Wednesday, April 13, 2016

OVP: Animated Feature Film (2014)

OVP: Best Animated Feature Film (2014)

The Nominees Were...

Don Hall, Chris Williams, and Roy Conli, Big Hero 6
Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable, and Travis Knight, The Boxtrolls
Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold, How to Train Your Dragon 2
Tomm Moore and Paul Young, Song of the Sea
Isao Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

My Thoughts: I remember this being one of the most difficult to predict categories of the 2014 Oscars, and looking back on it now, it still seems like something is amiss here.  In the year where (we need to immediately acknowledge the billion-dollar elephant in the room) The Lego Movie was a critical and commercial hit, and many people assumed it would be the frontrunner for the Oscar, the film was snubbed for a citation, arguably the biggest upset the category has ever experienced (give or take The Simpsons Movie in 2007 also missing the cut).  As a result, it always felt a little incomplete in covering this, as it's so rare that a film that genuinely could be called the frontrunner doesn't even score a nomination.  Still, there are some varied films to encounter here, and since we didn't get to start with the highest-grossing animated film of the year, we'll move onto Number 2.

My favorite part of Big Hero 6 still remains, over a year after watching it, the incredible art direction on-display in the film.  I always tend to forget about art direction contenders when listing the also-rans for a film year (The Boxtrolls also deserved some credit there), but the art work put in for Big Hero 6 and in particular the fascinating cityscape mash-up of Tokyo and San Francisco is gorgeous.  The scene where Hiro flies over the skyscrapers is a wonder.  That being said, nothing else in Big Hero 6 works for me (aside from having a weird crush on Tadashi, who is admittedly voiced by Daniel Henney so there's at least that as an excuse).  The film never knows what sort of tone it wants to set, and underlines obvious plot points (like who the actual villain is and that Hiro is working through some serious emotional issues we haven't really seen in a Disney film since The Hunchback of Notre Dame).  This balance problem gave me whiplash toward the end of the film and it felt overlong and misguided, even if there was clearly a good idea in there somewhere.  When compared to The Incredibles (the other superhero Disney movie)...there really is no comparison.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 was the other massive blockbuster of this lineup, and like Big Hero 6 seemed to have its art direction be the high-point of the film.  The movie's best scene, bar none, is when we see the sea of dragons unveiled by Hiccup's mother, a wonderful cascade of hues and visual jokes.  It's an absolute triumph, on-par with the best of the first film and even as good as Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda movies (still love those more than anything else from the studio's cartoon division).  However, the plot is terrible, and quite frankly sexist-the way that Hiccup's mother, so vital and interesting (she's voiced by Cate Blanchett, for Pete's sake!) gets sidelined as we get another heavy-handed "chosen one" narrative with Hiccup and his dragon is just annoying and felt insulting to me as an audience member.  The actual imagery isn't good enough to make up for such a disappointing take on a promising start to the film.

A film you think would have the imagery at the forefront, so much so that it would save its rather dull story, is Princess Kaguya, but sadly that's not the case.  While the aesthetic of the film isn't as predictable as Dragon 2, the film itself isn't really that gorgeous-the drawing book animation style wears out its welcome relatively quickly, and the editing of the film is glacial-the movie could easily be forty minutes shorter without anyone missing anything.  I liked the way that it tackles fairy tales and a "princess-style" narrative from an adult angle, and the voice work was fun (I loved the scene late in the film with Darren Criss' married father thinking about running away with our title character), but overall this was blase and sort of felt like the equivalent of saying something is good because it's served at a fancy restaurant.

The aesthetic of Song of the Sea, on the other hand, is worth the price of admission if you focus simply on the actual beauty of the animation.  Tomm Moore's Secret of Kells brought a huge gasp at the 2009 Oscars, and this Celtic tale follows in its footsteps, borrowing from the hand-drawn style of ancient books as its color palette, though instead of green-and-gold in Kells here we have a fascination with indigo, white, and brown, a color no animator working is able to so richly imbue upon his creations.  The plot itself is razor-thin, and I felt like the main characters felt wooden and conveniently brought together to assist the plot rather than feeling organic to the film (though I did love Macha, the witch who cannot contain her emotions), but the animation is the best of the year, bar-none, and Moore is getting better at story with each passing feature.

The final nominee is The Boxtrolls, labeled a disappointment by some after the universal praise of Coraline or ParaNorman, but while it never has the same distinction of those two films (those movies are both so spellbinding I feel like it's a pretty impossible-to-overcome bar to climb), The Boxtrolls makes up for it with a massive amount of world-building and a bravura performance by Ben Kingsley as the main antagonist.  The film's art direction is spot-on, and unlike every other film listed here, the plot actually works and is filled with enough fright and politically-minded metaphor to feel deeply relevant even if its making a clear spin on Victorian England.  The movie may fail a bit in its predictable ending, but a sharp premise and meticulous animation more than make up for it.

Other Precursor Contenders: The Globes wouldn't dream of missing out on the celebrity-fueled Lego Movie (and also had room for the Channing Tatum-starring Book of Life), but Batman-and-Emmet were no match for the "we're sorry you had to compete against Toy Story 3" angle of How to Train Your Dragon 2, which came out victorious.  BAFTA only goes with three nominated films in this category, and had The Lego Movie triumphing over Big Hero 6 and The Boxtrolls, while the Annie Awards tend to nominate everyone, with all of the Oscar nominees making it to the party (Dragon 2 won as the Annies don't usually love Disney), along with Lego, Book of Life, and Cheatin'.  I suspect that Lego Movie was the sixth place finisher, but honestly I'll buy an argument that The Book of Life was in contention (I remember thinking it might beat out Song of the Sea or Boxtrolls) more so than the toy branded-film, whose marketing may have displeased the Academy as that's really the only explanation for its shocking miss.
Films I Would Have Nominated: I weirdly never saw The Book of Life (I love Channing Tatum and tend to see most animated films), so I can't weigh in there, but clearly The Lego Movie, which made my top ten of 2014, was due a nomination here.
Oscar’s Choice: Without Lego in, it was a battle between Dragon 2 and Disney, and considering the Academy only likes sequels in this category when they come with a Pixar stamp, it was Big Hero 6.
My Choice: The Boxtrolls better-structured plot outdoes Song of the Sea, followed by (ugh-this is a rough lineup), Kaguya, Big Hero 6, and Dragon 2.  For the record, The Lego Movie would have trounced them all for me.

There you have it-the Animated Featured category.  Were you on my side with The Boxtrolls or were you more into AMPAS and Big Hero 6?  Who do you think gets an Oscar first-Laika or Tomm Moore?  And how the hell did The Lego Movie miss out?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Past Best Animated Feature Contests: 20082009, 2010201120122013

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