The Oscars had a fair share of excitement on Sunday, especially in regards to the mix up over the Best Picture award. However, our attention is focused elsewhere, as Disney took home their ninth award in the Best Animated Feature category in the last ten Oscars. Disney has a history as an animation studio, but they have faced much criticism in recent years as the Academy has revealed their negligence in viewing both the Animated Shorts and Animated Features nominated. This has left many wondering if Disney has truly earned their awards in recent years, and leaves some questions around how the Animated categories are treated by the Academy.
Disney’s recent Oscar spree was called into question in 2014, when an interview by Scott Feinberg of the Reporter came to light. Feinberg surveyed seven Academy members about who they voted for and their selections for the animation and VFX categories, revealing that most had no working knowledge of animation or VFX, and that most had not viewed all the nominees — if they had viewed any of them at all. Feinberg surveyed the Academy once again in 2015, revealing the same negligence as addressed in an article from Cartoon Brew; a reputable animation news site. The survey revealed that, if the voters had chosen to view the films at all, they often voted for Disney as a default, or even went so far as to allow their children to decide which film was the most ‘entertaining’, and therefore best. Some voters opted to abstain altogether, opting to watch other films and dismissing the animated features. Their responses on the Animated Shorts were all the more disappointing, as those who did vote cast their ballots for what was ‘cute’ or because, “I’m a dog lover, so this one was no contest.”
For a genre that has so much potential and artistry to be dismissed as ‘childish’ or ‘not worth the time’ is unbelievably disheartening. Animation has the capability to suspend disbelief and transport viewers into worlds more brilliant and breathtaking than our own. It is an art form in and of itself, honed by talented artists, effects artists, and humans who have put blood, sweat, and tears into their work. Many animated films take as long, if not longer, to develop than their live action counterparts, and the acting within the films is on par with that of a real human on screen. Studios like Ghibli, CoMix Wave Films, and Wild Bunch push the limits of the art form, creating new looks, more dynamic shots, and eliciting empathic reactions from adults and children alike. In comparison to films like Your Name (CoMix), The Wind Rises (Ghibli), and Song of the Sea (Cartoon Saloon), Disney falls flat — their animation and narratives are often procedural and lazy (see the various Frozen flubs and the lukewarm response to Brave), revealing just how little they care for the art form.
This year was a rare exception for Disney, however, as they stepped up their narrative game with both Zootopia and Moana. Zootopia dealt with some difficult themes around oppression and profiling, while Moana offered a world unfamiliar to western audiences, centered in South Pacific Island mythology. Both featured solid animation and shot choices, though Moana outstripped Zootopia by providing more varied body types, stunning VFX across the board, and a more dynamic flow overall. Many I spoke with expected Moana or Zootopia to take home the Oscar, even though they were up alongside The Red Turtle (Wild Bunch/Ghibli), My Life as a Zucchini (Claude Barras), and Kubo and the Two Strings (Laika)–all strong contenders. Unsurprisingly, Zootopia took home the award–the most western film out of the line up.
It’s well known that the Academy has lacked diversity over the years, and the Best Animated Feature category is no different. Foreign films have been overlooked in favor of Disney for years, and Disney’s consecutive wins have demonstrated this. Additionally, many films this year were snubbed both at the Oscars and in other stateside festivals, as European/American films were prioritized over films like Your Name (the first anime feature to outperform Ghibli’s Spirited Away both in Japan and globally) and The Red Turtle. The lack of understanding around the art form and how it functions only aggravates this problem, as the Academy continues to favor what it’s familiar with over what is actually groundbreaking in the genre.
Ultimately, the Academy does not care for the Animated categories, regardless of what the films have to say, or how they push the art form of film and cinematography to new levels. It’s a disappointing trend, especially in a world where VFX now make or break major films, and many of the effects viewers now enjoy would not exist without animators and their innovations in the medium (motion capture is a great example of this). Disney’s Zootopia win this year has been more earned than some of their successes years previous, but to continue rewarding mediocre work will only hurt the industry as a whole in the long run. Animation is an art form that deserves to be taken as seriously as its live action counterparts, as it has just as much to say and show to all audiences.