The Academy Award for ‘Best Animated Feature’.
To some, the highest achievement one can attain within the medium of animation, and to others, the award can be best described as the “Oh well just give it to Disney/Pixar” Award. And while that may seem like the case, there are many, many examples to prove that the (mostly) illustrious award is still a grand prize, only to be captured by the best that the industry has to offer.
So, did the award live up to its own pomp and circumstance? Let’s find out, shall we?
The award got it’s start in 2001, with a very strong field of candidates in its inaugural year, with Pixar’s Monster’s Inc., a movie often heralded as one of Pixar’s finest, with the premise still holding up as one of the most endearing Pixar have ever conjured up, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, a movie by Nickelodeon based on the wildly successful show Jimmy Neutron. Although both movies, while great in their own right, fell to the eventual pop culture juggernaut Shrek, arguably DreamWorks’ greatest ever contribution to the animation scene.
And honestly? What more can really be said? It’s Shrek, you know, the big green meme man who won’t shut up about swamps and onions. I would be doing Shrek a disservice to not throw it under the microscope by itself, so let’s move on to pastures less…orge-y…
2002. Now, this may be one of the most shining examples at the creative freedom and expression animation can offer. Disney fielded two candidates for the honour, the wildly successful Lilo and Stitch, one of their best works throughout the 2000’s, and Treasure Planet, which, while not as successful financially as it’s counterpart, is still a beloved piece of work by not only the people who watched it, but the people who made it, as directors Ron Clements and John Musker famously battled to get the movie made.
Meanwhile, DreamWorks continued to deliver, with Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron living up to the bar it’s big, green predecessor set. And newcomer to the scene, Blue Sky Studios, bagged a nomination with their debut feature film, Ice Age. Although, through it all, none can argue that Studio Ghibli’s cinematic masterpiece Spirited Away deserved the crown. Often heralded as one of the greatest animated movies ever made, even all these years later, Spirited Away shines as one of the biggest creative successes in history, and as good as the other nominees were, Spirited Away trumps them all.
2003 was admittedly a slower year for the category, as only three nominees were selected, and some would argue that the overall quality had diminished slightly. Disney’s candidate Brother Bear was perceived as a fun, brilliantly animated adventure, but was sometimes described as a shallow affair that did little to capitalise on the emotional resonance of it’s opening act.
Independent director Slyvain Chomet hit the field with his movie The Triplets of Belleville, with the film receiving heaps of praise for its delightful sense of charm and intrinsic feel of wonder, with the film also receiving the distinction of being the first PG-13 movie to be nominated for Best Animated Feature. Although Pixar’s underwater escapade Finding Nemo trumped both to the award, with Pixar’s fishy friends capturing the immense beauty of the ocean in all it’s glory, sparing no details to create a deeply wonderful experience.
2004 was somewhat of a mixed bag for the category. The field stuck with 3 candidates yet again, but two of these candidates are arguably some of the greatest productions of all animation, with only one questionable outlier. This outlier was, of course, DreamWorks’ Shark Tale. This movie left many people scratching their heads as to how it was included, as it was widely perceived as a bizarre blip in the nomination process due to the film’s critical reception, which was largely negative towards the pop-culture infested mess.
However, what rescues 2004 is the immutable quality and shine of it’s other two candidates, The Incredibles and Shrek 2. Both films are described as paragons of animation, and rightly so, as both hold their own with tightly written scripts that are nothing short of excellent, with both offering exceptional characters, bright spots with amazing humour, low spots with appropriate emotional weight, and everything in between. You’d be forgiven for not being able to select a winner, but on that night The Academy chose The Incredibles, although the award could’ve gone to either party and nobody would complain, both films are just that great.
2005 was again another three-candidate outing for the category, but once again, all three delivered, with all three picks not slacking in any way. Studio Ghibli came back with a vengeance, or rather Howl’s Moving Castle, which while not as well known as their 2002 offering, is still a wildly beloved classic which further cements Studio Ghibli’s legacy as one of the most consistently great animation studios throughout the 2000’s.
Tim Burton and Mike Johnson made an appearance with Corpse Bride, one of Burton’s more notorious works, and DreamWorks paired with Aardman to deliver Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of The Were-Rabbit, a charmingly hilarious piece of the legacy of Wallace and Gromit, and of stop-motion animation as a whole, with this win cementing stop motion as the most timeless form of animation of all.
Now…2006. 2006 was the first year of the category that lacked the gut punch of brilliance we had come to expect from the first five years of this category. Pixar had their first blip in quality for a very long time with Cars, a somewhat lukewarm affair compared to their bombastic and emotionally rich offerings in previous years. Monster House marked the debut of motion capture to the category, albeit in a rather unrefined style when looked through a modern lens, but still a big step forward for the industry.
And the mastermind behind 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller, further showed his creative chops with his winner, Happy Feet. While not as well received as his crown jewel in Mad Max, Happy Feet still carries a lot of enjoyable qualities, albeit through a somewhat muddied tone.
2007 marked a return to form for all parties, as Pixar roared back to their best with eventual winner Ratouille, often regarded as one of their most intellectual and inspiring works. The independent scene showed its mettle with Persepolis, the biographical drama that touched hearts the world over, and…Surf’s Up.
Remember the movie with the surfing penguins? Well, you’d be forgiven for saying no, because compared to the emotional turbulence the other two offer, Surf’s Up gets lost in the shuffle. But very few can deny the quality the other two selections bring to the table, with another independent darling and a return to form for Pixar showed animation was not slowing down in the slightest.
It was a somewhat similar story in 2008, although with the overall consistency and quality of the offerings raised from the previous year, and leaps and bounds ahead of the 2006 field. To start, Disney’s Bolt carries an emotionally charged core at the heart of a heart-warming adventure in typical Disney fashion.
DreamWorks struck gold with the wildly successful Kung Fu Panda, which would go on to spark a beloved trilogy with rich characters and emotional plotlines, not slowing down for anything throughout its runtime across three movies.
And Pixar scored another win with WALL-E, another spectacular tale from the Pixar gold mine, featuring a gorgeous romp through the future with a powerful message at its core. Overall, 2008 was a step up from 2007, but brighter years still lay on the horizon.
2009 was a absolutely one of those bright years, with many saying 2009 stands as the gold standard in the entire medium, with the usual offerings from Disney and Pixar standing tall, but with creative titans Henry Selick and Wes Anderson stepping into the scene, but in the case of the latter, making his animation debut.
Selick brought the wonderfully woven Coraline to the table, crafting a beautifully animated world, bustling with life, substance, and above all, an intently creepy atmosphere that Selick masterfully manipulates throughout. Wes Anderson, however, took his unique style and flair, translated it to the Roald Dahl classic Fantastic Mr. Fox, and created something…well, fantastic.
Disney closed out a somewhat tumultuous decade with a return to their Old Reliable, a 2D animated musical in The Princess and The Frog. And Pixar turned out the eventual winner with Up, a charming addition to their wonderful catalogue of emotional tales and rich animated ballads.
2010 returned to a three candidate field again, but this did not dwell for long in the mind, as the field was packed with both an established juggernaut of the industry, with the most iconic animated series of all time in Toy Story delivering the third instalment in its now-quadrilogy.
Now, while many say that Toy Story 2 eclipses Toy Story 3, few can argue the emotional value that 3 brings to the table, providing a clear progression of 2’s narrative beats and questions. DreamWorks meanwhile brought out another new franchise, this time a film adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s 2003 book of the same name.
HTTYD took the franchise to new heights, portraying a beautiful story of discovering one’s true purpose and place in the world, as well as the beautiful emotional core that runs throughout the whole story. The independent scene stepped up in a big way, with Sylvain Chomet returning with The Illusionist, garnering his second nomination in 4 credited works.
The 2000’s were a tumultuous time for animation, with Disney and DreamWorks delivering a mixed bag, although not without their share of smash hits. Even Pixar were not immune from this, with their first creative ‘miss’ since their founding. However, the category is still going strong to this day, with a whole new decade of animated mastery to look through in the 2010’s, animation certainly isn’t going away.