There have been numerous pieces published on the record-breaking number of contenders in the Oscars category of best animated feature this year.

The problem with most of the pieces is that they’ve gravitated towards identifying a handful of the conventionally popular picks without adequately explaining the depth and range of this year’s field. In the piece below, I’ve made an attempt to categorize the leading contenders for the animated feature Academy Award in broad, loosely organized groups.

Whether you agree with the sub-categories or how the films have been organized, I hope you’ll agree that it’s an extremely challenging year to judge with more quality films in contention than ever before.

American Fun

The Secret Life of Pets (Universal/Illumination, d. Chris Renaud)
Trolls (Fox/Dreamworks, d. Mike Mitchell)
Sausage Party (Sony/Nitrogen, d. Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan)

It’s difficult to add a light touch to American studio animation when budgets range in the tens, and often hundreds, of millions of dollars. A joke that may have been funny during a board pitch will be overworked or moved around in the story until it has lost its comedic purpose. But this year proved different—these three films were among my most enjoyable theatrical experiences all year long, and a reminder that funny cartoons are possible within the major studio system.

Each film mixed up the traditional feature pipeline in its own unique way, which may have helped the final result. For Secret Life of Pets, Illumination’s fast production schedule combined with the breezy comedic style of Chris Renaud, who has honed his skills on four features in less than a decade, didn’t allow time for second-guessing. On Trolls, similar to The Lego Movie before it, director Mike Mitchell enjoyed a relative free hand working with a property that didn’t have a storytelling legacy or a need to follow an established canon. And with Sausage Party, the film benefitted from the vision of storytellers from outside the animation bubble—Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Jonah Hill—who also understood when to back off and let the animators do their job.

The Blockbusters

Finding Dory (Disney/Pixar, d. Andrew Stanton)
Monkey King: Hero is Back (October Animation Studio, d. Tian Xiaopeng)
Your Name (Funimation/Comix Wave, d. Makoto Shinkai)
Zootopia (Disney, d. Byron Howard, Rich Moore)

Animation is the hottest sector of the feature film marketplace currently, and not just in the United States. Finding Dory is the top-grossing film in the U.S. this year, and the second-highest grossing Pixar film every releaed worldwide. Zootopia became just the second Walt Disney animated feature (after Frozen) to break the one billion global barrier. Monkey King: Hero is Back, released in China in 2015, is the highest-grossing homegrown animated film ever released in that country. Your Name is the highest-grossing film of 2016 in Japan, and by the end of its run, should become the second-highest-grossing homegrown Japanese film ever released, trailing only Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Beyond their stellar box office performances, these are different films of varying qualities, but in the animated feature category, the Academy has often rewarded box office success over merit, and if that trend holds, expect the Academy to recognize at least some of these films.

Mature Family

Kubo and the Two Strings (Focus/Laika, d. Travis Knight)
The Little Prince (Netflix/On Animation, d. Mark Osborne)
Long Way North (Shout! Factory/Sacrebleu/2 Minutes/Norlum, d. Rémi Chayé)
My Life as a Zucchini (GKIDS/Rita Productions/Blue Spirit Productions, d. Claude Barras)

These films represent a bold new standard in family animation with meaningful concepts, beautiful artistic styles (coincidentally, three of them incorporate stop motion), and ideas that will resonate and generate discussion amongst family members long after the credits have ended. Any one of the four films in this category would represent a significant improvement over the average major studio nominee in the animated feature category of year’s past.

Adult Animation

April and the Extraordinary World (GKIDS/Je Suis Bient Content/Need Productions, d. Christian Desmares, Franck Ekinci)
The Red Turtle (Sony Pictures Classics/Prima Linea Productions, d. Michael Dudok de Wit)
25 April (Transmission Films/Flux Animation Studio, d. Leanne Pooley)
Miss Hokusai (GKIDS/Production I.G., d. Keiichi Hara)

A film doesn’t necessarily need to have sex, drugs, and violence in it for it to be considered adult. It often has more to do about the director’s intent and what they are trying to express through their work. This year, there are a significant number of competitors that qualify as true adult animation, reflecting the clear vision of a director who has something to say. These films readily take on challenges in both directions, tackling big ideas like the destruction of the Earth’s natural resources (April and the Extraordinary World) or exploring a character’s interior life, as in The Red Turtle and Miss Hokusai.

Funny Animal Brigade

Ice Age: Collision Course (Fox/Blue Sky, d. Mike Thurmeier, Galen Chu)
Kung Fu Panda 3 (Fox/Dreamworks, d. Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Alessandro Carloni)
Storks (Warner Bros./Sony Imageworks, d. Nicholas Stoller, Doug Sweetland)
The Angry Birds Movie (Sony/Rovio, d. Clay Kaytis, Fergal Reilly)

In a year with mature family films, true adult animation, funny cartoon features, and huge blockbusters, the category that finds itself on the outside looking in is the generic all-ages animal feature. These films are perfectly valid forms of entertainment and reliable money makers for their respective entertainment conglomerates. In a weaker year, it’s easy to imagine some of them having been nominated, and they are worthy of individual awards at the VES and Annies (Kung Fu Panda 3, for example, is one of the best art directed films of the year). But as the art of animated features matures, it’s hard to imagine that the average family-oriented animal cast feature will merit consideration as a contender for the title of the year’s best animated feature.

Last-Minute Surprises

Moana (Disney, d. John Musker, Ron Clements)
Sing (Universal/Illumination, d. Garth Jennings)

If the year wasn’t crowded enough already, there are still two major films to be released before the end of the year, both of them being positioned by their studios as potential award season contenders. Disney’s Moana, opening in the U.S. today, is the first film from John Musker and Ron Clements since their 2009 clunker The Princess and the Frog. They haven’t made a truly beloved animated film since Aladdin, which came out 24 years ago, but they may have finally cracked the nut with Moana, a film that is entering theaters with great reviews and buzz.

Illumination’s Sing, arriving next month, is a quirky concept that looks like another guaranteed money maker for Universal, but does it have enough of a unique sensibility to separate itself from the funny animal brigade? It might, thanks to an unconventional directing choice: Garth Jennings (Son of Rambow, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), who also wrote the film. It’s one to keep an eye on.

Amid Amidi

Amid Amidi

Amid Amidi is Cartoon Brew's Publisher and Editor-at-large.

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