Just as the Best Picture field doubled in size this year, the number of Animated Features nearly did so. Out of twenty eligible entries, the Academy honored five animated films from 2009 with an Oscar nomination, yielding an absurd 25% category nomination rate. Thankfully, the inclusion of two extra contenders was seen in perhaps one of the strongest years for animation in cinematic history, and none of the nominees feel particularly out of place. Let's take a look at this year's nominated films.
And the nominees are...
Coraline plays strongest as a foreboding fairy tale-- like the uncleansed version of a Disney classic. (Did you know that the real Cinderella involved wannabe-royals slicing off their heels to fit inside the ubiquitous glass slipper?) No, Coraline doesn't venture that dark, but its rhythms are refreshingly more subversive than those anticipated of animated fare.
There is a sense of ominous intrigue throughout, like a persistent hovering storm cloud, in both Coraline's world and her twisted alternate reality. She lives in a large, empty house on the crest of a daunting hill between labyrinthine gardens and mud puddles, below a gray sky. She encounters eccentric personalities who know more than we do, and much more than she does. We traverse into the other-world on tepid toes, never quite sure what to expect.
And just as anything seems possible, we are curiously confined. Coraline opens a small door and crawls through a long and narrow tunnel to reach her alternate reality, but the entire film is inside a tunnel-- seldom providing prescient illumination and slamming every door behind us. We teeter with a claustrophobic unease even as Coraline heedlessly charges forward with impish spirit.
But her assertiveness is more reckless than heroic. She posits herself against the narrative's reasonable point of view, a rebel with a questionable cause. As she indulges in mistakes, we stand back and shake our heads, feeling no connection to Coraline and her motivations. We must shrug and concede "that's just how little girls are" as she becomes irredeemably naive and, occasionally, irritating. She is an archetype as opposed to a little girl in her own right, and we're not so up for her journey.
Visuals are interesting and finely-detailed, with stony colors and dark flourishes. The button-eyed inhabitants of the other-world shield their emotions (as the eyes impart a majority of intent) and provoke the grim suggestion of repeatedly threading a needle through your eyeball. The aesthetic intentions are clear, however, until the film's climactic showdown when figures mold and morph into others, rupturing the boundaries of previously established science-- or rewriting the rules too late in the game. It doesn't help that Coraline's mother and, in her alternate world, evil other-mother are bogged down by tired intonations from ill-advised voice acting. So Coraline ends as a flawed hallucination: distant enough to conjure intrigue but too impersonal to muster devotion.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson's animated spin on Roald Dahl's beloved children's tale is an assemblage of crisp and crafty components. Characters and scenery are richly detailed with a fabric-and-yarn finish: a whimsical moving patchwork. The film as a whole imparts a great deal of heart, like a well-made work of craftsmanship-- as opposed to a prototype on a conveyor belt. Still, the film's technical achievement doesn't stand up as well to closer scrutiny. Individual motions are too segmented. Frames are often repeated except for a tweak or two. This "stop-and-go" style adds to the film's hand-crafted charms, but a lack of visual flow occasionally stagnates the magic of the design.
Despite these hiccups in momentum, emotion is always, somehow-- against all predictive logic-- quite palpable. The finest details are used for the anthropomorphic facial expressions of characters-- humans, foxes, and badgers alike-- and with strong and humble accompanying voice-work, even the woodland creatures are surprisingly vivid and relatable. On the same token, the film is overly conscious of both its feats in this realm and the necessity of imparting genuine emotion. The result can feel unnaturally conceived, especially when a series of frames has no other purpose than to highlight delicate facial movements.
The narrative construction delightfully channels Roald Dahl's zany rhythms and sharp imagination, with jackrabbit pacing, random inserts, repeated gags, and controlled chaos. At the same time, the painstaking execution and a self-assuredness in its quirk (typical of "indie" filmmaking this side of Juno) make for a presentation that feels a bit stagey and hollow, lacking the incontrovertible warmth that typifies a Roald Dahl work. Fox has the right ingredients, but he botches the recipe.
In light of these dilemmas, the film is faithfully frenetic, engaging, and entertaining: a smile for every witty remark, for every belly laugh, for every confounding glee. Even so, it's an unusual proposal for anyone in nearly every age group. The themes are too deep and dark, and the humor too brainy for children. The PG-13 crowd might find it too childish in its imagery and sprightly step, or condescending in its direct thematic approach. Adults are likely to find it too smug or too serious, or incongruous in its playful pictures with wiser words.
The film might appeal best to the neo-liberal collegiate crowd and the scholarly types who have since evolved from thence: those who appreciate deeper subtexts in their childhood lore. Perhaps the ilk that would respond to the video for MGMT's "Kids" with bewildered amazement? Or enjoy watching Sesame Street for its cultural significance? The film is a solid achievement, but a tough sell just the same.
The Princess and the Frog
Disney has probably received more criticism for its cultural messages than any other media corporation in existence. Yes, I'd bet that even Penthouse is subjected to less scrutiny-- if only because they don't openly market their product to children. But Disney does, and there is and always will be fervent cultural concern over the impressionable youth. With Princess and the Frog, Disney at last supplies their rebuttal, their mea culpa to decades of accusations of promoting harmful values and harboring destructive subtexts.
As such a response, Disney has crafted something brilliant. They've managed to clarify their message without upending fiercely-loved traditions that define the Disney brand. Throughout the film, there are nods to perhaps every Disney classic, be it a forest frame from Bambi, a character pose from Beauty and the Beast, or architectural flourishes modeled after Ursala's tentacles, from The Little Mermaid. These inclusions may not embolden the narrative, but they add a certain excitement factor to the viewing experience: a grateful acknowledgment of the film's influences and, for Disney, its loyal followers. They are never too obvious to detract from the narrative while still bold enough to provide a little extra joy to anyone paying a little extra attention.
As for the story itself, Disney scores again-- granted, not quite as big. Princess Tiana is Disney royalty 2.0 in ways more than meets the eye; her much-discussed skin color is only the most superficial upgrade. She is a strong, independent dreamer, determined to achieve by her own virtues and talents; she isn't waiting for any handsome prince to sweep her off her feet and carry her off into the sunset to live happily ever after. While many point to Belle of Beauty and the Beast as an example of these same strong wills, Tiana takes it a step further: she is refreshingly cynical, naive, flawed. Belle fortified her pure motives and angelic principles by opening her heart to the Beast; Tiana embarks on a journey of self-discovery and transformation when she becomes the beast. Belle brought life to a decaying castle; Tiana is enlivened by her experiences in strange, new surroundings with a diverse slate of supporting players. She is even punished for aspiring to Disney's dated values: wish upon a star, give the frog a kiss, believe in fairy tales over yourself, and you will only find trouble. And Tiana can't rely on her good looks and superficial charms either: as a frog, she is forced to succeed through her personal convictions alone.
On the same token, even if the wide-eyed "aww-shucks" demeanor of Disney princesses past is (thankfully) nowhere to be found in this newest effort, perhaps Tiana is too serious, too cynical to place herself in the echelon of Disney princess legends. Yes, Tiana feels "real," but do we want our Disney princesses to be completely real? With Tiana, missing is a certain transporting mythology, a certain alluring magic from the equation of her character. Why can't she be both human and superhuman-- relatable, but also idyllic?
Tiana's surroundings are likewise hit-or-miss. An unwieldy alligator that aspires to play the trumpet is a jolly klutz, like Rex the dinosaur of the Toy Story series, nicely defying expectations of a prehistoric beast filling a villainous role. A crusty mosquito-- that pesky insect known for spreading disease-- is searing with love and Southern soul, placing himself among the greatest Disney characters. The remaining supporting slate, including the frog prince himself, are boldly rendered though far less inviting or memorable. An assortment of new songs is consistently catchy and jubilant, but there is no single arrangement that completely captures the film's intentions, enthralls the imagination, and sticks in the mind like the highest achievements in the Disney musical oeuvre.
Still, the music, colors, and characters resonate with a thick and soulful Cajun cadence, with lively ethnic and cultural strokes. At the very least, The Princess and the Frog captures a beautiful snapshot of the South-- one that might become more disingenuous on closer inspection but that sells its thematic suggestions extremely well on the surface. The depictions of voodoo are probably less accurate and appropriate than they should be, and the characterizations of the witch doctor "Facilier" and blind voodoo enchantress "Mama Odie" surely suggest some lapse in racial sensitivity-- but in the greater context of the film's progressive agenda these are harmless blights.
Less excusable is the dated look of the animation efforts that never quite match the upgrades in the story. It comes close on two fronts, though. One sequence of crisp and elegant visual accompaniment to Tiana's "dream big" ballad "Almost There" uses basic shapes and bold silhouettes for a glamorous effect, and the use of concentrated light enlivens the frame via luminescent fireflies and glittery fireworks. With this same imaginative effort throughout the entire film on its narrative, aesthetic, and cultural fronts, The Princess and the Frog would be a timeless masterpiece to rival or even surpass anything in the Disney canon. Not quite, but they're almost there.
The Secret of Kells
Here is the nominee that comes closest to being a "prestige" project, purposefully striving to be "important" more than moving or cohesive. The conviction of wielding knowledge in the face of conflict is agreeable enough to prevent extensive consideration and also broad enough to feel applicable to any context. The story is obscure enough to seem inspired and presented in a pseudo-subtle manner that feels artistic in its implications. But the pieces are laid before us in perfect count and order. Even if we are given the freedom to draw our own conclusions, it does not take much to complete the puzzle.
The story is too short for the film's running time, padded into feature length with artistic flourishes that, while impressive, can border on the overstated. Vague visual sequences promote a sense of wonder that nicely support a story based on Irish folklore. But Kells feels disingenuous here: as if its cultural touches-- its names, images, tones, and music-- are used to give credibility to its claims and spiritual detachment, as opposed to its spirit and claims deriving credit from culture.
It's still a formidable fable, interesting in its exploration of scholarly devotion in the city of Kells, spellbinding in its depiction of spiritual enlightenment in the surrounding forest. The ghostly nymph Aisling is a beautiful and fascinating figure, her hypnotic hymn a transporting tale in its own right. Though even when the plot takes us outside of the city's walls, the story feels confined: a series of independent events that bear little weight on one another.
However, the film transcends much of this weakness with its singular visual supremacy. Iridescent patterns swivel and swirl across the frame, shaped with a delicate, breathtaking splendor and detail. Figurative representations of scenery and characters rightfully place prime importance on the artistry, while emboldening the transportive directorial rhythms and mythological assertions.
Even so, I wish there was more substance beneath (or to match) the staggering aesthetic experience. If only, for the sake of Kells, its characters and plot were meatier and its messages were more elusive and profound-- like its sprightly spirit or swirling landscapes. Instead, the film is a delectable visual whirlwind, with a story that plays like a scrapped cutaway from a Legend of Zelda video game.
Up is a vibrant and bubbly animated adventure with the classic emotional resonance and professional polish of a Pixar product. The visuals are peerless: glossy and delectable-- simply stellar work. Pixar tackles a specific technical challenge in each of their films, bringing a new experience to the medium and redefining the craft with every effort. In Monsters Inc., they mastered texture and movement, particularly that of hair and fur. With Finding Nemo, Pixar created a world of water, taking us beneath the surface and over the crests of waves. The Incredibles gave us believable, relatable human beings of flesh and bone. Ratatouille tickled all five senses using solely sound and image. Then Wall-e found dazzling unstated beauty in the vacuums of silence and space.
And now, with Up, Pixar returns to the roots of the medium, raising the visual bar with crescendos of color. Balloons soar with glistening, vivid tones, as do the backdrops, scenery, and characters. Kevin, some avian hybrid of an emu, peacock, and parrot, dazzles with exquisite pigment and texture. The use of 3D deepens the experience, though regrettably washes out some of the visual marvel. Still, the effects are integrated with a sharp polish, unlike, say, the glitchy implementation of 3D in Coraline or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. At the same time, Up's third dimension does not come close to achieving the artistic resonance of the experience offered by Avatar, or even A Christmas Carol.
As is typical of Pixar, the story is powerfully felt, achieving absolute emotional perfection with the relationship between a younger version of our crotchety protagonist Carl and his soul-mate and partner-in-life Ellie. The often-discussed montage depicting their life together is searing with complex emotional resonance. Bonus points to Pixar for capturing such a penetrating spirit of humanity during a spliced assemblage of sounds and scenes: indeed, a montage runs a critical risk of glossing over palpable emotion for storytelling convenience and speedy character development.
Even with such weighty investments, the film never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously or pretending to embody themes and qualities that are beyond its reach. When the story veers into more jocular territory, its self-confidence does not waver. The lighter, cartoonish depictions in the second half are well-crafted and assertive, though the impact does not prod as deeply as Pixar's greatest masterstrokes.
The film suffers from a lack of strong, developed supporting characters. Boy scout and accidental traveling companion Russell has his motivations laid out too plainly: what propels his attachment to Carl other than the absence of his father? His character comes off shallow and unconvincing-- a comedic pawn more than a viable person. Brian the bird is crafted with such imagination: big, beautiful, and boss-- fully aware that he's HBIC (head bird in charge)-- though he offers us little beyond simple entertainment. Dug, the dutiful talking retriever, similarly provides a silly satisfaction, expressing a canine's conscious with spot-on creativity (much like what Family Guy does with its talking dog Brian).
But then there are more talking dogs, and they seem perfectly versed in human speech. Is this a sign of inconsistency, or is Dug supposed to be a few grade levels (and IQ points) behind the others? Here is the film's most critical misstep: most have detected it from what I've read, but few have been able to elucidate the root of the problem. The narrative begins with an emotional wallop via the Carl/Ellie montage. The plot becomes deliriously escapist as Carl soars into the sky beneath a bevy of bright and colorful balloons, then more uninvolving and digressive in the hijinks of the rain forest. The story then takes a sharp turn for the cartoonish, with talking dogs firing artillery from combat planes, and without much pretext, the proposition feels preposterous.
Your knee-jerk may consider me absurd, but hear me out. Fantasy runs the risk of completely fumbling believability if it does not establish its own rules and then follow those rules throughout. This is a fact. Up begins in our universe, and startlingly so. That's why the Carl/Ellie montage works so well. As the film takes some leeway with physics, we can follow along with a couple of concessions: okay, maybe with enough balloons, a house could break loose from its foundation and float into the sky-- and why wouldn't a pulley system and shower curtain sails be able to steer the house across wind currents? It works within its own escapist version of science. The collar that translates dog-speak into human-speak is a bit more a stretch, but surely some technical coup is contained in that contraption. But why should the dogs talk in full sentences, as though their and our brains operated with equal sophistication? And how can they fly fighter planes and fire with accuracy? And back to the house: how can Carl anchor his house by repelling beneath it, but his same weight inside allows it to float?
Such conceits rupture the fabric of Up's predefined science-- of our science. It might seem nit-picky to critique a cartoon in this way, but why would Pixar go to such great lengths in creating something "real" (the montage) only to have it transform and, yes, devolve into unbounded fantasy by the film's end? Even if you think this discrepancy didn't affect you, it probably did. Scientific consistency is a basic requirement of effective narrative construction, and here, Pixar just misses the mark. Up redeems itself fiercely on nearly every other front, so the result is still a splendid and moving experience.
And the Winner Is... Up
And the Winner Might Be...Nah, just Up
And the Winner Should Be... The Princess and the Frog