By way of example, based on MY consumption of animated television, I would contest that the best children's animated TV series of all time is Disney's Recess. But I've never felt like I can put a real flag down on that claim for two simple reasons: Avatar: The Last Airbender and Steven Universe. I keep meaning to watch these, as both are heralded as some of the best animation of all time. (Like, seriously. I can already feel the lectures coming in the comments). But time is short and I really should spend more time reading than catching up on TV and yadda yadda. Either way, until I do, I'm not confident in any grandiose claims I want to make in favor of Recess.
Which means I get excited when I realize that I DO have some area of expertise that I can start shouting my opinions about, and do you know what I realized today??? I have seen EVERY Oscar winning animated movie. Hot Dog!
Whether or not this is something to shout from the rooftops with pride is probably a matter of opinion. For myself, I say it with some satisfaction. I love animation, and I love that I get to use my position as a children's author as an excuse to continue to engage with animated movies as both a high-brow, snooty pants critique, and a rabid, doe-eyed fan.
And for better or worse, there's a huge range in quality between the various films that have won the award. Some of them I don't really even like. Of course, while this list represents just one personal opinion, I've done my best to explain why, from a craft perspective, one movie fell short compared to another. Some of the factors I'll be considering include: Plot and pacing, character, humor, emotional resonance, art direction and rewatchability. That last one mostly came into play when I had two movies neck and neck and struggled to pick which one beat out the other.
Without further ado, here are the Oscar winning animated features! Some of them even deserved it.
#19. HAPPY FEET (2006)
WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: 2006 was a lean year for animation. There weren't any great contenders, but even so, the award should have gone to Cars. I'm no apologist for the Cars franchise, but its story was okay and it had characters who at least earned the toys that were made of them. More than the gobbledeegook of Happy Feet can claim.
#18. WALLACE AND GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (2005)
Growing up, I was a HUGE fan of Wallace and Gromit. I had knitted plushies of them and everything, at a time when most kids had never heard of these British claymation shorts. (Yeah, I'm gonna go hipster on Wallace and Gromit. Fight me.) I wanted the full length movie to be good so badly, but when it came, it mostly elicited a "meh..." from me. There's some fantastic animation, but aside from that, I think this movie showed that the pair were better suited to short form. The plot was weird in a way that didn't quite hit the same charming note of the previous outings. Also, there was too much Wallace and not enough Gromit. The shorts rode on the appeal of that unibrow dog.
WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: While not his best of the best, Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle was gorgeously animated and quite enjoyable. Also, while I haven't seen it, I know there are quite a few fans of Corpse Bride out there, so maybe it belongs in the conversation too.
#17. BRAVE (2012)
The first time Pixar tackled a princess movie, they got less than stellar results. Brave had a lot of potential, with a fabulous setting, gorgeous animation and fun voice cast. But it's weighed down with a not particularly original "arranged marriage" plot line, a mid-section that grows more boring the more bears are added and a heroine who mostly just whines her way through the movie and never is particularly sympathetic.
WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: Making this year especially frustrating, there were several better movies that came out in 2012. ParaNorman isn't perfect, but it's fun, creepy and inventive. The Pirates! Band of Misfits is one of the silliest movies ever made and might just be the single best use of the vocal talents of Hugh Grant. But the award probably should have gone to Wreck-It Ralph, which seemed like a big, dumb, goofy story at the time, but has held up on rewatch surprisingly well.
#16. RANGO (2011)
Rango is one of those movie's that got way better critical reviews than it probably deserved for one simple reason: it's appeal rode on nostalgia for Old Hollywood, something film critics and Academy voters are big-time suckers for. That being said, if you fall in that camp at all, it can be quite enjoyable. Rango is a weird movie that follows a lizard who wants to be just like Clint Eastwood, who gets the chance to when he rolls up in an antiquated, Old West town of suffering animals that exists in our modern world because... why not? The animation is quirky and interesting, at least, and the film kinda works as a goofy experiment. Overall, not bad, but lacking in the charm and rewatchability of later entries.
WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON INSTEAD: This is another tough year for animation. The only other notable entry in the category is Kung Fu Panda 2, and between the pair, it's a toss up, if you ask me.
#15. BIG HERO 6 (2014)
This movie is where the list starts to flip from "not very good" to "actually pretty good, just not as good as other things that came out the same year." The great success of this movie was Baymax, who is so lovable, he almost drowns out all the things that don't really work about this film. Things that don't work include: a villain plot that makes no sense, technology so powerful it's confusing how it didn't solve the plot in ten minutes, and a supporting cast who feel more like catch phrases than fully fleshed characters. Still, the central relationship, between a boy grieving for his brother and the robot nurse who tries to help him is lovely and deserving of praise.
WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: This is such a weird year. Neither Dreamworks or Disney turned out any great films, though of what was nominated, How to Train Your Dragon 2 was the strongest coming from North America. The best North American release that year wasn't even nominated. The Lego Movie is one of the most enjoyable, thoughtful, heartfelt toy commercials ever made. Maybe it was the early February release date, but somehow, come award season, this Master Builder Piece got snubbed outright. It should have fought it out with Princess Kaguya, one of Studio Ghibli's most gorgeous films, which has such a marvelously inventive animation style, I'm inclined to want to see the award go to it, even at the expense of my beloved Lego Movie.
#14. UP (2009)
MUAHAHAHAHA!!! I'm guessing this will be my first truly controversial ranking. This movie was so adored in it's day, it's one of a tiny class of animated films that managed to nab a nomination for Best Picture. And if this list was a ranking of the best movie openings of all time, it would be very close to the top, if not number one. I'm with you on that, guys. The beginning sequence with Carl and Ellie is so enchanting. In fact, that sequence alone is why this movie is as high up as it is. When it comes to most of the rest of the movie, very little of it worked for me. The villain plot feels so weird and tacked on, the dogs are annoying and the story of Russel and Carl feels drowned out by these two overblown elements. That being said, this film absolutely did deserve the Oscar it won for best original score. What I'm saying is I understand why people like this film, but I think it's got some pretty glaring weaknesses. That, or you all like talking dogs making unoriginal squirrel jokes 1000% more than I do.
WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: Any of the four other movies nominated this year. The Secret of Kells is one of the most unique and lushly animated movies I've ever seen. Fantastic Mr. Fox is strange and hilarious. Coraline is the most terrifying thing with a label that says "for children" slapped on it, and that's kind of awe-inspiring. And The Princess and the Frog feels like a love letter to earlier Disney movies, told with gorgeous, hand-drawn animation and a fantastic musical score. Honestly, all are brilliant and all have better stories than Up.
#13. SHREK (2001)
Despite my fighting words a moment ago, I did feel a little badly ranking Shrek above Up. I mean, I know which one is the better work of art. But if I had to choose one to rewatch, it would be Shrek every time. At times cute and charming, at times extremely mean-spirited in it's mockery of Disney (Dreamworks Animation was founded by an ousted Disney animator/director, and you can bet Jeffery Katzenberg did not go gentle into that good night), Shrek still manages to come together as an enjoyable odd ball tale. There are probably too many pop culture references and poop jokes. It set a bad precedent for later Dreamworks films by ending with a dance party. But the characters are memorable and voiced to perfection. Plus, that "do you know the muffin man?" sequence gets me every time.
WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: Fun though Shrek is, I don't think it has the sweet charm of Monster's Inc. In a perfect world, we would have been less dazzled by the quick satire on display here and gone for a story that's much more inventive and touching. Still, as a tween watching the first animation Oscars in 2002, I was so rooting for Shrek to take the prize home. At least it spoke to it's target audience well.
#12. RATATOUILLE (2007)
Just as Up would rank higher if this list was entirely about openings, this one would place better if we were only considering the movie's end. It's always difficult when a piece tries to represent the aesthetic experience of one of the five sense that is not inherently addressed by the art form currently in use. It's why books have to find very creative ways to truly evoke sound, and why Ratatoille had to work so hard to properly portray the sensation of taste. But in the end, did they ever nail that one, key element! Ratatouille succeeds as a meditation on food, pleasure and pursuing your passions. It's not the most magical of all Pixar's offerings, with characters that are less interesting than many others, but the story builds from something that was decent, if not brilliant in the beginning, to a very satisfying conclusion. The ending helps edge it up to here.
WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: There wasn't super stiff competition this year, however, one underrated gem could, by some accounts, make for a stronger winner. Surf's Up is roughly a million times better than a movie about surfing penguins has any right to be. I love it, and find it more rewatchable than Ratatouille, but if it had won, I'd probably have it ranked at exactly the same spot and would be arguing that Ratatouille should have beaten it. They're very different films, but surprisingly even matched.
#11. TOY STORY 4 (2019)
When this movie was announced, I was among those voicing displeasure at the idea, due to how nicely the third movie wrapped up the franchise. It felt like we had already bid these characters a heartfelt good-bye and there wasn't much more to say on the topic. Upon watching the most recent film, I ended up glad that Pixar decided to make it. Most of Disney's attempts at an animated "franchise" haven't yielded great results, but the Toy Story films are the exception to the rule. This movie packs a lot of the same heart and humor of the previous movies and--once again--gives our favorite characters a fitting send-off. This one better be the last one though. There were a few areas this film lagged behind the other Toy Story films for me. The Key and Peele carnival plushies were good for a few gags, but it felt like we got scenes of them instead of more content with Jessie, Slinky and Rex, who were all sorely missing from this outing. Additionally, a lot of the scenes meant to pull at the heart strings were good, but paled in direct comparison to when they were done with Andy in the previous film. Overall, a wonderful outing with the toys, even if the movie was a bit extraneous.
WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON: This probably comes down to personal preference, but I would have loved to see Netflix's Klaus take home the award. The story and characters are in many ways stronger in Toy Story 4, but that's mostly due to a three movie backstory advantage. Klaus had to win viewer investment on its own merit, not just by our immediate associations from the previous franchise. Add to that, Klaus had an animation style that felt necessary and unique in a landscape saturated with 3D modelling. And while parts of Klaus's story were ridiculous and forced, it managed one thing that Toy Story 4 did not, namely making me cry at the end. Still, Toy Story 4 is gorgeously made and very enjoyable, so it's no surprise Netflix wasn't able to wrestle the top prize from Pixar's grip this year.
#10. FROZEN (2013)
Right here at the half-way point through the list is when I think the movies go from "good" to "truly great" and deserving of the prestigious Oscar award. Frozen signaled a return to form for Disney Animation, ushering in a time when it's become a toss up whether they or Pixar are going to take the Oscar home each year. This movie is so loved and watched, I hardly need to sing it's praises. The music is fantastic, the central relationship between Anna and Elsa is incredibly moving and Christoff is one of the best love interests Disney has ever created. A few elements are clumsily incorporated - the troll clan, the lack-luster villain, the jarringly odd way Olaf is animated compared to the rest of the movie - but over all, it's a solid film that maybe lost some fans recently due to over exposure. Just a couple days ago, my sister and I were talking about what an amazing allegory it makes for learning to live with Major Depressive Disorder and other mental health conditions. Anything with that kind of thematic resonance and cultural staying power is good in my books.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: None of the other North American releases nominated this year really held a candle to Frozen. Both Despicable Me 2 and The Croods are underwhelming, but some solid foreign animation was nominated, I am told. Unfortunately, it's an area I need to fill in some of my own gaps, but Miyazaki's The Wind Rises in particular has some good hype behind it.
#9. WALL-E (2008)
Like Up, WALL-E is a movie I tend to rate a little lower than most Pixar fans, and for almost the same reasons. The beginning of WALL-E is much stronger than the second half. However, while Up has twenty amazing minutes, roughly an hour of WALL-E's run time is so exceptional, I really do feel guilty placing it this low. It's more indicative of how fantastic the later entries are. I don't love the heavy handed story telling aboard the Axiom, but I don't hate it either, so I can focus more of my attention on the good parts of this film. The opening shots of Earth and WALL-E's mundane every day life, intercut with music and footage from Hello, Dolly are so moving. This is a film that also really lets the animation speak for itself, with most of the story told visually or with music. In fact, the film only really begins to flag once the speaking human characters are introduced. Overall, a breathtaking, groundbreaking and deserving winner.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Considering how weak the animation offerings were some years, it's such a shame that Dreamwork's two best movies came out in years that they really didn't have a chance against what Pixar put out. This year's tragic loser was Kung Fu Panda, which has some of the best choreographed combat sequences not just of animation, but any film. A true credit to the Kung Fu movies it is a pastiche of.
#8. COCO (2017)
Compiling this list, it was right around the point when I had to slot Coco in at number eight that I kind of panicked. HOW? How did a film this good fall so low on the list? Again, like the entry before, it's more a testament to what comes later. Coco is a beautiful and worthy entry into the Pixar canon, something we hadn't been treated to for a few years. Pixar has fallen victim to sequelitis, but occasional gems like Coco still slip through. Anyone who saw this movie in theaters can attest to how gorgeous the animation is. It's also a good example of how a cliche plot can be retold in a way that makes it compelling again. Coco and Happy Feet essentially start with the same plot (outsider has a weird hobby) but the end products couldn't be further apart. Thematically, Coco is a brilliant meditation on family, culture, memory and death. And if you say you didn't cry during the end, I denounce thee a liar.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: I have heard amazing things about both The Breadwinner and Loving Vincent, but since neither got wide releases, I haven't had a chance to see them. Opinions forthcoming!
#7. TOY STORY 3 (2010)
Toy Story is that rare series that actually improved over its long run. I love talking about these movies in the context of world building, since its a very good example of using a simple fantasy concept, then plumbing it for all the depth possible. The question of "what if toys were alive" is answered so richly in each installment. And not just the goofy stuff they can get up to (like a Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head getting married), but in terms of the emotional struggles that would naturally grow out of their relationships with children. Each subsequent film pushed a little further, until you get to the third and best entry in the series. The feels are out in full force, with much of it serving as an allegory for death and rebirth. When I saw this in theaters, most of the showing's audience was my age - early twenties, and sobbing along as we watched Andy let go of the toys that had comforted us for so many years. It's a touching, powerful film and a beautiful farewell for the series. The fact that a fourth one is on the horizon has me a little nervous for that reason. The story felt resolved here. Regardless, I think this film will continue to stand as a landmark example of how strong sequels can actually be.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: It kills me that this was the same year How to Train Your Dragon came out. Both of these movies hit me profoundly. Dragon's achievements include one of the best father/son story lines out there, a dark color palette that was fairly revolutionary when it came out and an aerial flight scene that I think is one of the best uses of 3D in the past decade. Still, Toy Story 3 had the more surprising and ground breaking story. It did things you generally don't see in children's media and for that reason, deserved all the awards it won.
#6. FINDING NEMO (2003)
Another closely ranked entry. I'm not 100% certain which of Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3 is my favorite, or even which is the artistically stronger (jf you can even make such a comparison). But I've gone with Nemo in the lead because it's the one where the details have stuck with me just a little more. It's such a tenderly animated story, with beautiful quiet moments that we don't always get to enjoy in our current blockbuster movie climate. It's also a really well crafted story, perfectly balancing Nemo and Marlin's arcs so that they interlace and inform each other throughout. At the suggestion of one of my professors, I once charted this movie's plot out and yup. The technique in balancing the story is pretty amazing.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: There wasn't much else on offer this year, though the foreign market provided The Triplets of Belleville. It's another one on my to-be-watched list. A list that gets longer and longer as I work on this blog post.
#5. SPIRITED AWAY (2002)
As we get into the upper end of the list, a lot of these choices come down to personal preference. With this film in particular, I can see a strong argument for why it should be considered the best of the bunch. This is Miyazaki's masterpiece. The animation is spectacular, the story somehow both simple and surprising, the characters lovable and iconic. No one does detail and fantasy in animation quite like Studio Ghibli, and I'd easily be persuaded their films are the best animated fantasies ever made. Everything about Spirited Away is incredible, and a perfect use of the medium. If you haven't seen this one yet, get it. Do it now. If you haven't watched much Japanese animation, this is a great place to start, as the English dub is very well done.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: The rest of the field included some fun flicks, though none of them were in the same league as Spirited Away. The best-of-the-rest goes to Lilo and Stitch, which is a charming, though uneven movie.
#4. SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018)
Placing this film was super difficult. In some ways, I like it better than the movies that come later. The animation style! The music! The janky hobo Spider-man! This is not only one of the best animated movies in years, it's also the best Spider-man movie ever made. Just about everything not only works, but exceeds expectations in this action-packed, emotional journey about what it means to be a hero and take up the mantle of arguably the most popular superhero of our time. By centering the story on Miles Morales, this movie was able to break away from the numerous other Spider-man adaptations, while somehow also both killing Peter Parker AND giving us what might be the most emotionally complex version of Peter ever. I cannot tell you how often the image of Spider-man sobbing in his bathtub--a broken, divorced man in his thirties--has haunted and delighted me. It's simultaneously one of the saddest and funniest things I've ever seen. Meanwhile, Miles interjects some delightful personality as the classic teen-aged Spider-man, wrestling with insecurities and responsibilities that are too much to ask of a kid so young. It goes without saying that the visual style of this movie is also phenomenal. The only thing keeping this from the top of the list are some slight cliches in the villain plot. Kingpin is a better, scarier villain to face off against than most superhero movies provide, but he's still no Joker or even Syndrome. It's a minor quibble in an otherwise phenomenal film.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: I'd like to think this year was a wake-up call to Disney and Pixar, who both turned out rather by-the-book sequels in Incredibles 2 and Ralph Breaks the Internet. It's rare they don't take home the award, but this year was an easy call, given the artistry and storytelling on display in Spider-verse. Also sneaking in was another Wes Anderson animated film, Isle of Dogs, which I still need to see.
#3. INSIDE OUT (2015)
Every so often, animation manages to do something that not only pushes the boundaries of it's own form, but film itself. In the case of Inside Out, this might just be the best representation of mindand emotion on film. And I can say that with authority, guys. My sister is a philosopher who studies mind and emotion and SHE agrees. So there. Inside Out not only gave us a wonderful, fun story to enjoy, it shed light on how people actually experience depression, and how memories and personalities shift over the course of our lives. Conceptually, this film is brilliant. Every time I rewatch it, I find something else to ponder, and that's rare from any movie.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: It was a pretty easy win for Inside Out. I've heard mostly lukewarm reviews of the rest of the field, but if there are any hidden gems in there, do let me know! Always open to more recommendations.
#2. ZOOTOPIA (2016)
She's a bunny who plays by the rules! He's a fox who does what he wants! HOW WILL THEY EVER WORK TOGETHER??? In all honesty, that pitch kinda sucks. This wasn't a movie I felt excited about leading up to its release, since it sounded like a stereotypical buddy cop comedy. Then I went and my jaw about fell off as I found myself watching the best movie about intersectionality and identity politics I'd ever seen. I spent most of the second half muttering, "is this film going to go there? Holy crap. It's going there." It's another one that benefits from rewatches and with jokes as great as jokes can joke, remains enjoyable. This is another example of world building done right. The concept of "animals live in a city together" has been done a thousand times before, but this was the first time that concept was followed all the way to making animals proportional to their real life counterparts. From just that little change, the implications are fascinating and, at times, terrifying. I love this movie so much. It does a brilliant job of working as an allegory for a lot of our own modern problems, without the baggage of being able to map anything directly from it's world onto ours. A tough balancing act, and one that makes this film all the more valuable.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Moana sure is great, isn't it? I don't think it stood a chance next to Zootopia, but over all, this was Disney's year. After a long spat of mediocre movies, it was great to see the studio return to form in a big way. On my to-watch list: Kubo and the Two Strings.
#1. THE INCREDIBLES (2004)
To me, the recent sequel to this film and all the small ways it fell short really highlighted how hard it is to make something this strong twice. It is, in my opinion, as close to perfect as any film will ever get. It succeeds on every level. The score? Instantly recognizable. The action sequences? Tense, exciting and well motivated by the plot. The humor? Relatable and sharp. The characters? Flawed, but with that verve that drives you to root for them. It's a brilliant story about the stresses of ordinary family life, and simultaneously one of the best razzle-dazzle super hero movies ever made. Interspersed with the spectacle is some thoughtful commentary on what it means to be exceptional vs normal, something the sequel is careful to do as well. I have to give a shout-out to director Brad Bird, who really nailed this. To me, his films suggest that he sees the ways our private lives inform the mask we show to the world. It's this awareness that gives the film its depth and continued success. He never loses sight of the Parr family as human, even while exploring what it means to be super human. The end result is - dare I say it? Incredible.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: The best of the Shrek series, Shrek 2, came out this year. It's major contribution to the world was Antonio Banderas as a swashbuckling cat so... yeah. The Academy chose the right winner.
AND THERE YOU HAVE IT!!!
If there's one thing doing this list has reminded me of, it's the staggering depth and talent on display in animation. So often in North America, we relegate animation to a "lesser" sphere. Because it's drawings. Because it's for kids. But honestly, when I look at this list, I see many films of the same caliber as those that took home the award for Best Picture. Like, dude, you're never going to convince me The Incredibles isn't better than Million Dollar Baby.
More importantly, it reassures me to know that even if animation is still primarily a place for "kids movies" today, at least we're giving our kids something worth seeing.