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A Note of Recognition for....The Best Animated Feature Category

George Miller winning the 2007 Best Animated Feature OscarOn Sunday, the next entry to the still-new category of Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards was announced. Happy Feet joins the other five in the ever-so-slowly developing first decade of top toon movies. No doubt the announcement will carry with it a fair amount of controversy, just like the penguin film itself did. But within the animation community, it merely adds to what has been a standing controversy since the category even came into existence: has the creation of a Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars now barred the format from ever getting appropriately honored in any other way? This Note of Recognition is intended to make the argument that, despite all the grumbling, it really hasn’t – and if anything, it makes the possibility of further honoration at least slightly better.

The main claim against Best Animated Feature is that it separates animation in such a way that, by giving it an award seperately, the Academy won’t feel the need to give it Best Picture or such. The first problem with this perception is that the rules don’t legitimately prohibit this. It’s the same as Foreign-Language Film, where it can be honored elsewhere while still being awarded in its own specific category. A wise debater would point out that the phenomenon of Foreign-Language nominees being nominated for Best Picture is exceedingly rare. My response to this is that this does not change the actual possibility for such an occurrence, but merely shows that the existing ratio is poor. There is no doubt that film fans would argue for the inclusion and possibly even the win of a foreign film in any given previous year of the Oscars, just in the same way animation fans would do the same for their chosen animated works. Disagreement with the Oscars has lasted for about as long as they themselves have, but that doesn’t change that the categories themselves of Foreign Film or Animated have little to do with whether they do or do not garner Best Picture nominations. Such nominations come by the members of the Academy thinking of it as being the best of the year, and the roadblocks to that would be the prejudices of an American-based voting group.

Beauty and the BeastAnd indeed, what of the prejudices? Those who argue that Best Animated Feature robs the nominees of the category the chance to compete in the big awards seem to forget that it’s not like it’s halted a long history of animation getting nominated. For years, decades even, animated films had only been able to compete in the categories devoted to sound: Original Score, Sound, and Song. After all, those were the only categories that everybody could agree on animation and live-action having pretty much in common; no matter how much some actor or some set designer moaned about considering animated incarnations of their work in their categories, nobody could argue that animation didn’t have music and so forth. When Beauty and the Beast got nominated for 1991′s slate of films, it was a good ten years before Best Animated Feature would be created. Those ten years didn’t result in any kinds of doors opening for the whole “genre” getting entries in. Four Weddings and a Funeral over The Lion King? Babe over Toy Story (even with its special Oscar)? The point here is that there is clearly a long-standing hesitance about honoring animation in the first place, one that far predates Best Animated Feature and obviously is far more responsible for any missed opportunities than a compensation category. The Animated category can only be described, thusly, as a way to practically force the Academy to consider these films awardworthy.

Andrew Stanton wins for 'Finding Nemo,' with Robin WilliamsThere’s an additional way that Best Animated Feature proves itself to not be separate from the rest of the Oscars – at least, ever since 2002. The first year, when Shrek, Monsters, Inc., and Jimmy Neutron were up for the award, the actual announced winner of the category itself was the producer of the film in question. That meant that Aron Warner, not Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jensen, went up to accept the Oscar. Had that setup for the award continued, the claims that animated was being shuffled away into its own dark corner would have much more validity, since it seemed to imply that Best Animated Feature was the only Best Picture (where producers also win) they could get. After that, though, Spirited Away won and was awarded to Hayao Miyazaki, not his long-time producer Toshio Suzuki; since then, the directors – Stanton, Bird, Park, and Miller – have actually won the award, signifying in silence that Best Animated Feature cannot be really considered the only Best Picture for toons.

The shift to directors also makes Best Animated Feature helpful to animation’s chances at the Oscars in another way. One of the problems between animation and the Academy, as I hinted at earlier, is that the Academy is made up of people who neither make animation nor consider it to be really the same artform. The tiresome admittances of celebrities who keep saying they thought they’d be dubbing their voices to finished animation is proof enough of how little the film community at large knows about the process. The Academy Awards, for all their glitz and complexity, are just like any other awards process in that it’s a popularity contest. (What makes the winners popular is what people debate.) And these Academy members just don’t know the people that make animated features. They have trouble even thinking of them as being in the same business. Thusly, animated features get branded by their studio, not their individual artists. What the Best Animated Feature category does is that it puts a face to the makers of these films. Right now, the category is still too new to make the change instantly; it still feels like studios competing rather than artists. (One might argue that this is true of the Oscars on the whole.) But over time, the top directors will appear over and over – Miyazaki’s already been nommed twice – and a distinction will begin to be drawn between the works of specific artists. Once the film community at large starts recognizing the artists of animation for their own individual merits, they’ll be able to extend out their perceptions of what in animation is deserving of the honors of the wider Oscars. If it wasn’t for Best Animated Feature, they would have no impetus to learn this. It’s slow going with the category, but it’s no going without it.

I don’t believe that Best Animated Feature is going to create a wealth of Oscar attention for animation in the span of a heartbeat. Frankly, we won’t see another Best Picture nomination for animation until it wins somewhere else. Perhaps in one of the Best Screenplay categories, where animation has just begun to gain some ground in. Maybe it will be able to break into one of the other technical awards somehow, like Costume Design. That would be tough due to it only existing in a fabricated universe, but design is not the same as building and animation ought to be able to participate. Or even, God forbid, one of the acting categories or Best Director. When animation is able to play in these fields, it’ll be able to really play in Best Picture’s field. And getting to that point is not hindered by Best Animated Feature; rather, it’s probably assisted just by making the Academy watch the damn films and get comfortable with the artists. In time, Best Animated Feature will prove to be the best thing to ever happen to the “genre” at the Oscars.

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