I would enjoy being a member of the Academy. I would like getting to feel important and vote for things and have dozens of screeners arrive in the mail. Unless my life takes a drastic turn, this is unlikely to happen.

Nomination ballots are in and the announcement is around the corner. What if I were a member of the animation branch? What would have been on my ballot, currently being tabulated by PriceWaterhouseCoopers?

And why the animation branch? Because I was looking for categories I felt knowledgeable enough to comment on, that’s why. But why see so many animated movies? Animated films often have two elements I love in the movies: they create new worlds and they allow for a wide range of stylistic expression. Things that cannot exist do in animation, be they computer-generated, hand-drawn, or painstakingly sculpted. In a bad live-action film you only have the actors’ ugly mugs to look at. In a bad animated film at least you often have interesting visuals to carry you through.

Unlike many other categories, Best Animated Feature nominees are not determined by ranked ballots. Instead, branch members making nominations are required to view, in theaters, 80% of eligible films. The voter gives each film a score of a whole number between 6-10, with 10 being excellent, 8 good, 7 fair, and 6 poor. Which is an interesting system since a 6 can run the gambit between mildly disliked to downright awful.

Any film with an average over 7.5 is eligible to be nominated. The top three receive nominations (or, like this year, the top 5 if 16 films qualified).

It’s pretty impossible for a regular joe to actually see 80% of the animated films since many barely got a qualifying release. Some were even straight-to-DVD releases their distributors stuck in theaters for a week to qualify and increase the chances of five nominations this year. But I have seen half and that’s pretty good.

Up: 10

It’s hard not to call this an excellent film. It has so much heart and earned emotion. Most people remember the terrific and heartbreaking opening sequence, but they forget how genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny it is too. It is beautifully animated and backed with wonderful characters.

Fantastic Mr. Fox: 6

A major misfire for me. Instead of fun or clever or funny it’s just smugly quirky and completely listless. Wes Anderson is so wrapped up in his own style that he doesn’t tell a compelling story. Even the stop-motion animation is wasted by not providing much in the way of fun visuals.

Ponyo: 8

This is really a beautiful film. I think I’ve given anime short shrift if this is how it usually looks. The narrative elements of the film are all over the place, with plot elements coming unexplained out of nowhere and immediately forgotten, and the voice acting sounds like teachers reading a book to students: slow and overly animated. I understand it’s probably a stylistic choice but it drove me nuts. But it’s gorgeous, imaginative, and adorable with some terrific music.  Everyone’s going to want their own Ponyo.

9. 8

I really enjoyed the look and style to this film and appreciated its dark edge and unique premise (at least for animated films). I just wish the story didn’t play out so unoriginally. The action sequences are entirely by-the-number and there’s no sort of development to any character’s motivations- I felt like I had walked into a film already in progress. But the second half is a significant improvement and its dark turns provide a fun ride.

Mary and Max: 9

An Australian claymation film telling the story of a lonely Australian girl and her middle-aged penpal with Aspberger’s in New York. I loved its visual style, from the smooth claymation to the sparse use of color. The story deals with some surprisingly dark themes but without ever losing its humor. A very unique film.

The Secret of Kells: 7

No 2009 animated feature had a more distinctive style. Its bright colors and playful disregard for perspective are quite entertaining, which is good because the story left me utterly baffled. I believe it’s based on an Irish legend about the creation of the Book of Kells, but I’m familiar with neither the legend nor the book so the whole thing was confusing. I loved the Celtic music too. With a better story this would have been a real winner.

Coraline: 8

This is pretty much an animated horror film for kids and it really is seriously creepy, especially some parts at the end. It’s imaginative and lovely to look at. I wish the plot points were as intriguing as the premise, however, as the story – especially the climax – plays out routinely, albeit with a nice helping of creepiness.

Monsters vs. Aliens: 6

Not bad, but not recommendable, hence the score. DreamWorks did terrific work both visually and narratively for Kung Fu Panda so it was a little disappointing to see it fall back on run-of-the-mill kiddie action for this one. It has a few hilarious jokes and the monster characters are pretty amusing, but this one is pretty forgettable as a film and as animation.

The Princess and the Frog: 8

I’m happy to see Disney return to old-fashioned hand-drawn animation. There’s really no inherent benefit to computer animation, it’s just a stylistic choice. Plus this Disney animation is a nice American tradition it would be a shame to lose; in fact this is the only hand-drawn film eligible this year. I enjoyed its very colorful palette, amusing characters, and some of the songs, though I did find the story a little blah. The plot and theme are a little all over the place, like it can’t decide on just one direction and it tries to pack too many lessons. Disney could have gone for another routine computer-animated yarn about forest animals, but instead took a chance on a hand-drawn fairy tale set in 1920s New Orleans starring black characters. A very nice return to tradition.


Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs: 7

This is, by far, the funniest of the animated films I saw. There are dozens of very funny jokes. But the animation is nothing special and the plot unfolds unimaginatively, including several uninspired action sequences. I wish the sort of talent that went into writing the jokes could have been applied to any of other elements of the film.

For what it’s worth, here are the other eligible films:

  • Intriguing Belgian Gumby-style claymation film A Town Called Panic.
  • Computer-generated forgettables Astro Boy, Planet 51 and Battle for Terra, as well as computer-generated forgettable blockbuster Ice Age 3.
  • The latest motion capture film from Robert Zemeckis, Disney’s A Christmas Carol.
  • The depressingly-successful Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.
  • Straight-to-DVD until Disney put it in a theater to push the number of eligible films and therefore the number of nominees, Tinkerbell and the Lost Treasure.
  • And two foreign computer-generated imports: the Peruvian The Dolphin: Story of a Dreamer and Spanish The Missing Lynx (produced by Antonio Banderas). I know the former was picked up by Fox to bolster the number of eligible films but I’m not sure how the latter got distribution. Unless it’s seriously entering the competition and not a cynical ploy to help a major studio. As if!
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