Originally published in the North Central Chronicle in October 2008.
Are all movies created equal? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) doesn’t think so. With the creation of the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards, animated movies that deserve to be nominated for Best Picture are unfairly pigeon-holed into this marginalized category.
Only one animated movie has ever been nominated for Best Picture. It was Beauty and the Beast in 1991. Though the AMPAS rules don’t prevent a film to be nominated for both categories, the chances of an animated movie being nominated for Best Picture are greatly reduced because of the animated feature category.
Take last year’s Ratatouille for example. It was one of the best reviewed films of 2007. It currently has a 95% certified fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which is better than There Will Be Blood. So why wasn’t it nominated for Best Picture? Because an animated movie aimed at kids does not meet the same high-brow expectations as art-house flicks like There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men and so Disney would never try to lobby for a Best Picture nod, even if every member of the Academy loved it.
That’s understandable, I guess, but the real problem is how animated movies as a whole are regarded. Critics and audiences as well as the Academy ooh and ahh over the good ones but never even think Best Picture is in the cards. The Pixar animation studio has put out an unprecedented string of commercial and critical hits since Toy Story in 1995, its first feature film. Three of their films have won the Best Animated Feature award, deservedly so. But the fact that such acclaimed work does not get a fair shot at the biggest possible award for filmmaking shows an implicit condescension and under-appreciation for the animated genre in general.
Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, put it bluntly: “People keep saying, ‘The animation genre.’ It’s not a genre! A Western is a genre; animation is an art form, and it can do any genre.” Using animation is simply one way of telling a story. To box it in as a separate entity is to belittle the work writers and animators do to create an entire fictional world from scratch in order to tell a story.
And animated movies may not just be for kids. Look at last year’s Persepolis or Beowulf or the Japanese films Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. Even the more commercial Shrek and all of the Pixar movies appeal to young adults and parents because of the subtle (and not so subtle) pop culture references. I love Ratatouille and the other Pixar movies not just for their artistic shimmer and sly wit, but for their solid storytelling. That, above all, should be the litmus test for Best Picture nominees, which is how Beauty and the Beast earned a nod a decade and a half ago.
The animated feature category may do a good service by acknowledging excellence in that medium, but it does harm by allowing poor movies to be nominated. Because there are only so many feature-length animated films that wouldn’t embarrass the Academy by being nominated (I’m looking at you, Space Chimps), movies that don’t deserve the recognition sneak in beneath the far superior works. Shark Tale and Ice Age have been nominated, as well as Happy Feet, which won unjustly in 2006. The Academy needs to fill the void somehow, so they have to nominate non-Pixar movies to try to make the category relevant.
Film should serve the story. It shouldn’t matter if the film is computer-generated. The stories in Ratatouille and Toy Story 2, another animated film that got short-changed, deserve the recognition that lesser live-action movies often times receive. Pixar’s latest, WALL-E, will no doubt receive the same treatment as its predecessors, even though it was the most daring and exquisite film of the year. It will win Best Animated Feature, but it’s not just that. The level of praise it has garnered from critics and audiences is bested only by The Dark Knight which already has a better chance of scoring on Oscar night because it stars real human beings.
The best films of the year should be recognized as such. Period. Hollywood politics get in the way of this too often, which is how lesser pictures win. But because I’m not an Academy member, I can only sit back and hope the best of best get a shot at the big prize. One can only hope.