Oscars cheat sheet: the disappointing Animated Feature category, explained

Oscars cheat sheet: the disappointing Animated Feature category, explained
The Breadwinner, Coco, and The Boss Baby are among the nominees for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars.



A rule change filled a once daring category with dreck. Here are this year’s five nominees, from Coco to The Boss Baby.

The Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars might as well be called “The Pixar Award.” The category has been in existence for just 17 years, since the 2002 Oscars ceremony (rewarding the films of 2001), when Shrek yes, Shrek won. At eight of those ceremonies, Pixar won the big prize, including winning four years in a row from 2008 to 2011 (for Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3).


What’s more, Pixar is the odds-on favorite to win this year, for its marvelously sweet and affecting Coco, which has received some of the strongest reviews for a Pixar movie made this decade (when the venerable computer animation studio has had its struggles and made far too many Cars sequels).


Sadly, the nominees in the category beyond Coco are a mixed bag. There’s at least one essential film (which you can stream on Netflix), Coco, and then three other movies that probably didn’t deserve to be nominated. The Academy changed its rules in this category this year, so that the voters who nominated these five films were anybody in the Academy who wished to participate, instead of a narrower group of animation industry professionals, as had nominated films in previous ceremonies.


Yes, that meant that recent years in the category were filled up with smaller, independent, and foreign nominees that perhaps weren’t as well known, but the categories at the 2015, 2016, and 2017 awards were among the best lineups in any category for each of those Oscar ceremonies. Now, the category is filled with dreck from the big animation studios, while wonderful smaller films that qualified for consideration for a nomination like My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea and The Girl Without Hands (or, heck, just The Lego Batman Movie) were passed over.


So with that in mind, let’s look at what was nominated.



The Boss Baby



Let’s be clear here: The Boss Baby shouldn’t have been nominated. But even so, the fact that it’s become this year’s go-to punching bag for “That was nominated for an Oscar?!” is a little unfair. It’s not the worst film in the category, it’s just the bad film nominated that more people have seen and/or heard of.


Alec Baldwin voices the titular character, a baby who acts like a cast-off from Glengarry Glen Ross and is taking the lead in the eternal war between babies and puppies for the attention of humans. The film centers, at least at first, on rumors of a soon-to-arrive formula that will keep puppies small and cute forever and just what babies are going to do to combat said threat to their cute supremacy.


Yes, the idea of Baldwin, now very, very famous for playing President Trump, voicing a character called the “Boss Baby” creates several jokes that write themselves, but what you won’t know about this movie if you haven’t watched it is that it is completely nuts. For the first half-hour or so, it’s introducing wild new ideas like it’s going out of business. (A formula that lets babies act like adults! A rigid corporate hierarchy for infants! A weird riff on sibling rivalry!) It loses steam after that, but it still has plenty of room to introduce a formula that turns adults into babies, so it doesn’t lose all of its steam.


In short: Watch this movie if you want to see a major motion picture go completely off the rails.


Where to watch it: In addition to all the usual digital rental and purchase options, The Boss Baby is streaming on Netflix.


The Breadwinner



The best movie nominated in this category, The Breadwinner is an achingly sincere and bittersweet tale of Parvana, a young girl in Taliban-era Afghanistan, who is forced to help care for her family when her father is carted off to prison.


The latest production from Irish studio Cartoon Saloon (the team behind previous animated Oscar nominees The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea), The Breadwinner also marks the solo directorial debut of Nora Twomey, whose strong command of story and ability to keep multiple plots running at the same time means that the movie covers far more ground than you’d ever expect in just over 90 minutes.


What’s more, Twomey’s beautiful, exacting sense of characterization means that almost every character in the film — including every member of Parvana’s family and an assortment of people she meets when she works to sell items in the local bazaar to make ends meet — gets lovely little layers of detail, which are sketched in with great economy. Of all of the movies in this category, The Breadwinner is the one that will have the most to reward both children and adults, and its ending brings the movie’s many threads together so skillfully that it’s breathtaking.


In short: Watch this movie if you like good movies.


Where to watch it: The Breadwinner is streaming on Netflix.


Coco



Given how much consternation there’s been in the last decade or so over the creative decline at Pixar, it’s a bit of a wonder that Coco wasn’t more heralded than it was as an example that the studio can still crank out a lovely, emotional little film when it dares to step outside its comfort zone.


Now, Coco isn’t that far outside of Pixar’s comfort zone. It’s still a story about a young innocent who goes on a wild journey into another, unfamiliar world. But its depiction of the Mexican Day of the Dead and its attendant traditions, as well as the actual Land of the Dead, has the easy authority of something that has obviously been both painstakingly researched and deeply felt. What’s more, the Land of the Dead itself is one of Pixar’s most outstanding visual achievements, a bright, candy-colored place that seems to glow from within.


And what’s been less remarked upon is how much strength director Lee Unkrich, co-director Adrian Molina, and co-screenwriters Molina and Matthew Aldrich garner from structuring the story as a mystery. Just how can young Miguel knit together several generations’ worth of broken hearts in his family, so that he might become the musician he’s always dreamed of? The answer to that propels the movie forward — to the point where even its title becomes an intriguing question in and of itself.


In short: It’s not my pick here, but when Coco inevitably wins, I won’t be mad. It’s good!


Where to watch it: Coco is still in a few theaters and is available for digital rental and purchase.


Ferdinand



All you need to know about Ferdinand is that it makes a “bull in a china shop” joke about 20 minutes in, and that honestly feels like restraint.


This computer-animated update of the story of the flower-sniffing bull who doesn’t want to fight when he could celebrate the pastoral things in life hails from Blue Sky, the studio behind the Ice Age movies and the underrated Peanuts Movie. Ferdinand, however, shows the studio struggling to find a way to inflate a children’s picture book from 1936 to a feature-length running time and has some of the worst “wacky sidekick” characters in an animated movie in ages.


It’s fun to watch if you like to play “spot the celebrity voice,” and John Cena and Kate McKinnon give it their all as the title character and his goat companion, respectively, but Ferdinand churns through a lot of plot without ever really going anywhere.


In short: Watch it only if you have nothing better to do, or if your kids insist.


Where to watch it: Ferdinand is available for digital purchase (which usually means rental is not far behind).


Loving Vincent



There are three very different audiences for Loving Vincent. One will be made up of animation fans, who will be excited to see a film that is completely hand-painted, in the style of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. (Just watch the trailer to see what I mean. It’s a seriously, seriously beautiful film.) The Academy has shown a reticence to reward rotoscoping (in which live-action footage is captured, then drawn or painted over to create an animated film), but the jaw-dropping nature of the rotoscoped Loving Vincent evidently found its way into voters’ hearts.


The second audience will be Van Gogh fans and other art obsessives. There are a ton of Easter eggs and visual nods to Van Gogh’s paintings here, and half the fun is figuring out which Van Gogh painting every character in the movie stepped out of, especially once you realize that, say, Chris O’Dowd is playing the postman Joseph Roulin. (If you’re not familiar with Van Gogh, the closing credits underline all of the connections for you.)


But the third audience will be all of the rest of us, who can appreciate what’s unique and fascinating about Loving Vincent (which was an unusual arthouse box office hit) while wishing there was a stronger story for the movie to hang its hat on. Centered on a young man trying to track down Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, one year after Van Gogh’s death, the movie is like a mystery that occasionally pauses for characters to recite lengthy bits of biographical detail about Vincent Van Gogh. It’s always stopping in its tracks, leaving the emotional throughline muddled.


In short: Watch it if you’re a big art aficionado or love to see genuinely groundbreaking animation. Otherwise, you can skip it.


Where to watch it: Loving Vincent is available for digital rental or purchase.