This weekend will see the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony, but only the 20th Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Here’s how it started and how it’s going.

Introduced at the 74th Academy Awards ceremony in 2002, the award for Best Animated Feature remains the newest addition to the extensive roster of Oscar categories. For those arguing that there should also be a Best Comedy or Best Horror category, it bears repeating that animation isn’t a genre, although some might make the argument that the Animated Feature category has segregated animated films from ‘serious’ or ‘grown-up’ contention as those hypotheticals would.

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Before 2002, the Oscars had previously given honorary awards to landmark achievements in animated feature filmmaking, such as Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Toy Story, but in the main, animated features rarely got a look-in outside of the music categories. The major exception was 1991’s Beauty And The Beast, which scored a Best Picture nomination in the year that The Silence Of The Lambs wound up sweeping the biggest categories.

It’s telling that all of the aforementioned features are Disney-backed films, because one of the key reasons the Oscars didn’t come up with a category for feature animation sooner was that it was thought that only Disney that was making enough films to warrant consideration.

Over the last 20 years of the gong being awarded, the success of Disney (either through its own animated features or Pixar and Studio Ghibli films they’ve distributed for the US audience) might still say more about that presumption on the voters’ part than the validity of the category itself.

Let’s look back at the relatively short history of the award, how it came about, and why precedent suggests the smart money is on Pixar picking up another award over the weekend…

How it started

What’s significant about the introduction of the category is that it came about at a point when other studios were coming up to challenge Disney’s animation domination. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had headed up Disney during its celebrated Renaissance period, had parted ways and set up DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks Animation announced itself as a rival to Disney with musical Ten Commandments-remake The Prince Of Egypt and the computer-generated other ant movie of 1998, Antz.

More importantly, the Oscar-winning Aardman Animations was moving into feature filmmaking, as part of a distribution deal with DreamWorks. 2000’s Chicken Run had some Best Picture buzz in the run-up to that year’s Academy Awards ceremony, after bagging Golden Globe and BAFTA nods, but it didn’t carry over to a nomination. Many have attributed the thinking behind the new category to this specific ‘snub’, and it would be nice to think so.

The truth is simpler – a million miles from Aardman’s meticulous and time-consuming animation process, new techniques and technology were making it more cost-effective to make animated movies in Hollywood, and so with DreamWorks and other non-Disney studios in play, there were simply more films worth considering.

Despite the addition of an Academy rule stipulating that the award would not be given in a year when fewer than eight eligible animated films were released in cinemas, the Best Animated Feature category was up and running for the 2002 ceremony. Of the animated features released in 2001, nine contenders were submitted, which were whittled down to 3 nominees – DreamWorks’ Shrek, Pixar’s Monsters Inc, and (get ready for a great piece of film trivia, pub quiz fans) Nickelodeon’s Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.

Missing out on a nod in that first year were Disney’s in-house offering Atlantis: The Lost Empire, (though the studio apparently put all its chips on the Pixar movie instead) the Farrelly brothers’ live-action hybrid Osmosis Jones, and Richard Linklater’s experimental rotoscope film Waking Life.

For that first year, there was an extraordinary, never-to-be-repeated gimmick on the Oscars telecast to celebrate. Introduced by Nathan Lane, the presentation of the first Best Animated Feature Oscar featured animated characters Shrek and Donkey, Sulley and Mike, and, er… Jimmy Neutron and his robot dog, sitting in the audience. It’s worth a watch for the characters who don’t win doing the awkward ‘it’s an honour to be nominated’ faces from their seats and for the unheralded background gag of what Disney voice actor Lane is suddenly wearing while Shrek producer Aron Warner accepts the award.

 

Yes, Shrek won the inaugural award for Best Animated Feature. Although the new category was as much a result of DreamWorks’ emergence and success in the feature film market, it’s strange that the studio has never won the award again, unless you count distributing Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Wererabbit, which won Aardman’s Nick Park and Steve Box a feature gong a few years later. Some of us still feel strongly about that – give Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie a retroactive Oscar, you cowards!

 

How it’s going

 

When presenting the award at the 2009 ceremony, Jack Black quipped “I make more money doing animation than live-action. Each year, I do one DreamWorks project then I take all the money to the Oscars and I bet it on Pixar.”

Moments later, he and Jennifer Aniston duly presented the Oscar to Pixar’s WALL-E, which triumphed over DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda and Disney’s Bolt. (The rules state that there needs to be more than 16 eligible films for there to be a five-nomination field, which strangely resulted in Best International Feature Film nominee Waltz With Bashir losing out on a nod for Animated Feature – most years, it passes this bar, but that’s why some years only have three nominees.)

Indeed, Pixar has won 10 of the 19 Animated Feature Oscars handed out to date. The obvious answer to this is that maybe it’s just making the best films, which was certainly reflected when Up and Toy Story 3 broke into the Best Picture category proper, for the first two years of that category being expanded to a maximum of 10 nominees.

This is all subjective of course, but the one I hold onto is that How To Train Your Dragon would probably have been a cert for DreamWorks in any year it wasn’t up against Toy Story 3. But it’s more of a headscratcher that a decade later, the similarly brilliant third instalment lost out to the much weaker Toy Story 4.

Like Best Picture, Best Animated Feature is one of the categories in which all branches of the Academy get to vote, which might explain the uniformity. Around this time of year, there are a lot of those Anonymous Oscar Voter columns going around where someone, almost always a veteran member of the Academy, runs dismissively through their ballot decisions. Annoyingly, one of the things these columns usually have in common is an out-of-hand dismissal of animation, which might as well be the Best Children’s Movie category to them.

What’s more, many will shamelessly admit to not watching all of the films before voting, and despite the expected quality of the studio’s output, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Pixar’s reputation may precede it in this regard. And so, most of the years that the studio hasn’t won the award, it didn’t actually have a film in contention. And in those cases, it usually goes to Disney instead, who has the ‘For Your Consideration’ promotional muscle to reach otherwise disinterested voters whether it’s for Pixar or its own features.

Still, the Academy has been diversifying its membership over the last decade or so, with undeniable positive effects for representation. Maybe we’re just fans of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, but it’s hard to see the way from The LEGO Movie being shut out of the running in 2014 to Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (rightly) winning in 2018, without that influx of new members.

None of this is to say that Pixar’s Soul, very much the presumptive winner at this year’s ceremony, would be undeserving. Granted, there are those of us at Film Stories Towers who’d love to see Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers or even Farmageddon: A Shaun The Sheep Movie to sneak away with the award, especially with the former getting a notable For Your Consideration push from Apple TV. However, all precedents show that on the very rare occasions there’s an ‘upset’ in this category, (Song Of The Sea was robbed an’ all! Justice for Cartoon Saloon!) it falls in Disney or Pixar’s favour.

Over time, there’s been an inevitable trend towards the original prognostication about Disney’s dominance in the animation market, even with more studios and films in the running than ever before. It’s not like Pixar has just been making generic and similar films either, but with a relatively limited field of contenders (even this year’s 26-strong longlist is dwarfed by the hundreds of eligible movies in other categories) and a growing number of knowledgeable members and votes, it may be that future awards won’t simply be Disney’s to lose.

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