An exciting group of 25 films comprise the list of submitted contenders for the Best Animated Feature category at the 91st Academy Awards.

A handful of them are already considered frontrunners, while a large number of underdogs aspire to defy the odds and snag a nomination. The race, nonetheless, is really just to be among the final nominees, because winning has become an unattainable goal.

Rewarding The Walt Disney Company has essentially become a default setting for the Academy Awards, with Rango being the last non-Disney animated film to take prize back in 2012. Deserving features from rival studios and independent production companies have emerged throughout the years, but none with the machinery and budgets behind them to upset the category.

Rules installed last year, which benefit big budget giants by allowing the entire Academy membership to vote at the earlier nominations stage, will, unfortunately, not only perpetuate that obvious blockbusters triumph, but also makes it more difficult for smaller films to be nominated. When animation professionals were in charge of curating the final five candidates, there was more room for outliers to stand out on merit alone.

Ironically, the list of submitted hopefuls this year evidences how global animation has become with more than half of them being foreign productions: two films from Latin America (Brazil, Mexico), 10 from Asia (China, Japan, Taiwan), and three more from Europe (France, Hungary, United Kingdom). It would be ideal if the nominees reflected the impressive cultural, technical, and thematic diversity these titles represent.

Here’s a closer look at the Best Animated Feature race:

Likely contender #1: Incredibles 2

Betting against Disney-Pixar would be unwise considering their clutch on the category, especially when their major release this year was a critical hit and a box office behemoth. Brad Bird’s sequel to his 2004 superhero comedy could easily earn him his third Oscar for Best Animated Feature (he previously won for The Incredibles and Ratatouille).

Incredibles 2.
“Incredibles 2.”

Banking on the humorous family dynamic audiences already loved, making Jack-Jack a larger part of the plot, and playing on a similar premise of individuals with amazing powers saving the world while trying to lead normal lives, Bird scored big once again. Some critics went as far as to claim the new adventure was better than the original.

Likely contender #2: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Every animation studio is just one film away from greatness, and Sony Pictures Animation’s time seems to have arrived with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, co-directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. It feels odd to say this about a superhero film, which are typically steeped in genre conventions, but Spider-Man is shaping up as the most tonally and graphically experimental animated film released by a major U.S. animation studio in a long time.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”

The first third of Spider-Man, which screened at New York Comic Con earlier this month, showcased a smart production aimed at teen audiences rather than the usual family-friendly bent of U.S. productions. Its graphics push cg stylization into new territory, with a limited animation frame rate and no motion blur on the characters, to name just a couple of the more noticeable experiments. The industry voters of the Academy’s Short Films and Feature Animation branch recognize that this is a special film, not to mention an opportunity to open up the field to more daring craft, so a nomination seems likely.

Likely contender #3: Isle of Dogs

If anyone has even the slightest possibility of beating out Pixar this time around, it’s Wes Anderson. Isle of Dogs is the whimsical auteur’s second foray into stop-motion animation following his marvelous 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox —which was nominated but lost to Up —and is a unique vision within the medium. Despite the controversy it caused over its depiction of Japanese characters and the questions it raised about cultural appropriation, a nomination is almost certain.

"Isle of Dogs."
“Isle of Dogs.”

What we don’t know is how ferociously or not Fox Searchlight plans to campaign for it and if they believe they could win. Anderson has never received an Oscar for any of his films, live-action or otherwise, so if Academy members feel like not granting Brad Bird and Disney-Pixar another win, this could be a chance to make up for snubbing one of the most singular American filmmakers of the 21st century. Regarding craft, Isle of Dogs is truly astounding in its depiction of dystopian settings through painstakingly beautiful production design and memorable characters.

Top International/Independent Contenders

In spite of the uphill battle they face, there are still a handful of movies among the international pool of prospects that have a real shot at being nominated. Atop that list is Milorad Krstic’s Ruben Brandt, Collector, from Sony Pictures Classics (SPC), which is a Hungarian, adult-oriented stunner centered on a psychiatrist confronting his own demons by stealing all the artworks that have caused him trauma. It’s stylistically audacious —using cubism-inspired 2d animation—and philosophically fascinating, as it explores the transformative nature of art. SPC has a great track record in the category, and this could continue their streak.

"Ruben Brandt, Collector."
“Ruben Brandt, Collector.”

Meanwhile, GKIDS could collect its 11th nomination with Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai (or Mirai of the Future), by far the likeliest of all Japanese works in the running this year to succeed. Thanks to the distributor’s outstanding reputation among the animation community and their position as the most prominent indie player at awards shows, Hosoda might finally get on the Academy’s radar. His previous feature, The Boy and the Beast, was entered in 2015 by Funimation, but didn’t find any traction. Now, with this personal and delightful adventure about a boy meeting a grown-up version of his younger sister from the future, his brilliance could potentially be acknowledged by Hollywood.


Two more hand-drawn films that rise from the pack are Brazil’s Tito and the Birds, co-directed by Gustavo Steinberg, Gabriel Bitar, and André Catoto and being handled by Shout! Studios, and Jian Liu’s Have a Nice Day, which opened theatrically earlier this year from art house distribution company Strand Releasing. Tito tackles the culture of fear in today’s world through expressionistic character design and oil-painted backgrounds. Liu’s sophomore effort (after 2010’s Piercing 1) is a crime comedy set in southern China.

"Tito and the Birds."
“Tito and the Birds.”
"Have a Nice Day."
“Have a Nice Day.”
A Slew of Japanese Contenders

In addition to Hosoda’s latest, GKIDS has four other Japanese offers in contention this season. Lu Over the Wall and The Night is Short, Walk On Girl exhibit the tonal range and boundless imagination of director Masaaki Yuasa. The former is his family-friendly take on mermaids, while the other is a visionary and drunken trip. Returning in prolific form to feature filmmaking following a long hiatus where he worked almost exclusively in television, Yuasa is due for recognition, if anything as retribution for Mind Game being ignored. Their chances, however, are limited in a crowded field of international gems fighting for maybe one or two slots.

"Lu Over the Wall."
“Lu Over the Wall.”

Even less likely, but worth mentioning are Akiyuki Shinbo and Nobuyuki Takeuchi’s Fireworks, a coming-of-age tale with a time travel component that was not as well-received by reviewers as other GKIDS titles; and, closing their slate, Guillaume “Run” Renard and Shōjirō Nishimi’s MFKZ, a French-Japanese genre defying animated thriller.

The other three Japanese entries are being distributed in the U.S. by Eleven Arts and include intimate heartfelt dramas and a sci-fi epic. Released in late September, Mari Okada’s fantastical melodrama Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms is their strongest card thanks to an overwhelmingly positive response from critics. In second place is Naoko Yamada’s Liz and the Blue Bird, a slice-of-life story about two friends drifting apart as they enter adulthood based on characters from Ayano Takeda’s novel Sound! Euphonium. Finally, there is The Laws of the Universe – Part I, the latest installment in the saga of high school students fighting aliens. Eleven Parts submitted the first chapter, The Laws of the Universe – Part 0, for consideration in 2015.

Don’t Count Out This Studio Fare

It would be naïve to think industry voters might feel the need to absolutely include any foreign language or economically-produced films. They may instead fill the category with studio fare, and if that’s the case there are some of those that are first in line. The Walt Disney Company’s other sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, is less of a shoo-in than Pixar’s beloved family of reckless heroes, but it’s of course not entirely out of the race. It’ll be pushed hard, but taking into account that Finding Dory, with all its grossing bells and whistles, couldn’t manage the feat, Wreck-It Ralph could miss out.

"Ralph Breaks the Internet."
“Ralph Breaks the Internet.”

Illumination’s Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch is set to be a holiday sensation when it’s unleashed next month, and could benefit from its late opening date. Based on a well-known property, this new iteration of the bitter green creature is a much more solid bet than the company’s past releases.

"The Grinch."
“The Grinch.”

Lastly, though produced by Aardman Animations in the U.K., Early Man has a hefty ally in Lionsgate, one that positioned the stop-motion comedy on thousands of U.S. screens. The Academy loves Aardman, and their technique shines on its own, so don’t count them out.

"Early Man."
“Early Man.”
Unexpected International Features

The final collection of submitted features includes a few surprises mainly in the form of international titles that were previously not on the radar, but chose to qualify themselves for consideration.

This year, one of those unexpected additions is Mexico’s first-ever entry in the category, Ana y Bruno. This cg fantasy about a girl and her imaginary friend, is directed by Carlos Carrera, a director whose hard-hitting drama The Crime of Father Amaro earned an Oscar-nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2003. This is his animated feature debut.

From Taiwan, there is Sung Hsin-yin’s On Happiness Road, described as an intimate portrait of childhood and adversity inspired by the director’s own experiences; and from France, Tall Tales, a cg-animated adaptation of the bestselling children’s books Tall Tales from the Magical Garden of Antoon Krings.

It’s safe to assume these are some of the contenders that still need to fulfill the qualifying run requirement, as none of them has had a theatrical release in the U.S. yet.

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