The contenders: The Incredibles, Shark Tale, Shrek 2The winner: The IncrediblesThe rightful winner: The IncrediblesThe barrel-scraper: Everything else. But Shark Tale in particular.
2004 must have been a heck of a slow year, if this was really the best line-up the Academy could scrape together at the end of it - a Pixar pedigree versus a mediocre DreamWorks and an absolute rock-bottom DreamWorks. A friend of mine who loved The Incredibles complained that, though he was pleased to see it win Best Animated Feature, it felt like a pretty hollow victory when all it had to contend with were Shrek 2 and Shark Tale. And he was right. How lousy for The Incredibles.
One of the things I really appreciated about The Incredibles back in 2004 was its freshness; thematically and tonally, it didn't didn't resemble any Pixar film before it, its fusion of pulpy superhero antics and sharply-observed suburban satire seeming more akin to a kind of blockbuster take on The Simpsons than to the wistful re-immersions in childhood fantasy that had characterised their earlier output. I know that some Pixar fans aren't big on Brad Bird and feel that his snarky tone was out of step with Pixar's style, but I couldn't disagree more - in my opinion, his was the new and unique voice Pixar urgently needed at a time when they were at the peak of their commercial success and couldn't afford to grow complacent. It was reassuring to see Pixar willing to step out of their comfort zone and try something a little different (as opposed to Renaissance Disney, who went the Happy Meal route and expected audiences to be happy with the same formula over and over).
I'll be honest about Shrek 2. I didn't hate it nearly as much as I feared I would. I mentioned in my commentary on the 2002 award that I wasn't wild about the original, but the sequel actually addressed a number of my quibbles with it - for example, the addition of Puss In Boots did a lot to improve the main character dynamics and to undercut Donkey's irritability (not that I didn't still want to punch the ugly-ass ass in his over-sized kisser) and it didn't feel nearly as bileful in terms of its Disney mockery. It was still a flimsy story that had little reason to exist outside of cashing in on the public's goodwill toward the original, however. (Side-note: I was in Australia when I saw Shrek 2, for which I am very grateful, as the UK release had some phenomenally stupid localisations added in.) It also showed off, more than the original Shrek, a growing bugbear of DreamWorks' output - namely, their assumption that a mere pop culture reference could be substituted for a joke in itself. Hence, Shrek 2 is choc full of utterly useless references to Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings, among others, which are only there because..."well, you like Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings, don't you?" Shark Tale was the result of that line of thinking carried out to a nauseating extreme - "Hey audiences! We assume that Jaws and The Godfather are things you're vaguely aware of and obviously you love Will Smith and Jack Black, so wouldn't you like a movie where they play piscine versions of themselves and make a whole ton of Jaws and Godfather references?" Turns out, a lot of people didn't care for the results, and Shark Tale marked the beginning of a certain backlash against DreamWorks animation, which still wasn't enough to keep it from being nominated for Best Animated Feature. Like I say, a heck of a slow year.
The Snub Club:
....having said all that, we know that, as per the rules of this award, there would have been at least five other films submitted for consideration, or else it would not have been presented at all. Which means that there were at least five films the Academy deemed less worthy of nomination than Shark Tale...so what the hell could they have been?
(Oh, and a small disclaimer: "The Snub Club" is where I'll be giving a general overview of some of the year's animated output that didn't make the nominees list. Not all of these were necessarily submitted for consideration in the first place, however.)
One of the unlucky five+, I'm assuming, was Disney's Sweating Bullocks - sorry, Home On The Range, which at the time was officially announced as being their last traditional 2D animation feature, much to the heartbreak of many an old school Disney fan the world over, including yours truly. Home On The Range was another of Disney's leftover projects which had been kicking around in Development Hell for way too long, and by this stage their aspirations weren't very much higher than to get it out there and move on. The film was met with near-total indifference by the public, and with near-total scorn by those aforementioned Disney fans, who were at least hoping to see the form go out with a smidgen of its dignity intact. Like Brother Bear before it, Home On The Range was hopelessly out of sync with the zeitgeist of the 2000s, although by far its biggest problem is that the story has absolutely no momentum behind it; by the time the heroes have overcome their self-loathing and saved the farm, the film barely feels like it's even gotten going. Oh, but I did appreciate that pun at the expense of that godawful horse movie DreamWorks Animation had released a couple of years prior; it almost made the entire experience worthwhile.
Elsewhere in 2004, Nickelodeon unleashed The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie, notable for being the last in a line of theatrical feature films based on the company's catalogue of TV cartoons that had followed the surprise success of The Rugrats Movie in 1998 - until early 2015, that is, when SpongeBob was apparently still popular enough to receive a second theatrical outing. The 2004 offering was largely squeezed out of the limelight by The Incredibles and had a decent but underwhelming run at the box office; that it failed to top the 100 million+ domestic gross of The Rugrats Movie was ultimately regarded as a disappointment. Nickelodeon weren't the only ones to attempt to capitalise on the perceived market for these theatrical TV spin-offs - early in 2004, Disney Television Animation had released Teacher's Pet (spin-off to a television series I'd never even heard of, which shows how out of the loop I'd become), which bombed pretty hard and helped spell an end to the trend.
We also had Robert Zemeckis's unpleasant visual experiment The Polar Express, which was animated using motion capture and did not exactly go down a treat with most who laid eyes on it (if I'd been a kid in 2004 and my parents had dragged me to see The Polar Express I suspect I'd still be having nightmares to this day). Actually, in 2010 the Academy revised their rules specifically to exclude motion capture animation from this category, which I'm certainly not losing any sleep over. Motion capture has its place in modern cinema (see Andy Serkis's repertoire) but I never much got Zemeckis's fascination with hurtling head-first into the Uncanny Valley. Then again, I never much got Zemeckis period. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a great movie, but Forrest Gump is the absolute pits.