Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film (or, why we need to stop worrying and ignore the award shows)

Here are the the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rules for eligibility in the "Animated Feature" category:

"An animated feature film is defined as a motion picture with a running time of at least 70 minutes, in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique. In addition, a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time."


Let's just take a minute and pull this little piece of bureaucracy apart bit by bit. Taking the category as a given, I'd like to examine this "eligibility" nonsense. In the nine year period since the creation of the category, the rules have already been revised once specifically to preclude the consideration of increasingly common CGI/live action mixtures like King Kong or The Lord of the Rings. But even in their current incarnation, Avatar fits the bill.

Avatar is over seventy minutes long (certainly!). A significant number of the major characters therein are animated ('significant' is one of those legally malleable terms, but, you know, whatever) and computer animation easily 'figures in' more than 75 percent of the running time. As for this "frame-by-frame" business, I admit I'm not sure what that means. Wikipedia seems to think it would refer to stop-motion or cel animation, but since the great majority of AMPAS animated nominees are computer animated, that's not the case.

So why isn't Avatar in the running for Animated Feature? For many of the same reasons that it's nominated for Best Picture (read: it's technologically mind-blowing), it should be considered for the Animated category. It was largely conceived, "photographed" and assembled using the exact same techniques as many of the films we consider "animated", yet nobody thinks of Avatar as an "animated" movie. Two previous winners in the category have integrated live action photography into animated worlds (Wall-E and Happy Feet) and at least one previous nominee (Monster House) was made using motion-capture. Ghettoizing these films becomes more illogical with each advance of the technology.

Where do we draw the line? The insufficiency of the AMPAS rules underlines the absurdity of this category's existence.

The official word was that the category was created to give animated films a chance at an Oscar every year. This is a nice effort. Not only is it akin to the Foreign Language category that has allowed only two1 foreign language productions into the main race in the past twenty years, it would also be akin to a Best Performance By a Black Actor category or a Best Song Featuring the Alto Saxophone. Why not separate categories for Best Animated Feature (Computer) and Best Animated Feature (Hand-made)? Would that be any more arbitrary?

The Animated Feature category is a ghetto which allows the AMPAS to throw a statue at Pixar every year without risking their credibility by offering Pixar a chance in the main category. Why are these films kept separate? Animated films are not found in the Best Picture race because they are considered to be "for kids" and thus "lesser than" or "beneath" other films. Consider how often have you heard someone say the following phrase: "Boy, [this year's Pixar film] was really good for a cartoon."

This is why we don't think of Avatar as an animated film. Too much of the movie-watching populace equates "animated" with "for the kids". Even though animation is a medium and not a genre, and even though there are plenty of animated films strictly for adults (which don't get considered in the AMPAS category, by the way, and get fucked over even by the organizations ostensibly in place to support them), too many people blindly label this category as "best of the movies that were beneath me."

The Pixar movies, with arguable exception, are not really good kids movies; they're really good movies, period. Putting them up against the Shrek's and the Jimmy Neutron's every year is insulting enough.

But this year it's a whole new bag of infuriating.

this year's race

Without even having seen two of the five nominees, I'll say that the Animated Feature category has a greater percentage of interesting, challenging films than the ten-wide Best Picture race; The Princess and the Frog is really the odd one out here2. That The Secret of Kells got nominated is truly incredible: nobody outside of the nominating committee has seen it but it also didn't have any kind of campaign, meaning (one might surmise) it must actually be pretty decent. On top of this there is Up, Coraline, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, all of which are the efforts of sincere auteurs making the most they can within a ghettoized medium. I wasn't crazy about Fox and appreciate arguments of less-than-perfection regarding all three; they remain, at least, qualitatively beautiful and fascinating.3

Getting back to why specifically this year's Academy Awards are under my skin: the nomination of Up for Best Picture (only the second animated film ever4 in that category and first since the introduction of the animated category) is an implicit apology for not nominating Wall-E last year after everybody and their mother agreed it deserved the recognition.

“Having 10 Best Picture nominees is going to allow Academy voters to recognize and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories, but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize,” says Sid Ganis, AMPAS president in the official press release announcing the category's expansion. He talks a lot about 'going back to their roots' as well, but really this is about Wall-E - and, to a lesser extent, The Dark Knight - showing up as rare favorites among both critics and audiences that everyone would've liked to see recognized on the Academy stage. Nominating Up for Best Picture is a lot like giving Russell Crowe an award for Gladiator the year after snubbing him for The Insider. This is what the Academy does: it apologizes. For mistakes, for the lack of quality roles for any other type of actor besides white men, for giving awards to Crash.

If the process actually worked the way it was supposed to, the AMPAS wouldn't have to deal with controversies such as these. If it wasn't a popularity contest, Reese Witherspoon doesn't win for Walk the Line. If everyone didn't just vote for their friends, Crash doesn't win. If Academy members actually [step one] watched movies, [step two] voted for the good ones instead of the pat-on-the-back, white-guilt, Nazis-are-bad, sexual-liberation-for-your-grandmother slop, and [step three] ignored the massive political campaigns waged by the studios, we wouldn't need to expand to ten nominees just to "squeeze in" (Ganis' phrase) an animated movie for good measure.

The bloggers were all a-twitter about the rare feeling of having four-to-five nominees that they actually liked this year (Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Up, A Serious Man, Avatar and/or District 9 all have support among at least some of the people who actually watch movies). If the Academy had any balls, the five nominations would come from that (all-American) list (of really popular movies) and we wouldn't have to bother with the rest of the swill. Can you imagine the ratings for an Oscar telecast with five Best Picture nominees that are all from that list?

I love Up more than most people I know. I'm happy to see it get noticed; I'm happy to see notice get it noticed. But this nomination is just an arbitration within a mess of arbitration. This ten-nominee line-up is the Academy's way of saying "see, we support lots of different movies" while still ponying up airtime for the award bait. They're having their cake and eating it too and there are still people who look to this unbearable fiasco as a voice for What Good Movies Are. "We'll nominate Up! We'll squeeze it in. But the Oscar's still gonna go to the movie with the best campaign."

I've been irrationally upset by the Academy Awards for years now. Never have I felt so condescended to.

1.) Il Postino and Life is Beautiful. You might also include the American production Letters From Iwo Jima; the intricacies through which the Foreign Language rules omit films from consideration would consume an entire other essay. But as a footnote to a footnote, can you believe this exists? Holy hell, when does it stop?[back]

2.) Full disclosure: haven't seen it, probably shouldn't be talking about it. I don't want to make presumptions about it being an actual example of standard kiddie fare or the opposite of that. I think my point stands, regardless.[back]

3.) Neil Gaiman, discussing Coraline, says "In my experience, Coraline is so much more scary for adults. Adults are watching a film about a child in danger, kids are watching a film about somebody brave doing something cool." Why would anyone want to ignore a story with such a fascinating duality of audience perspective? Oh, right: because it's for kids.[back]

4.) The other was Beauty and the Beast. By the way, do you know who the most awarded person in Oscar history is? Nobody is even close to Walt Disney's record twenty-six Oscars. That number doesn't include the seven miniature Oscars given in recognition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, "a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field".[back]


  1. Oh wow. I feel such a sense of secondhand accomplishment!

  2. Credit to Cassandra Mortmain for teaching me the footnoting. Who needs a printing press when you have basic HTML?