, except Flee is swapped out for Sing 2.
It’s a seriously stacked year, to be honest, a great crop of films top to bottom.
It’s also a Disney-heavy batch, which has some disadvantages for the company. While usually there’s a Pixar movie and a Disney Animation movie, this year the Mouse vote may be split three ways. I wanted to get a sense for how that might impact the outcome, so I just tracked down the award’s track record on a studio basis, and I made this chart.
The studios in green are the animation arms of studios that are smaller than Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks, which have dominated the category. These smaller studios include Sony Pictures Animation (which won for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), Netflix, Paramount (won for Rango), Illumination, Blue Sky, and a group of films I’ve called the “dabbler directors,” where a director best known for live-action films (Tim Burton, George Miller, Robert Zemeckis, Wes Anderson, Charlie Kaufman) finds some money and either starts an animation shingle or gets some studio money to make a weird little animated movie, often stop-motion. George Miller won an Oscar for Happy Feet in this manner.
The production houses in purple are smaller, animation-specific entities that are beloved by nerds (hi) and come out with a painstakingly animated movie every couple years. Laika makes intricate stop-motion animation movies like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, Studio Ghibli is the iconic studio founded by Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki and the late Isao Takahata, and Aardman makes the Wallace and Gromit franchise.
In red is the overseas contingent, overwhelmingly European (there’s a Brazilian and a Japanese movie in there but it’s mostly European) and a reliable presence in the category. Europe’s ample state-funded support for the arts and its festival circuit means the continent is producing high-caliber and often artistically daring animation. While there’s enough support in the branch to get one of these movies nominated pretty much every year, they’ve never actually won, victims of Warren’s Paradox, where a contender is popular enough to get a nomination constantly but not sufficiently popular enough among the broader Academy to actually log a W.
So, what patterns do we see here?
The main one is, “If a Pixar film is nominated, it will probably win. If a Pixar film isn’t nominated, one of the Disney Animation movies will probably win.”
Yes, it’s possible that one of the others will win, but it’s rare. As a Laika stan, this is a hard truth to accept. When Spiderverse won in 2018 I freaked out, it was the highlight of the entire ceremony for me.
That brings us back to this year. That same direction team behind Spiderverse is up for Machines, and we’ll see if David can beat Goliath twice. As for the question of how we deal with Disney having three contenders, they may not be in trouble: in 2012 the Mouse had three nominees and, as usually happens when Walt Disney Animation is up against Pixar, tie goes to Pixar.
But I think this year may be a bit different.
The Pixar contender, Luca, came out direct on Disney+ months ago, whereas what seems to be the top Disney contender, Encanto, flopped in cinemas but has been on a massive tear on Disney+ as we speak, with its soundtrack crushing it on the Billboard charts. Maybe Disney Animation does have the better zeitgeist.
But there’s also what’s going on outside the movies. Disney has been in the news during Oscar season in a pretty god-awful manner. Pixar’s LGBT+ animators allege that Disney executives cut “nearly every moment of overtly gay affection… regardless of when there is protest from both the creative teams and executive leadership at Pixar” in their movies. That’s bad! That’s not just Oscar season bad, that’s a really hideous way of doing business, and it’s finally being aired out, which is great. It’s also an issue that their rivals in the animation business have been considerably more progressive on — Sony’s Machines is about a lot of things, and young gay angst is one of them!
The animation category I think is great because of its accessibility. These are fun, vibrant movies that a whole lot of people see, and that lots of people who might not have strong opinions about the more niche contenders in Best Picture will have a chance to engage with the art. I think it’s great, I think the Academy should play it up more, they’ve got a real gem with this category and people like it.
That said, because it’s often a vibe-based vote, or what people’s kids liked, or reputational, it’s not particularly good to forecast it quantitatively. This year I really think it’s a toss up.