Audience members and Oscar pundits can’t stop talking about how good “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is after it screened at AFI Fest a couple of days ago. Some even stated that not only is it the best-animated feature of the year, but it’s also one of the best films of the year and deserves to be in the Oscar conversation for a Best Picture nomination. More people needed to believe it may sneak into the Best Picture category despite Netflix pushing the FYC page for all categories, including Best Picture. With the strong screenings so far at the London Film Festival and now AFI Fest, everyone is starting to come around to the idea. In this piece, I will try to justify how “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is, in fact, a Best Picture contender just as much as Steve Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” or Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” and why Netflix should be putting all of their effort and resources behind it.
Until now, only three animated films have been nominated for Best Picture. Disney’s “Beauty and The Beast” became the first even when only five nominees were in the category in 1992. In 2009 when the Academy allowed ten best picture nominees, Disney-Pixar’s “UP” sneaked in, followed by “Toy Story 3” the following year.
There is a stigma still held within the film industry that animation is seen as “lesser” than live-action. Thus, since the Academy moved to only allowing 5-10 nominees for Best Picture from 2011-2020, animated films have yet to be nominated for the category since then. But now, we are back to a straight ten nominees, just as it was in 2009-2010. Guillermo del Toro, one of the great spokesmen for today’s cinematic landscape, always advocating for the art and artists within the business, has said, at the end of the day, “animation is film.” And so, if there are four things the previous three animated Best Picture nominees have in common with any other Best Picture contenders, they are:
1. Critically Acclaimed
There has to be enough consensus that these films are at least good enough to be nominated for the Academy’s most prestigious prize. Of course, not all Best Picture contenders are critically acclaimed, but their reception has to be exemplary, given the bias against animated films. The Academy primarily consists of industry people who happen to be moviegoers instead of critics, so if you can win over the critics, chances are you’ll win over the Academy. They’d want to watch films that are good and talked about by the press and their peers. This brings us to point number two…
2. Box-Office Hits
A tale as old as time updated for a modern audience, a story about an older man flying with a house who happens to be in the 6th highest-grossing film in 2009, and the third installment of the beloved “Toy Story” franchise where Andy was leaving for college. These movies brought people to the theater due to their wonder, craft, and lasting entertainment. Netflix is in an interesting spot here with “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” as the film will not have a robust theatrical run. However, due to the age of streaming, which was in its infancy in 2010, del Toro’s stop-motion animated re-telling of a classic story will still be widely seen by audiences, critics, and Academy members due to its wide accessibility.
3. Narratively Groundbreaking
When “Beauty and The Beast” came out, it was one of the first Disney films that featured CGI. The memorable dancing ball scene with the swooping chandelier shot was so iconic that it became a significant new leap forward to be seen in animation. When “UP” was released, the whole word of mouth was how director Pete Doctor’s film made you cry in its first ten minutes and then emotionally carried you through its eccentric story from there. And, when speaking about emotion, it gets no heavier than “Toy Story 3.” The “Toy Story” films had been going on for nearly fifteen years by that point, and when the latest film was released, most audience members had a deeper relationship with the characters and themes than ever before of learning to let go and grow up.
4. Garner Enough Votes
“Beauty and The Beast” was nominated additionally for Best Original Song three times (winning for “Beauty And The Beast”), plus nominations for Best Sound and Best Original Score (winning the latter). “UP” was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Original Score (winning the latter), and “Toy Story 3” was nominated for Best Sound Editing, Best Original Song (which it won), and Best Adapted Screenplay. Like any Best Picture nominee, you need broad support and peer recognition outside of just the animation branch to be nominated. Relying only on them isn’t enough. You may only get part of the acting branch on board (the largest branch in the Academy), but it doesn’t hurt for most of them to enjoy your movie while you appeal to the sound branches, writers, and other branches within the Academy.
While there is precedence for an animated film to receive a Best Picture nomination using these four points, they only seem to apply to Disney films, which “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is not. So, how will del Toro and Netflix navigate their way into the Best Picture category being a non-Disney film without the benefit of a major theatrical run?
The Guillermo del Toro Narrative
Guillermo del Toro was first recognized by the Academy when “Pan’s Labyrinth” was nominated for six Oscars at the 79th Academy Awards. It eventually won three for Best Art Direction (now Best Production Design), Cinematography, and Make-Up and Hair Styling. Despite not receiving a Best Picture or Best Director nomination (the film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay) and losing Best Foreign Language Film to “The Lives Of Others,” del Toro’s name would be remembered very well for future ceremonies as he pulled off what was seemingly a hard sell for voters, as bringing a dark non-English language fairy tale film to the biggest night in Hollywood.
While he was involved in directing and producing horror and science fiction films over the next couple of years, it was his other dark fairy tale and Venice Golden Lion Winner, “The Shape of Water,” that brought him back to the ceremony for the 90th Academy Awards with a leading thirteen nominations and winning four: Best Production Design, Original Score, Director for del Toro, and Best Picture. Some felt that would be the end of del Toro’s run with the Academy. They managed to finally recognize him personally after overlooking “Pan’s Labyrinth,” but his style was still seen as too dark, weird, and out there for members. That notion would be put to rest four years later with last year’s Academy Awards.
At the 94th Academy Awards, his follow-up film to “The Shape of Water,” “Nightmare Alley” overcame a late December release, good to mixed reviews, a disappointing box-office run (it grossed $39 million with a $60 million budget), and a somewhat lukewarm precursor showing to be nominated in four categories at the Oscars, including Best Picture. It was one of the most delightful surprises a lot of pundits did not predict, but the Academy made it known that they now see del Toro as being “a part of the club.” And once you’re in the club, any project you do henceforth will always carry an expectation of awards buzz with it. See any of the many re-occurring nominees whose films always manage to score nominations somewhere, such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and countless others.
The Academy was probably able to wholly embrace del Toro’s dark style over someone like Tim Burton in categories such as Best Picture and Best Director because of del Toro himself. His auteurism, unique fairy tale storytelling, and lovable personality as an advocate for the cinematic medium have made him a beloved presence and someone to listen to any time he gives an interview or participates in a Q&A. Audience, critics, and Academy members may not necessarily like every film he produces, but they will be allured to watch his work because of how much love and respect they have for him. His stories can make the acting branch of the Academy root for him due to the wide range of performances and unique moral imperatives his characters embrace. His cinematic worlds will surely captivate the tech members to recognize his work. The point is not to underestimate Guillermo del Toro in the Oscar conversation any longer, and this carries through now with his version of “Pinocchio.”
Raising Enough Votes
Getting people to watch a film is different than getting people to vote for your film. For “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” to be nominated in the Best Picture category, the majority of the Academy must at least think that it deserves a slot in the top ten and also place in their top three on their ballot when voting for the nominees.
The balloting can work in del Toro’s favor if what the critics are saying is true; then three branches can push “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” towards that coveted Best Picture nomination: the tech branch, the music branch, and the acting branch.
Getting the film nominated for Best Production Design and Visual Effects is highly probable. “Kubo & The Two Strings” was a stop-motion animated film nominated for Best Visual Effects not long ago, and “Soul” even made the shortlist for the category two years ago. Considering del Toro’s past work with production design, his latest film will likely gain some traction in this category, along with a possible visual effects mention. “The Shape of Water” Oscar-winner Alexandre Desplat is a favorite of the music branch within the Academy, and while his work will be in contention, it may not be enough to help the film get into Best Picture. However, suppose “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” can score nominations for Best Original Score, plus either (or both) Best Production Design and Best Visual Effects. In that case, all that’s left is to convince enough members of the acting branch that the film deserves to be up there with “The Fabelmans,” “The Banshees Of Inisherin,” and whatever narrative feature films they’re embracing this year.
There are at least two reasons why the acting branch would vote for a movie that doesn’t showcase live acting on screen:
1. The people behind the voice acting are delivering excellent performances
2. They love the story
David Bradley’s heartbreaking turn as Geppetto is the film’s emotional center and will go a long way toward making audiences care about this version of a story they’ve heard countless times before. The story also contains many new and updated themes that are both relevant to today and timeless in their execution. The kind of emotional impact Pixar generates may be different than what Guillermo del Toro’s work provides, but the final result is still the same. Given how well the film might be embraced, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for the writer’s branch to also hop on board and give the film a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination.
If Netflix can play their cards right by targeting specific branches of the Academy, branches who have shown they’re willing to embrace animated films in categoes outside of Best Animated Feature, and bring Guillermo del Toro everywhere they can to talk about the film, it’s impossible the first non-Disney animated film may be nominated for Best Picture. After all, if a more underperforming film like “Nightmare Alley” could sneak into the Best Picture due to del Toro’s reputation and a mighty campaign push from Searchlight Pictures, then why can’t his latest film do the same thing with even stronger reactions, an equally if not more vigorous campaign from another massive studio and one of the best champions of cinema around as its face on the campaign trail?
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You can follow Reza and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @kelitikfilm