Saturday, 7 March 2009

When will Pixar break the best picture barrier?


Post Oscar nominations, The Reader got a bit of a bad reputation on the internet. It’s not necessarily the film’s fault; many hadn’t seen it, but the general consensus seemed to be that it was taking the rightful place of another, better, and less awards friendly film amongst the best picture nominees. To many this was the Dark Knight, the record breaking behemoth that maybe, just maybe, would be too big for the academy to ignore. But perhaps the most interesting fan favourite for the fifth spot on the shortlist was Wall-E, the little robot that could.

Well, not quite. He couldn’t in the end. He was trying to get a place in an exclusive club to which he didn’t belong, but the important thing was that fans and critics alike felt he should belong there. And why not? The film consistently topped end of year “best of” lists and was as original as it was groundbreaking. But it had a little problem. A quite big problem actually. Pretty massive actually. There’s ‘best picture’ quality films, then there’s animation, or so say the academy.

But of course, you may say, that’s what the Best Animated Feature award is for. An entire award for one genre should be fair enough, and it really would be if it wasn’t 60 years too late. There may have been complaints that The Dark Knight’s status as a superhero genre movie effectively ended its chances of getting a best picture nomination but the fact remains that it’s the only movie in that genre good enough to get one. Comedy and horror fans (rightly) lament the fact that their genres are not taken seriously enough by the academy but do get occasional recognition. Up to the millennium, however, animation was largely ignored in major categories. Most of the now immortal Disney classics had to contend themselves with the odd technical or musical nod.

Walt Disney himself was probably not too concerned with this. The man won 22 Oscars, enough to make a football match out of little golden men if he so chose. The vast majority of these were for his short animations however and the fact remains that Beauty and the Beast remains the sole Disney animation, or any other animation for that matter to garner a best picture nomination in the award’s history. Think about that; one of the most difficult and painstaking forms of filmmaking, designed to cater for the most demanding of audiences has one best picture nomination in 81 years.

Walt Disney and his army of Oscars

The audience, however, is a problem. Traditionally they’re quite small, not particularly respected as critics and enjoy simple pleasures like mud and tantrums. But someone noticed that the big people they dragged along to see the animated films got rather annoyed if there was nothing in them that they could enjoy. Most animated movies are still aimed squarely at kids; talking animal goes on adventure, maybe makes soft allusions to intercourse/marriage to satisfy the adults who are trying to figure out if that’s Burt Reynolds they can hear. But Pixar has always challenged this formula by making films with broad and complex themes that can still appeal to kids. That’s why The Incredibles can be a children’s animation and one of the best action movies this century and why Ratatouille’s narrative and emotion overshadows the cute talking rat.

The Incredibles: family drama, comedy, action-adventure and superhero movie rolled into one

Best Animated Feature may have been created to recognise the technological advances and resurgence in popularity of animated films but when these films begin to transcend the confines of their genres the category can limit rather than celebrate their achievements. In much the same way that foreign language films are occasionally limited to their own specialist category when they deserve a higher accolade, Pixar has demonstrating that the animation bar can be pushed higher and higher and be so much more than a ‘kids’ film. Last year they made a film with barely any dialogue capture the attention and imaginations of its audience and this year, Up, a film with a grumpy septuagenarian as its hero, looks to be its most ambitious and riskiest project yet. But we say the same about every new Pixar project, and they never cease to amaze.

You can’t say the same thing about many of the finest of film producers and perhaps it’s time that the awards that define greatness recognise that on the rarest of occasions animation, gorgeous as it may be, is more than just animation.





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