The award for Best Animated Feature only began at the Oscars in 2001, but since then it has quickly become one of the most respected and followed categories, even as the Oscars’ overall cultural cachet continues to deplete steadily. This year, too, the five nominees make up a really strong field, featuring arguably the world’s most beloved maker of animated films alongside a host of exciting new names working across a range of styles. Any one of these films would make for a worthy winner, it has to be said.
Peter Sohn’s Elemental is Pixar doing what it does best — creating heartwarming stories featuring unconventional protagonists. Elemental is set in a world peopled by anthropomorphic natural elements, like the two central characters Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) and Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie). As their names suggest, Ember is a fire element while Wade is a water element, so their developing feelings for each other is complicated, to say the least. Truth be told, Elemental has the heart and soul of a really good Bollywood melodrama and therefore it knows exactly how and when to roll out the lachrymose moments — like the one where Wade makes the usually-fiery Ember cry by admitting his feelings for her.
Pixar’s usual animation style, featuring clean lines and minimalist facial features, is adapted slightly for this film. The lines are softer, more fluid, and the animators impressively incorporate the laws of physics (specifically, those governing how water and fire move). An ideal watch for a lazy Sunday, just keep the hankies within arm’s reach.
Nick Bruno and Troy Quane’s Nimona is adapted from ND Stevenson’s superb 2015 graphic novel of the same name. When I reviewed the book, I was especially impressed by the story’s allusive, postmodern humour and its adept subversion of ‘science vs. magic’ tropes. The film takes these strengths to the next level, imbuing its shapeshifting protagonist with a layer of additional pathos.
The story, a send-up of superhero tales, follows a supervillain called Ballister Boldheart, and his sidekick, the titular Nimona, a cheerful and rotund teenager who is actually a super-powerful shapeshifter. The animation style is in line with Stevenson’s deceptively simple-looking illustrations, and the end product is one of the best YA (young adult) stories of the decade.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was one of those rare animated films that became not just box office royalty but also one of the most critically-acclaimed films of the last few years. It was always going to be an uphill task to follow that up, but somehow last year’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse did exactly that. In this story, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who has just made his peace with the existence of the multiverse (and the presence of multiple Spider-people), must fight a deadly, dimension-hopping new supervillain called The Spot (Jason Schwartzman).
Much of the earlier film’s visual trickery is improved upon here, with spectacular results: the Spot, for instance, looks like a rough pencil sketch to begin with but as he starts adding to his strength, his ‘outline’ becomes clearer to the audience as well. My only complaint with the film is that it ends on a whopper of a cliffhanger, like so many franchise films do these days. It remains to be seen whether the Academy voters choose to overlook this.
Pablo Berger’s Robot Dreams is perhaps the most poignant, bittersweet nominee this year, one which takes its billing as ‘tragicomedy’ very seriously indeed. Based on the eponymous Sara Varon comic strip, this is the story of a dog (named, simply, Dog) who out of loneliness builds a robot friend for himself. And if you’re thinking that such a story must be filled with schmaltzy, overly sentimental dialogue, think again. Robot Dreams’ big artistic conceit is that it has no spoken lines of dialogue at all (although written/ printed text does appear sometimes).
The illustration/ animation style is quite conventional: big, stark, well-defined lines a la children’s comic-books, which works perfectly because these characters are archetypes, not mavericks. Think 90s’ Archie’s comics, but even goofier. A wonderfully mature take on friendship, loneliness and the inevitable changes that happen to everybody as they age.
The Boy and the Heron
Which brings us, at last, to The Boy and the Heron by grandmaster Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli. We were told after his last film, The Wind Rises (2013), that the maestro had retired, and so this new film feels all the more like a surprise gift. The story follows a young boy named Mahito during the Pacific War. Mahito’s mother has recently died in a hospital fire and his father has married the dead woman’s sister. Lonely, vulnerable and confused, Mahito discovers an abandoned tower in his town — a tower that comes with a miraculous talking grey heron. As the heron draws Mahito further and further into a magical, oceanic dreamworld, the young boy must figure out this realm’s secrets — and make his peace with his own repressed emotions.
Miyazaki has always had a genius for combining fantastic, otherworldly visuals with very grounded and realistic emotional dilemmas. The Boy and the Heron is no different, and is among his finest works yet. His signature 2D animation style — with hand-painted frames that use watercolours and acrylic paint — never looked as gorgeous as it does here.
I think both Robot Dreams and The Boy and the Heron are strong favourites thanks to their overall quality. Quite simply, these are films that are far too good in far too many departments. But as I mentioned earlier, the rest of the field is pretty strong as well and I think, say, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse winning would be no slight on any of its fellow nominees either.
The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.