Animated Word

Presenting an in-depth look at the current state of Animation

Oscar's Stormy Relationship with Animation

Every time the Academy Awards roll 'round, animation buffs take time to sigh. It seems that the animated genre has been making classics and masterpieces for so many, many years, and yet there are so few recognitions of the genre within the awards circuit. Especially the Oscars. This time, with Nemo seemingly poised to take the gold tonight for Best Animated Feature but likely to lose the more "significant" award of Best Original Screenplay, the question seems louder than ever: what does the Academy have against animation? If Seabiscuit can take home a Oscar nomination for Best Picture over the much more artistically lauded and insanely popular Finding Nemo, does nothing stand a chance?

The only way to look ahead, naturally, is by looking back. Now, I'm not one of those people who gets sour over the creation of the Best Animated Feature category. Some say the category kills any chance for animation to be honored elsewhere. I'll get to that later. What is worth responding to are the grumblings that the category should have existed years, even decades earlier. Let's preface all of this with this simple statement: the Academy is fallible. Not only is it just a simple award show, but it's a simple award show run and voted upon by simple human beings, who cannot see everything that ever comes out and are as privy to the concept of advertising as we all are (I'm talking to you, Mr. Oh-advertising-never-affects-me). The existence of the Best Animated Feature category really could not have existed any more than 5 years ago, when the awards were being prepped for 1998's features. Yes, Disney has been producing features since 1937, but was there anybody else? What would be the point of the category if there wasn't any significant competition? The award would've been meaningless if it was being given to the ONLY animated feature that year. Disney didn't necessitate the Animated Feature category, Dreamworks did, when they entered the game as a force to rival Disney. Now, at least, there was a two-head race. 1998 and 1999 were missed opportunities, yes, but the category was proposed during 2000 and installed in 2001. Yes, it says something that the very first winner of that award was CGI, but that has more to do with the competition than the Academy.

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And yet, even with the matter of the Best Animated Feature category removed, there is still a lot for the Academy to answer for. For years upon years, all that animation could muster support for was the musical categories, like Best Song or Best Score, or sometimes Best Sound. Why these and nothing else? Yes, the acting performances of these films were entirely constructed, but then, ALL film performance is constructed in some manner or another. Were they not written? Directed? Edited? Did they not sport cinematography? Art direction? Costume design? The unspoken answer from these industry insiders should be ringing in your head already: they were drawn, as opposed to achievement in reality. My suspicion is that there is a form of condescension held towards animated cinema within the "normal" Hollywood members; partially because of the all-too-inescapable "it's for kids" bias, but also because these directors, actors, screenwriters, and all the rest see their jobs as significantly harder than the equivalents in animation. Somehow, they've separated "legitimate" film from animated film. It should be fairly obvious when looking at the slate of nominations and wins for Mary Poppins. Poppins is no less an "animated" film in its approach to storytelling, characters, or music. So what's the difference? It's mostly live-action, that's what. With real actors using a real script on real sets.

In fact, you can trace that sinister snobbery to the very beginning. Consider Snow White. (Those fans who may balk at my mention of the film again given a previous column can take solace; I have no words to bend against the film itself.) Sergei Eisenstein, the great Russian filmmaker, praised Snow White as the greatest film ever made. The film was a remarkable success with all audiences. So, where's the Oscar? Even a nod? No, it has to settle for Score. Why? Well, lest we forget, Hollywood insiders were utterly convinced that Snow White would be a disaster. "Disney's Folly", it was called. So when they all got made into jackasses, we shouldn't be surprised that all Disney could muster from these fogeys were golf claps. Look again at that famed special achievement Oscar(s) that Disney received for the first animated feature. One big one and seven little ones, presented by super-cute young star Shirley Temple. Sure, it's sorta witty. But it also belies the sort of cutesy-poo treatment which the Academy would insist upon treating animation like for so many following years. This would get repeated later when 1995's films were recognized, but John Lasseter and his team of geniuses would have to settle for a "special" award while Babe somehow was able to finagle its way up as prime family-film contender for Best Picture gold. Apparently, this is the Academy's way of saying, "Good job, kids. Glad you found a new way to draw. Now go sketch on your fancy dinner napkins while we award the big boys."

All this angry ranting of mine keys into one of the biggest and oldest paradoxes of the Academy's night, and indeed, all award ceremonies: what is being recognized when the award goes out? It seems just as lunatic to award Best Screenplay, Original or Adapted, to any film whether it's animated or not, since the script is often created, tweaked, and flat-out changed through the prisms of actors, directors, and editors. What does any of this awarding stuff mean, anyway? Andy Serkis' work as Gollum in The Two Towers and Return of the King made the debate especially heated in recent years. Do you follow common sense and recognize an actor's obviously wildly-dedicated work, or follow your own eyes and consider the performance to not be awardable to a single actor? But then, once again, since acting performances are constructed works that come from editing rooms and director's visions, what is the worth in recognizing a live-action actor when there could be an entirely different performance somewhere in the cutting room? Should the editor go up and accept with the actor? If such exceptions or rule-bending can be made for live-action, why can't an animated performance be nominated as well? There was talk of Robin Williams being recognized for Aladdin; couldn't they have made it easier on everybody else and just nominated both him AND Eric Goldberg all in one fell swoop? Or Jeremy Irons and Andreas Deja for Scar? How about Robby Benson and Glen Keane for the Beast? If the Academy is unwilling to readjust their own perspectives to see performances in this fashion, then it is proof that they are far more exclusionary than they care to admit, and that there is more at work in what they deem Oscar-worthy than mere craft alone.

The times are changing. The Best Animated Feature category has not existed long enough for us to perceive its influence on the Academy itself, but I hope that the annual requirement to watch animation will eventually clear away a lot of this gunk, and that soon enough we will see either a performance from an animated film in an acting category or a new category for voice-overs. It seems unavoidable, as so many actors do so much excellent work in voice-over for animation these days (Eddie Murphy ought to be living on just that alone). Only recently, with the break-out of Pixar into the major realm, has animation been honored for writing in the Academy Awards. Maybe soon we will see one win; I doubt Stanton, Peterson, and Reynolds can beat out Coppola tonight, but I'm praying for them anyway. And maybe a film will finally be able to be the second nominee for Best Picture, or even the first winner. Computer animation, oddly enough, has forced Hollywood and the Academy to reassociate their perceptions of animation; Pixar's films are not as easily brushed off as kid's stuff, especially with the significant Hollywood muscle that always seems to find itself in their casts. However, despite these last words of hope, I present to you an anonymous screenwriter's comment, recently published in Entertainment Weekly: "Finding Nemo is a possible winner, but I find it hard to connect to dialogue not spoken by human beings." (On why he didn't vote for Finding Nemo for Best Original Screenplay) Ladies and gentlemen, if this person represents the majority of the Academy's thought processes, then we may just be screwed for all eternity.

A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on Feb 28, 2004

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