In 2001 The Academy Awards introduced a new category to their lineup, the first lasting one since 1981 when they finally started honoring achievements in makeup. It was a category dedicated to the best feature length animated film of a given year and would join Best Documentary and Best International Feature among categories that looked at films in their entirety within a specific specialized form. One could argue that categories like this are a problem, that they ghettoize certain kinds of movies and make it harder for them to compete in major categories like Best Picture but I’m not really here to weigh in on that. Really my interest in this category is simply that it’s relatively new and because of that one could realistically watch all eighty nine films that have been nominated for the award, making it one of the only categories I’m likely to be able to do that for. Between the all the various series I’ve done around animated films over the years as well as my usual yearly watching I’ve actually gotten really close already.
I’ve checked and there are actually only fifteen movies that have been nominated in that category that I haven’t seen and in this series I’m going to try to watch all fifteen of them and complete the set. This is not, however, going to be like my Disney or Pixar series where I write outlandishly long reviews for everything. This is going to be an exercise in speed and getting through this in a timely manner, so unless something really stands out as needing further elaboration I’m sticking to one or two paragraph long capsule reviews for everything. I’m also bucking my usual pattern or watching things in chronological order. If I did that a lot of the movies I’m kind of dreading having to watch will be front loaded at the beginning and that seems discouraging. So instead I’ve used a random number generator to decided what order I watch these things in. I’ll switch a few things around to ensure I don’t see certain sequels prior to their predecessors and I also reserve the rights to switch things around to accommodate when I’m subscribed to some streaming services, but otherwise I intend to stick to the wacky random order I’ve been dealt.
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002)
Though it was chosen randomly to be first, we’re going to be starting with one of the earlier films to be nominated for the Best Animated Feature category, nominated in the second year of that category’s existence, which was notable for being one of the only slates with five nominees during the category’s first decade and also for the eventual winner: Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. The film in question is Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, one of a handful of traditionally animated movies that DreamWorks Animation made early in their history when they were trying to compete directly with Renaissance era Disney like The Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado. Though it had been in production since the late 90s, the film would not come out until the year after Shrek had been a big hit and it was clear that Dreamworks’ future would be CGI and sarcastic rather than hand drawn and Diseny-esque. The film was a minor hit, but as with Dreamworks’ other forays into this style it proved hard to market a Disney movie without the Disney name and the movie is now mostly remembered as a movie for weird millennial horse girls. That’s unfortunate because there are actually some pretty impressive things about the film.
The film is set during the mid to late 19th century in the American West and focuses in on a wild stallion named Spirit who gets captured by the American cavalry as they march on a campaign against the Native populations. They try to tame him, but he eventually escapes with the assistance of a Lakota man who had been taken prisoner in the same camp. It’s a pretty simple story as these things go but the film does some interesting things stylistically. For one, the horses don’t talk in the film. Spirit is sort of voiced by Matt Damon, but we only hear that through voice-over narration, otherwise the film’s equine cast sticks to making horse sounds. Unfortunately the film still feels obligated to include songs in its soundtrack and they do this by taking a page out of the playbook of Disney’s Tarzan by having omniscient songs by an adult contemporary singer play over the film but instead of hiring the already lame Phil Collins they hired the even lamer Bryan Adams which is… unfortunate. Otherwise though this is pretty good at what it’s trying to do. The animation is pretty high quality and the film manages to add some action scenes that are pretty high quality and the film generally carries itself with dignity… something I would not associate with the DreamWorks Animation that would soon emerge post-Shrek.
***1/2 out of Five
Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)
The Academy’s favorite studio, by far, is Pixar. Second favorite is original recipe Disney, and Dreamworks racked up a ton of nominations through their general ubiquity during the era. Beyond those you start getting to their smaller scale favorites like Studio Ghibli and Cartoon Saloon, and then finally you get to the humble British stop motion studio Aardman Animation. Aardman came to prominence through their “Wallace and Gromit” shorts (two of which won Oscars in the Animated Short category) and moved into feature films in the year 2000 with Chicken Run (which came out the year before the Animated Feature category started). They then brought Wallace and Gromit to the screen with The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which won them their only Oscar in the feature category but they have been nominated several times in the years since then. At some point they also began making a series for British television called “Shaun the Sheep” which has aired off and on since 2007 and has upwards of 170 episodes, but these “episodes” are very short 7 minute episodes with no dialogue about the exploits on a farm in Northern England with a focus on a titular sheep that lives there. So apparently the show was a hit in the UK and elsewhere but I’m not sure if it ever took off in the United States and I likely never would have heard about it had it not been for this 2015 feature film which found its way to the Best Animated feature category in a particularly non-commercial year for the category outside of the eventual winner, Inside Out, as the other nominees included Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There, and the minimalist Brazilian film Boy and the World.
So, essentially this is a TV cartoon being brought to the big screen, which is not generally the most reputable of genres but Aardman is not an ordinary cartoon maker. The TV shorts were of course exceptionally short and none of them featured dialogue so there were some special challenges in bringing this to the big screen and their goal in upping the stakes were to push these farm animals into having an adventure in a city rather than their usual farm trappings and… chaos ensues. The reason these farm animals find themselves in the city is some cartoony contrivance involving their human farmer accidentally rolling there in his trailer and bumping his head and getting amnesia, which you just sort of need to go with… in fact there’s a lot here you just need to go with like the sheep being able to infiltrate the city by standing on each other’s shoulders while wearing trench coats and other bits of cartoon logic. Honestly it’s not a movie that lends itself to a whole lot of analysis beyond “its’ pretty cute and charming in that humble Aardman way.” The Claymation style the studio has been at the forefront of works well with the material at hand and they do a pretty good job of telling the story through visuals without using real spoken dialogue. I think it maybe loses its way a bit towards the end as it tries to ramp up to a bit of an action finale, but that wasn’t really a huge problem in the grand scheme of things.
*** out of Five
Ice Age (2002)
One of the hardest transitions in film history was the switch from silent movies to sound. The language of silent cinema had really been perfected by the late twenties and much of that progress had to be undone in order to accommodate sets that could record sound and as such a lot of early thirties cinema feels clunky and uninspired compared to what the masters of the previous decade accomplished. I bring this up because one can see a similar rough transition when the animation industry had to transition from traditional 2D animation to CGI and watching Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron in close proximity to Ice Age, two movies that came out within three months of each other, certainly highlights how rough that transition was both technologically and artistically. Put simply, this movie is hideous. I can’t imagine even at the time anyone thinking this looked “good” on any level but the film’s barely functional animation has aged like milk in the twenty years since this was released. The environment textures look like something from a Playstation 1 game and the character designs, especially the designs on the one or two human characters here look absolutely terrible.
Narratively the film is a little different than I expected. I’m used to seeing trailers for future installments of this series where there’s this sprawling cast of animals but in this first movie it’s mostly about a Mammoth voiced by Ray Romano, a sloth voiced by John Leguizamo, and a saber toothed tiger voiced by Denis Leary who find themselves in possession of a human infant that they need to bring back to his people. So… basically it’s Three Godfathers but set in the Late Cenozoic era and with talking extinct mammals. The film isn’t as bogged down by pop culture references as I expected, clearly the malign influence of Shrek hadn’t quite reached other animated movies quite yet, but the comedy that is here is pretty dumb just the same. Otherwise there really isn’t a whole lot to say about this one, it’s dumb and forgettable and looks terrible and one would think it would belong in the dustbin of history and yet… the movie was somehow a huge hit. It basically put its production company, the 20th Century Fox subsidiary Blue Skies Animation, on the map and it proceeded to spawn four theatrical sequels over fourteen years, a fifth one that debuted on Disney+ just this year. It’s become the The Land Before Time of the 21st Century. Man, kids are stupid.
*1/2 out of Five
The Croods (2013)
As an animation studio Dreamworks Animation probably peaked in ubiquity somewhere around 2010. That’s not to say they declined artistically after then, in fact an argument could be made that at least some of their films from the 2010s are an improvement over what came before, but as a brand they feel less like an arch-rival to Pixar and more like just one of many different second tier animation studios fighting it out with each other. Their 2013 film The Croods is a pretty good example of the kind of odd place they were in by their second decade: professionally made but formulaic, lacking in identity, and generally not terribly inspired. You get the film’s gimmick pretty quick: we’re introduced to a nuclear family of cave people with an over-protective father, a long suffering mother, a sassy grandmother, a feckless brother, and our protagonist: a rebellious teenage girl who longs for adventure in the great wide somewhere. So the gag is basically “cave men, they were just like us, except everything was made out of rock” which was kind of the joke of The Flintstones fifty some years earlier except that this family is isolated rather than living in a bustling caveman suburb and they’re living in some kind of fictional world with mythological flora and fauna.
Within about five minutes you can pretty easily predict exactly where this is going, the setup all but assures that this will be an arc where the over-protective father will get angry at the adventurous daughter for taking risks he doesn’t approve of, this will cause a rift between the two of them, but eventually he’ll come to learn to lighten up a little and she’ll realize she does love her family despite its dysfunctions. Also there’s a love interest for the teenage girl, a boy from outside the family who isn’t as buff as the people in her family but is sensitive and smart enough to know how to build traps and control fire and he also plays into this conflict in predictable ways. It’s all just so simple in its adherence to the modern family movie playbook as to be kind of uninteresting. The animation and visual and voice cast are supposed to fill in the film’s value, and they do go some of the way to doing this. The world of the film is certainly colorful and the technology rendering it is mostly up to snuff. There’s also an all-star voice cast here including Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Nicholas Cage, and Catherine Keener, and they’re mostly fine in their various roles. Overall though I don’t think this world is nearly interesting enough to make up for the film’s offensively pedestrian script, and general lack of inspiration or novelty.
** out of Five
A couple movies back I looked at Ice Age, the movie that more or less “made” Blue Sky Studios in their early days and Ferdinand kind of saw them out. It was the second to last movie the studio made (the last being Spies in Disguise) and the last one to receive an Oscar nomination. The studio was never a heavy hitter in animation; they were basically a poor man’s Dreamworks who were in turn a poor man’s Disney, but they had managed to remain somewhat relevant and had some hits under their belt and probably could have continued were it not for some behind the scenes business machinations, namely the acquisition of their parent studio (20th Century Fox) by Disney. It doesn’t take a genius to guess why that was going to be a death blow: Disney already specializes in animation and has two major animation studios under their belt and they didn’t need a third, especially not a third rate one like Blue Skies. Disney does still have all of Blue Sky’s IP and intends to make Ice Age stuff for Disney+ and may also be making a Rio 3 but the studio itself has been shut down and most of their people let go, pretty much by no fault of their own. Kind of an ignominious end to their story and it’s a little ironic that the studio seems to have been earning some respectability with their last few projects including Ferdinand.
Ferdinand is an adaptation of the picture book of the same name by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson. That book, published in 1936, is an all-time classic of its genre. Its depiction of a bull who preferred to relax and smell flowers rather than engage in violent bullfights was viewed by some as a pacifist parable in the wake of the Spanish Civil War and is more likely to be viewed today as a critique of toxic masculinity and a celebration of self acceptance, though Leaf denied any political undertones and claimed to have written it quickly largely as a means of giving Lawson a platform to show off his illustration skill. Regardless it’s something a lot of people hold dear, especially the type of sensitive male children who preferred to relax and engage in “softer” interests in the face of a society that really wants them to roughhouse and play sports. I can’t say that it was a favorite of mine when I was a kid but I do remember it having been read to me at some point or another.
This Blue Sky adaptation in many ways falls into the same place that a lot of the recent Dr. Seuss adaptations; an expanded and kind of dumbed down re-tellings made for a generation that needs a lot more stimulation in order to get their attention. Beyond that the movie has to contend with the fact that it’s trying to be a feature length adaptation of a book that’s all of fifteen to twenty illustrated pages long. When Disney did its own straightforward adaptation of it 1938 it ran all of seven minutes long, so obviously a whole lot of padding would be required to make this happen. The book gives a very abridged account of Ferdinand’s childhood before sending him to the matador ring where he refuses to fight before giving him a happy ending where this film needs to add a whole bunch of other bull characters, give Ferdinand a second life where he’s raised by a little girl, add a goat character who acts as Ferdinand’s coach, bring in some silly rivalry with the farm’s horses (including a very stupid dance off sequence), and finally a big elaborate escape scene.
Does all this really add to the story? Not really, it does mostly seem like a lot of water treading and bad comedy as it leads to the inevitable conclusion. However, I do think the film does a pretty good job of not diluting the central message of self-acceptance and pacifism in the grand scheme of things and that is a message that’s every bit as relevant in the 21st Century as it was in the 20th especially in the face of all the right wing revanchist bullshit we’re dealing with today, so on some level I can’t be too mad at all of it. Also, while a lot of this cartoony comedy is very much not for me I do think it’s a little better handled here than it is in a lot of its competition and the animation and voice acting is by and large pretty decent. Probably not a movie that quite needed it’s Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination but it’s not an embarrassment of a nominee either and it does make me think Blue Sky was on its way to maybe being a little more respectable than some studios out there, particularly the one that rhymes with “indoctrination.”
*** out of Five
This series will continue with to further installments in the future