Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
Having matured during the 1990s Disney renaissance, I became a quick study of animated pictures, largely those in the Walt Disney canon, but eventually branching out into various studio works. I gained appreciation for a number of studios and directors as animation entered a revitalized period in the late 1990s and 2000s with the advent of computer animation, pioneered by Pixar, a studio that eventually became a part of Walt Disney. During this period, I came to revere the works of Hayao Miyazaki, the burgeoning DreamWorks Animation, and, eventually, into the stellar works of Aardman Animation and Laika. This knowledge and familiarity hasn’t diminished in the resultant years and the emergence of the Best Animated Feature category in 2001 forever linked two of my great passions.
Today, I want to look at the best animated features in the albeit short existence of this category, which is now giving out its 20th prize this year. Since this category did not exist in the 1990s, some of my all-time favorite animated films weren’t even eligible for this award, forcing films like Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and several Miyazaki films to feel under-awarded. It’s also strange that as I put together my five favorites list, I kept coming back to the works of Pixar and Disney, yet every time I tried to decide which of them to champion, I ultimately settled on films that weren’t on those lists. As such, in a surprising turn (to me anyway), not a single Pixar film ends up on my final list and only one from Disney.
Of the ones I considered, the winners from Pixar include The Incredibles (2004), Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008), Up (2009), Toy Story 3 (2010), and Inside Out (2015). Strangely, none of my favorite Pixar titles lost the Oscar. As to Disney’s storied animation studio, the titles I considered include winner Big Hero 6 (2014) and losers Wreck-It Ralph (2012) and Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018).
Beyond the most powerful animation house in the industry, DreamWorks has also managed to turn out a fine series of pictures. Yet, they’ve struggled to win anything with Kung Fu Panda (2008), Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), How to Train Your Dragon (2010), How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014), and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019) all earning nominations and failing to win in the end in spite of being better than some of the winners that were chosen over them.
I also mentioned two other celebrated studios I’ve learned to appreciate over the years. Aardman hasn’t done a lot of live-action films and the best ones weren’t nominated with the single exception being Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), which brings the stellar duo to feature films after their hilarious and impressive run at the Best Animated Short Film category. The other studio of interest to me is Laika, which has consistently turned out great films with even their worst films being superior to several, more recent Pixar and Disney films. Their first and second feature were brilliant and while both lost, as have all of the studio’s efforts, they are no less impressive. Those titles I considered were Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012).
Now, let’s hit our final five with two Miyazaki, one Laika, one Disney, and one from the largely unimpressive, Sony Animation.
Spirited Away (2002)
I have long been resistant to anime, the nickname given to Japanese-style animation that features big eyes and small mouths. That aesthetic has always bothered me as it feels inorganic. Yet, with Princess Mononoke, I came to appreciate the style a little more, but more so I fell in love with Miyazaki’s wonderful storytelling techniques. His films have told fantastical stories that reflect our inner child as it grows up in a world that seems far too adult for our tastes. Spirited Away is one of his best films, fully encapsulating that notion.
Its win for Best Animated Feature was a rarity as Disney and Pixar have long dominated the competition, rarely losing out to superior efforts as the Disney/Pixar machine is a well-toned operation that knows how to appeal to its audience even in unexceptional ways. Spirited Away is easily one of the best films ever to win an Oscar for Best Animated feature and might even be one of the best films the Academy has ever recognized. It’s the most tuned into reality of all of Miyazaki’s work, but features plenty of fantasy elements to tie everything together.
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
After the Disney machine began to break down in the late 1990s and early 2000s, this 2009 film finally signaled to audiences that the mouse house was back in fighting shape. Being the first Diseny animated film to feature a Black princess, The Princess and the Frog is so much more than a novelty. With charming performances from Anika Noni Rose as soon-to-be-princess Tiana and Bruno Campos as her prince, the film returns to a style of animation and storytelling that was exemplified in the 1970s by films like The Rescuers, a kid-friendly effort that perfectly encapsulated the fairy tale it follows.
Keith Davis plays Dr. Facilier, a voodoo priest who curses Prince Naveen to be a frog, which requires him to romance Tiana and hope that she will fall in love with him and break the spell. The film was the last hand-drawn effort Disney would ever produce and it remains a high water mark for its revived animation studio. While the computer animated efforts they have engaged in since are all fun and warmly inviting, this is the last film to genuinely feel like it could both lay claim to the storied mantle of the Disney animation pantheon and embody a modern sensibility that was reflected in most of the company’s output in the last three decades.
The Wind Rises (2013)
Miyazaki wasn’t so lucky his second time around Oscar with the brilliant animated adventure The Wind Rises, the legendary animation master’s purportedly final feature film. The story for this adventure is that of a young boy who grows up with a fascination in airplane design, who comes of age just as Japan’s military is ramping up airplane production to advance its wartime goals. As Jiro (Hideaki Anno) comes to understand his ill-fated role in the events surrounding and including World War II, he must also come to terms with the waning life of his beloved wife.
All of Miyazaki’s prior efforts dealt with the coming of age of its protagonists, who ultimately remained young, both physically and at heart. The Wind Rises moved beyond the youth of its protagonist following him into advanced age, giving the audience a glimpse of the notion of lost innocence and childhood simplicity. The film is a fitting and moving end to Miyazaki’s career as a filmmaker, allowing us a final look into his mind as he explores his own mortality and loss of innocence, something that he has managed to maintain for most of his life through his wondrous works of animation. It may have lost the Oscar, but it will ever remain a monumental achievement not just of Miyazaki as a filmmaker, but as a testament to a career well lived and a life story well told.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Coraline helped establish Laika as a brilliant animation studio, focusing entirely on stop-motion animation. This was followed by the equally marvelous ParaNorman. Yet, Kubo and the Two Strings remains the pinnacle of their achievements, with a beautiful story told with some amazing animated visuals that easily rival every studio out there and, in many ways, surpasses them all. Earning two Oscar nominations, one for Best Animated Feature and one for Best Visual Effects, Kubo is a technical marvel, but its gorgeous story is every bit as important to its success.
The film surrounds a one-eyed young boy who takes care of his invalid mother while earning money on the streets as a kind of magician playing his shamisen as colorful origami shapes dance around to his simultaneous storytelling, delighting everyone in the village, both young and old. Trying to tell the story of his missing father, Kubo uses the occasion of the Bon festival to attempt to summon his father’s spirit, assuming that he is now dead. This brings the unwanted attention of his evil grandfather, the Moon King, who sends his two dedicated twin daughters after Kubo to retrieve his other eye. Kubo goes on an adventure with an amnesiac beetle samurai and his wooden snow monkey come-to-life throughout the course of the film, one of unsurpassed beauty and inventiveness that even the major studios should be envious of.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Sony Pictures Animation has struggled against bigger outfits like Blue Sky, DreamWorks, Disney, and Pixar for years, coming out with a handful of easily-dismissed animated features over the course of the last decade and a half. While their flighty efforts have been more akin to the successes of Blue Sky than other studios, they finally hit on an animated feature that conveyed their full potential, an animated adaptation of the Spider-Man universe featuring the first Black character to don the red-black-and-blue spandex. Miles Morales lives with his cop father and loving mother while his shifty uncle provides him with occasional love and support, but more specifically an outlet for his artistic instincts.
After being bitten by a radioactive spider, Miles must contend with a villainous megalomaniac who is hoping to use his vast wealth to build a super-collider that will allow him to access the multiverse and save his dead wife and son from another dimension. As other Spider-Men from other universes bleed into Miles’ reality, his newness to the superhero lifestyle leads him to butt heads with his more experienced counterparts. Ultimately, though, he must come to protect and save his own dimension as well as those of the others. This delightful animated project is absolutely hilarious and features some incredible animation, overlaying many of the computer-animated scenes with the kind of dot-based artwork that characterized comic book art styles of the 1950s and later. It was just as much a delight the second time around and remains one of the best choices the Academy has made in this category.