Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Best Animated Feature and Why We Need a Best Children's Film Oscar

I've mentioned before on this blog that one of the - ahem - hallmarks of my family Christmas experience is my mother's taste in movies. Put simply, my mother has never met a Christmas film she didn't like, or at least find watchable. She's always on the hunt for pleasant holiday background noise while she sews or wraps presents. She's watched more than her fair share of made for TV movies and with the rise of Netflix, and the Netflix Christmas deluge we get each year, her numbers have only gone up.

Of course, what she really hopes for is that somewhere, buried in the pile of yellow Christmas snow, she'll stumble across a film that can join the likes of White Christmas, A Christmas Carol and Ernest Saves Christmas in the family's yearly holiday rotation. Still, she doesn't expect much from the average Christmas flick and I - who frequently gets dragged into watching these movies with her - have learned to hope for even less.

Which is part of what made this year such a treat. One Friday night in November, we fired up Netflix, hunting for a Christmas movie, and it immediately recommended a new animated film to us. It was, of course, Klaus, which is also the first foray Netflix has taken into producing feature length animation.

A few minutes into the movie, my father hadn't left the room in disinterest yet, mom had laughed at several jokes and I'd complimented the animation style roughly fifty times. At this point I looked at my mother and said, "wait... did we put a good movie on?"

I was just as confused as Jesper when I found myself enjoying this film.
Yes, Virginia. By some Christmas miracle, it turned out that we were watching a good movie.

A "New" Christmas "Classic"

Klaus isn't perfect, but there is so very much to like about it. The story offers a fun, new take on the story of Santa Claus, with enjoyable characters and a plot that, while predictable, really strikes the heartstrings in the end. WHEN HE WALKS OFF INTO THE SNOW, GUYS! WHEN HE WALKS OFF!!!! (Insert crying face here). Still, where the film really shines isn't so much in the story department as it is the visuals.

Sergio Pablos directed the film and spent years developing its style and story to be exactly as he wanted it, but for a long time, couldn't find a studio willing to back it. It was risky for several reasons, the Christmas content among them. Most recent film studios haven't been able to make much money off of Christmas theater releases, due to the stiff competition from the likes of Disney and other headliner movies. To give an idea, if Klaus had been in theaters during this same time frame, it would have faced off against Frozen II and likely fallen flatter than a pancake.

Luckily, Netflix isn't trying to fill theater seats. The Christmas movie crowd is more likely to want to watch something new while bundled up in cozy blankets, sipping cocoa. It was why Christmas movies were such a natural market for Netflix in the first place and Klaus's Christmas focus meant they could guarantee themselves an audience for their first, splashy foray into animated film.

Still, they could have gone the lazy way making this film, (as Netflix has been willing to be with some of their other Christmas fare), but everything about Klaus speaks to what a passion project it was. The last 2D animated film produced by a major Hollywood studio was Winnie the Pooh, an adaptation Disney put out in 2011. Before that, it was Princess and the Frog in 2009. Both of those movies have their fans, but their lack of box office domination led Disney to give up on their brief flirtation with trying to bring 2D animation back after its collapse in the early 2000s.

When Sergio Pablos made Klaus, he wanted to create something that wasn't such a nostalgic throwback, as Disney's last two attempts were, but instead had its own style that incorporated digital tools. By utilizing software to shade and light the characters, his studio created something that had the expressive, cartoony quality so loved about old hand drawn cartoons, while also benefiting from the depth and sense of three dimensional form that makes 3D animation so beautiful. And to do this, his team had to develop all the new software themselves.

I highly recommend checking out YouTube and the many videos that showcase the animation style of Klaus from test footage all the way up to it's released form. They provide a fascinating behind the scenes look at the production of animation and give some idea of how much work and thought went into this goofy Christmas flick.

I've wanted to write about Klaus for a while, but couldn't settle on the right angle, then Christmas came and went, making me sad I lost my chance. But lo and behold, the Blogging Gods must be looking out for me, because Klaus just faced off against Frozen II again and this time, it won.

Oscar Madness

As of the writing of this blog post, I have seen every Oscar winning animated movie ever. In fact, I even have ranked them, a list I plan on updating once this year's winner is announced. More than likely, I'm going to need to see this year's winner first, since I didn't get to many movies in theater during early 2019, due to a lack of wiggle room in my budget.

I've heard good things about all of the nominees. While I find any year that doesn't nominate at least one Japanese film a bit suspicious, I do think the list is a good representation of the diversity of films that North American and European animation studios are putting out. I'm not quite sure which horse I'm cheering for the most. By virtue of Toy Story 4 being in the mix, it's the default front runner, as the Academy historically bends to Disney and Pixar if they turn out a film that registers as "good." That's the problem of the Academy awards. More often than not, they award the big players who have deep pockets for "For Your Consideration" campaigns and private viewings with Academy voters.

So when the nominees were announced and Klaus beat out Frozen II to take the final spot on the ballot, I will admit, I cheered a little. The film had been snubbed at the Golden Globes, not just in favor of Frozen II, but also for that brown mush of a movie, Disney's new Lion King, which is nothing but a shroud of a better film. To be clear, I don't dislike Frozen II. It's fine. But it lacks the heart of the first movie and I can't say I came home from it feeling particularly much of anything. It certainly didn't illicit the same reaction I had at Klaus because WHEN HE WALKS OFF INTO THE SNOW, GUYS!!!!

If I had to pinpoint one reason why Frozen II didn't work for me, it was likely because none of the emotional stakes felt very real. The film didn't do the best job of setting up the emotional thrust of the film, unlike the first one, where you feel the ache of the sisters' loneliness within a couple short scenes. Frozen II spent a long time trying to establish its emotional heart of righting past wrongs, no matter the consequences. When the climax came, and Anna is making her pivotal choices alone and singing her song, my thoughts were more, "oh, so THIS is what the story was building to" rather than "OH MY HEART!!!" I also don't think the story was helped by the use of *SPOILER* a false death scene for Elsa or Olaf in it because, as an adult, I just couldn't believe this movie would kill it's characters. They make Disney too much money for that.

Into the Unknown: Where Elsa literally states that
she doesn't know why she's doing this movie.

Now, some of you might be going, "but it's a KIDS movie! My kid couldn't tell Olaf wasn't dead! That hit him super hard! You can't judge Disney for not meeting your cynical expectations as an adult viewer! It still deserved to be nominated for an Oscar!" To that I have two counter arguments.

1) Klaus is a kids movie too, that still manages tight emotional stakes, as evidenced by WHEN HE WALKS OFF INTO THE SNOW!!! SERIOUSLY!!!!!!

2) Here's the thing... the award is for best animated movie. Not best kid's movie.

So, um... What's that Oscar About, Anyway?

I have watched every single winner of the best animated movie Oscar and every one of them is appropriate for children. Rango might not be particularly interesting to younger children, but still, a kid over ten would have no problem with it.

The Academy still reflects the views of white North America towards film, despite its efforts to diversify. One of the consequences of that is a lack of appreciation or acceptance of animated films that are not made for children. Japanese animation is notably more diverse in terms of its intended audience, yet if you look at which Japanese anime films get nominated for Oscars, it's predominantly the ones that can be marketed towards children.

Occasionally, we get outliers. This year's nominees even includes one, a French film about severed hand titled I Lost My Body, which is conveniently also on Netflix, and next on my "to watch" list. But I can't imagine it has much of a shot up against the likes of Toy Story and... well, Toy Story. And not only does this seem unfair to movies like I Lost My Body, but I would argue, it's unfair to the likes of Toy Story 4 as well. How are you supposed to compare two films like that?

How are you supposed to compare Loving Vincent, a film painstakingly painted to resemble the work of Van Gogh to Coco, the movie it lost the animation Oscar to in 2018? In 2007, how did the Academy choose between an adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's memoir graphic novel, Persepolis, about growing up in Iran, and Ratatouille? The problem isn't that some of these movies aren't "good enough" or "deserving" but that their intended audiences have so little to do with each other.

Loving Vincent. This movie is still on my "to watch" pile and PLEASE!
Suggestions in comments on where to find it!

In the book world this year, no one is pitting Margaret Atwood's Testaments against Angie Thomas's On the Come Up. Just because Atwood won the Booker doesn't mean Thomas doesn't have a shot at the Printz award. And no YA novel is going to take the Newbery medal away from a deserving Middle Grade book (though there was the year a picture book won the Newbery, which was... a choice?).

Movie land, however, has no conceptual framework for distinguishing between media meant for children and media meant for adults. Television only came across the concept due to network programming, where certain shows could only air after sensitive eyes were likely in bed, and where commercial interests meant the after school slot was perfect for catching the ages five through twelve crowd.

I've talked before about how the rating system is often used to signal what audience a film is meant for, irrespective of actual content concerns. It's why La La Land contains exactly one F-bomb in an otherwise language, sex and violence free movie. It's not that the content was inappropriate, just that the movie was meant for adults and a musical with a G rating would have likely confused viewers.


One of the other major ways we signal "for children" in our culture is with animation. When I look at the list of winning movies, what I see isn't so much a list of the risky, artistically innovative animated movies. Instead, it's a list of generally solid children's films. Coco is a phenomenal children's movie, but I don't think you can call it more innovative to animation as an art form than Loving Vincent, the first fully painted animated movie ever. And it's a shame, because in a better world, they both would have awards. Loving Vincent for Achievements in Animation, which would now be a technical award, and Coco for Best Children's Film (or Family Film, though I would rather see the award focus on children so as to avoid the devaluing of "popular" movies that may or may not be for children, but lots of families see.)

Into the Spiderverse is another film I have a million thoughts on.
Sound off in the comments if you want a blog post on it!

On occasion, the two do collide. Last year, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse was both the most gorgeous and ground-breaking animated film and also a triumph of storytelling, appropriate for children. But we're fine with plenty of other films winning multiple categories, so why not these? Besides, having a category for Best Children's Film would open the door for great movies that don't meet the requirements of other awards. If I could retroactively create this award, there's no way any of the animated films of 1987 would win Best Children's Film, when The Princess Bride came out that year. It's a shoe in!

It also might correct some of the problems the Academy faced when they tried to create a "Best Popular Film" category. By focusing on intended audience by age, rather than reinforcing their own idea that "popular blockbuster movies are by definition not artistic," we might have a place to acknowledge some truly great films that are not aimed at adults. Clearly, there would still be a gray area for a lot of blockbusters aimed at teenagers, but I can't solve all the problems in this blog post. At the very least, I wish there was a space that acknowledged the range of films made for children and one that spoke to the diversity of the world's animation.

For now, Klaus is probably the stand-out as a technical piece, but is it the best story of the whole field? Is it the best children's movie? Klaus's claim to that is much shakier.

Regardless, I'm cheered by the animation nominees. Disney has such an iron grip on the category, it was nice to see their fingers loosened a little. With so little other positive news in this year's Oscar nominations, as far as diversity goes, at least the animation category wasn't owned by one company.

At least until Toy Story 4 inevitably wins them yet another award.

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