Since its inclusion in the Academy Awards in 2001, the category for Best Animated Feature has been celebrating animation of all variations in the 21st century. Before Shrek was made the first winner, the only animated film to receive Oscar recognition was 1991’s Beauty and the Beast.
With only 16 winners to date, there hasn’t been time for much else than Pixar’s utter domination, with a handful of notable exceptions in the mix. With the 2018 Oscars fast approaching, it looks like the Disney/Pixar brand may have yet another year in the bag – which would make 9 in total – by way of Coco. And with the Incredibles 2 on the summer calendar horizon, it’s unlikely the studio’s success streak will change any time soon.
Often including acceptable populist fare and a couple of independent and foreign entries, the Academy Awards has largely and thankfully shone the spotlight on quality films only, with the occasional Boss Baby thrown in the mix. Best of all, the Oscar for Best Animated Feature has gone to a good movie practically every year – a rare bit of consistent justice within the clutter of Hollywood politics.
The weakest winner to come forth by far, Frozen was Disney’s attempt to rewrite their now-dated princess stories for a new generation. But by the end of the film they end up complicating their tweaked formula too far past nostalgic simplicity into muddled confusion.
Olaf may be the only element worth the movie’s insane popularity, but one loveable supporting character can’t maintain an entire fairy tale. Frozen 2, due by the end of 2019, will no doubt make a billion and change and prompt a third film. But what’s the point when there’s nothing about sister princesses Anna and Elsa that one film didn’t cover?
Meanwhile, genuinely worthwhile nominees like the French children’s film Ernest and Celestine and Hayao Miyazaki’s final feature The Wind Rises were shut out in an obvious popularity contest.
One stage in the waning of Pixar’s untarnished clout – bookended in the studio’s chronology by Cars 2 and Monsters University – Brave is beautifully rendered but clichéd and forgettable.
Brave certainly didn’t deserve to best stop-motion animated gems like Aardman’s The Pirates! Band of Misfits and Laika’s strongest film ParaNorman, and a case could be made for superiority of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie or Wreck-It-Ralph as well.
Taking a comedic stab of sorts at medieval times is fine, but who would think How to Train Your Dragon, which came out two years prior, and its sequel would outdo an original Pixar joint? The gorgeous landscapes and Merida’s red curls make for visual wonders that simply mask a trite mother-daughter tale.
It would be easy to laud Zootopia for explaining the ills of racism to youngsters, but the in-universe workings of its setting and story don’t make to much sense on their own, let alone if you actually want to translate the ideas to the real world.
Of course the kids aren’t thinking that hard. But even with a noir-tinted plot, solid lead characters and a gag-a-plenty premise, Zootopia is still lacking for being such positive brainwashing. The mature subtext doesn’t forgive some of the film’s lazy jokes and that cringe-inducing Shakira song.
Worse still is that Zootopia was inferior to every one of its awards competitors. Kubo and the Two Strings, My Life as a Zucchini and The Red Turtle are all underappreciated, impassioned projects, and even Disney’s new wave princess story Moana was an unqualified treat.
13. Happy Feet
It earns points for sheer originality, a talented voice cast and fairly stunning animated detail, but Happy Feet is not what one would call a lasting cinematic achievement.
Though the idea of an animated musical about a penguin that tap dances because he’s a talentless singer feels instinctive as a kid flick premise. Happy Feet even deals with typical individualist notions that define plenty of animated films, touching on environmental issues as well in the process.
As a musical it outdoes Frozen’s pop soundtrack, and the film’s animation, particularly in underwater settings, is striking. But for as unique as Happy Feet is, there is a sense of purposelessness that keeps it from any kind of enduring status.
12. Big Hero 6
Perhaps the most purely fun winner on the list, Big Hero 6 works as an energetic comedy before it becomes the slyest superhero film you may ever see assemble. It doesn’t boast many important themes but it does pack a wallop of entertainment value.
But surefire fun doesn’t make Big Hero 6 better than other films in one of the strongest sets of five Best Animated Feature nominees – a mainstay starting in 2011 after usually including only three contenders. The nods to How to Train Your Dragon 2, Song of the Sea, The Boxtrolls, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya make for a diverse year for the category but, of course, Disney’s features almost always have to come out on top.
11. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Stop motion is far from dead – Laika has been proving that over the past decade and been nominated several times for masterful films keeping the painstaking, antiquated filmmaking process alive and gratifyingly contemporary. The work of Aardman is no different, and their offerings are usually hilarious and tangibly textured. The clay animation studio’s new film Early Man will hopefully find an audience in a just few weeks time.
Playful, inventive and utterly charming, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit upholds everything beloved about the famous pair of British animated characters. In the best company of the inspired Miyazaki film Howl’s Moving Castle and another stop-motion gem in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Wallace and Gromit, after several delightful short films, happened upon Oscar gold in their only feature film.
Overrated to boot, Wall-E is one half genius and one half less so.
Prescient as it may be about the fate of mankind’s pudgy, screen-obsessed future, Wall-E’s lovely robot romance amongst the post-apocalyptic hellscape of earth is much more interesting and all but forgotten once we leave our abandoned planet. With several references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, its clear that Pixar wanted to make something both digestible and profound, and the final film is a compromise of both of these intentions.
The absence of dialogue in the film’s first act is one choice that pays off quite well, but the film’s last moments can’t balance climax and comedy. Despite being made at the height of Pixar’s ambitious risk-taking, Wall-E should have cared as little for kid-friendly conventions as Ratatouille did the year prior.
9. Finding Nemo
A popular classic but still mid-shelf quality for the studio’s frequently conquered summits, Finding Nemo is nonetheless quintessential Pixar.
Outside of the tale’s basic scope, Finding Nemo succeeds by way of an incredible array of memorable side characters (Dory, Bruce, Crush and Squirt, Nemo’s school friends, Nemo’s fish tank friends, etc.), familiar sentiment, and Pixar’s most gorgeous animation ever put to film.
A perfect voice cast also nails the clever script of the Best Original Screenplay nominee. Finding Nemo is one of the bestselling DVDs of all time, and it’s earned its place as a delightful mainstay in many a kid’s movie collection for the foreseeable future.