86th Academy Awards - 2nd March 2014
The contenders: The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest and Celestine, Frozen, The Wind Rises
The winner: Frozen
The rightful winner: The Wind Rises
The barrel-scraper: The Croods, Despicable Me 2
If you had any lingering doubts that Disney was on the verge of a brand new Renaissance (or hopes that they were not, if you were a 2D animation fan still yearning to see Disney put away the flashy new technology and return to their traditional hand-drawn roots) then those were certainly obliterated the instant you caught sight of the box office figures for their 2013 Thanksgiving offering. Despite being a darling with the internet nerds, Wreck-It Ralph was only really a moderate hit with the public. Tangled did better, but its freakishly high budget would have made it difficult for it to have broken even. Frozen, by contrast, was the kind of mega hit that loudly announced that Disney were back in fashion - nay, that they had birthed the kind of cultural phenomenon not seen since the middle point of their 1990s Renaissance days. Wherever you were on Earth in late 2013/early 2014, there was no escaping Frozen fever. It ate brains and consumed souls. A testament to how well Disney had finally adapted to modern sensibilities - Frozen celebrates sisterly love over romantic love, has a bad guy who doesn't wear his villainy on his sleeve, and has an LGBT subtext which, if not actually intentional, then doesn't seem like much of a stretch - or simply to how much of a killing you can make if you pen a catchy enough song? I'm convinced that a huge portion of Frozen's profits have to do with how enraptured people were with "Let It Go", which is real earworm (for the life of me, I can't remember any other songs from the film, aside from one of them having lyrics about sandwiches). But the film's certainly not bad in other respects. Frozen is, in many ways, a very traditional Disney film, yet also one which plays with familiar Disney convention and uses the viewer's expectations to its advantage. Disney had made a film which might be described as progressive - it would be nice if it had happened twenty-four years beforehand, of course, but better late than never.
As Oscar night drew nearer, most people were in agreement that Frozen would own this, securing Disney its very first victory since the award for Best Animated Feature began. This was all that Disney needed to demonstrate that they might one day reclaim their throne as kings of the animation industry. There were, however, a few dissenters who reasoned that the award might go to The Wind Rises, which Hayao Miyazaki had formally announced would be his last film before retirement (although he has since gone back on that, and not for the first time). I have to admit that by the time we got to March I was suffering from Frozen fatigue, and I would have been fine if the award had gone to The Wind Rises, which I considered the superior picture. Miyazaki's film has no annoying snowman sidekicks for a start (in fairness, Olaf was nowhere near as witless a creation as I figured he would be, and there is something endearingly tragic about his yearning to see summer, but I'm not sure I buy the bullshit means by which he ultimately escapes his fate - it happened to David Bowie's snowman friend, and I maintain that it should have happened here. As a bonus, we would have avoided the entire Frozen Adventure debacle). I had no delusions that the night would belong to anyone other than Disney, mind. Frozen had the Hollywood factor in its side, and plus not everyone felt comfortable about the subject matter of The Wind Rises, given that it's based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed fighter aircraft for Japan in World War II (though Miyazaki, a pacifist, puts the focus squarely on Horikoshi's passion for creation and the tragedy of how his talents were ultimately channeled).
Of the three entries which didn't have a snowball's, the strongest by far was La Parti Productions' Ernest and Celestine, a French 2D animation from directorial trio Stephene Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner, the former two of which had previously collaborated on the joyously bonkers stop motion comedy Panique au village (2009). Based on a series of children's books by Gabrielle Vincent, Ernest and Celestine tells the story of the mutually strained relations between the bears who inhabit a city and the sewer-dwelling rodents below, and two the titular dissenters who feel a sense of friendly fascination toward their foe (think One Stormy Night, except that it's actually good and doesn't have a weirdly sexual subtext). It's not quite as deliriously, endearingly deranged as Panique au village, but it is extremely endearing, and it has that sense of irresistible whimsy that A Cat in Paris was sorely lacking.
Frozen may have reached the dizzying heights of a cultural phenomenon, but 2013 was another weak year for Hollywood animation overall, and we did have two entries which, in the proud tradition of Jimmy Neutron, Brother Bear and just about everything from the 2012 awards, were blatantly just here to take up space. The first of these was DreamWorks Animation's latest, The Croods, a caveman pic which had a long gestation period, having started out as an Aardman project which DreamWorks were left holding when the studios parted ways in 2007, and which was ultimately inherited by ex-Disney director Chris Sanders when he joined DreamWorks later that year (only to be put on hold so that he could first make How To Train Your Dragon). Within that time, The Croods went through a number of rewrites, and what we have in the end is a "nice enough" film that feels awfully slight. The caveman wander around for a bit, edge a bit closer toward modern living, then something dramatic happens in the third act and that's it. I have two major qualms with it, both of which concern that aforementioned third act: its appallingly implemented false ending (the film initially looks as if it's going to close on a surprisingly ballsy tearjerker, only to back out of that and go on for a further ten minutes) and the film's actual ending, which feels way too reminiscent of the ending to How To Train Your Dragon.
Second was Despicable Me 2, Illumination's first (and, at the time of writing, only) film to be nominated for this award. Up until now I'd been doing a good job of steering clear of the Despicable Me franchise, but for the purposes of covering everything on this list I did finally have to swallow my pride and sit down with this one. A friend of mine offered to feel me in on what happened in the first film and then proceeded to go off on a protracted rant about how dubious the moral was, in that it was basically preaching that bad guys are all single people without families and that the main character finds redemption through his interest in raising an adopted litter. I suppose I gleaned enough about the plot from that. Anyway, Despicable Me 2 was much as I expected. Animation style has a nice slick sheen to it, story is serviceable but nothing too special, those helium-sucking Minion things are certainly NOT my cup of tea (well, except for that one who fancied himself and Lucy as an item; I have to admit that did raise a smile). It goes without saying that this thing is lowbrow as fuck, which depending on your personal tastes may make or break it for you - if you like gags about shark abuse, psychotic chickens and characters who snicker uncontrollably when they hear the word "bottom", then Despicable Me 2 has you pretty well covered.
The Snub Club:
Remember how last year DreamWorks tried something just a little above their station with Rise of The Guardians and it didn't quite work out for them? Well, this year it was Blue Sky's turn to aim high and plummet. They turned out Epic, their most serious and ambitious film to date, and the world couldn't have been less impressed. Epic received tepid reviews from the critics and made less domestically than any other Blue Sky film at the time (and barely more than Robots worldwide). Myself, I had mixed feelings about Epic. On the one hand, it was nice to see Blue Sky step out of their comfort zone and try something other than a buddy comedy about sitcom-minded animals (or robots). That Epic barely made a dent at the box office while an absolute piece of shit like Ice Age: Continental Drift made over 800 million worldwide was probably not indication that they would straying from their formula again any time soon. Then again, Epic is ambitious without being particularly inspired or innovative. It tries to be something more mature and sophisticated than we'd ordinarily associate with this studio yet ultimately succumbs to too many bad habits - those two wisecracking slug sidekicks are very archetypal Blue Sky characters, cut from the same obnoxious cloth as the sloth from Ice Age and the bulldog from Rio. We also get a frog voiced by Pitbull who fits in about as well here as he would have done in Frozen (there's an uneasy tension between the film's dual pursuits of old-school adventure and modern, cutting edge hipness that's never resolved). At least there's a real cute pug dog.
Epic was based on the book The Leaf Men and The Brave Good Bugs by William Joyce, which I've never read, but I get a strong sense of what was so misguided about the production just from Chris Wedge's words in this USA Today interview, "while Bill wrote a wonderful book, it is a quaint story. We wanted to make a gigantic action-adventure story." In other words, they took all the character and subtlety out of Joyce's creation and made it into something flashy and cookie cutter. Also, I don't know if the notion of a war between Life and Decay came from Joyce or Blue Sky, but I'm not sure if I buy the two as opposing forces - aren't life and decay just part of the same ongoing cycle? What's a detritivore supposed to do?
A notable absentee from this year's nominations were Academy favourites Pixar - this was only the second time since the award began that they had been shut out from the ceremony (the previous occasion was in 2012 - with Cars 2, so no one actually cared, mind). The Academy have been accused, both rightly and wrongly, of showing an enormous amount of favouritism to Pixar over the years, but honestly I think that it swings both ways and that the Academy can be particularly hard on Pixar when they fail to live up to expectations. Monsters University is definitely average by Pixar standards but I'm not sure if I'd call it an objectively worse film than The Croods or Despicable Me 2. Maybe it's more the principle of the thing. This glimpse into Mike and Sulley's frat boy days was 100% unnecessary and I know that a lot of people shared my unease about how reliant Pixar were slowly becoming upon eking out their existing franchises - no one likes to see the masters of innovation be divorced from their original touch.
And then there was Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 and - ugh, no way am I touching this one. Just looking at the trailers for this made me feel really unwell. I said that the original film makes the act of eating look seriously unsexy, but this one looks more like some kind of food poisoning-induced nightmare. I strongly believe that this may be the one film with the potential to freak me out more than Meet The Feebles. You're going to have to find me in a far more masochistic frame of mind.