The contenders for the best animated feature Oscar this weekend at the 2015 Academy Awards are (arguably) movies for the maturest of young-hearted viewers. Pixar’s Inside Out, Charlie Kaufman’s latest mind-blowing film, Anomalisa, the surprisingly complex Shaun the Sheep, the dazzling Boy & the World, and the recent artful film from Studio Ghibli: When Marnie was There.
I’m interested in the animated film award this year, mainly because of the implications of what place these sorts of mature cartoons have (and will have) in the larger film industry. Oh, and I also think they are probably some the best films of the year too. It’s no longer a secret to say that smarter cartoons (smartoons?) are part of what will keep audiences going to movie theaters in the coming years. Movie theaters (corporate and privately owned) are worth keeping around. Other than the over-marketed PG-13 tent-pole blockbusters, few types of films have the potential to bring in the crowds of young and old viewers as these smartoons. Once upon a time, cartoons “for the young and old alike” were a pleasant surprise. Now, in the age of Pixar, Aardman, Ghibli, Laika, we expect to see half a dozen of these movies playing all around America every year.
“Despite whatever the Academy might acknowledge as ‘the best,’ animators seem to have shrugged their shoulders and gone on making some of the best pictures each year.”
I don’t usually look to the Academy Awards for interesting cultural acknowledgements. Award choices are market-driven, and the whole thing smacks of a big-biz popularity show. That, and I’ve usually read a hundred reviews, top-ten lists, film-festival recommendations, and more reputable award results from last year’s movies by the time the Academy Awards roll around two months into the new year. By the end of February, the glitz of last year’s popular names feels increasingly overblown and unnecessary in the age of easy access to the next good things. The Academy Awards are decreasingly about artists and increasingly about industry and the vestiges of Academy Award nostalgia.
On the day after the awards ceremony, I’ll read or watch the proverbial highlights and the funniest moments. One of the real highlights for me is the acknowledgement of artists who have passed away last year. Big, round, words like “legacy” and “art” have more of a place there. And I’m not sure when, but sometime in the last decade or so, I started to pay attention to that animation Oscar. It used to be that viewers and reviewers would grandstand about some animated feature or other that deserved to be in the running for the grand poo-bah best picture award. Animators seem to have shrugged their shoulders and gone on making some of the best pictures each year despite whatever the Academy might acknowledge.
The Academy Awards are mostly about industry. And the animated part of that industry is interesting to me: the direction of that industry has the potential to shape the hearts and minds of a younger generation. If the quality of cartoons is any indication, younger viewers are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Animated films are becoming less and less something to keep the kids occupied while the adults get more important things done. It is in the DNA of films like Shaun the Sheep and Boy & the World to do more than just entertain the young and old alike. More than just remind adults of their former childlike perspective. More than just a movie the whole family can agree on for movie night. And even more than helping to keep adults from losing their marbles (see Inside Out). They are works of art that work on you. They teach, and transform, and nurture souls young and old.