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Friday, February 23, 2024

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Making The Case For “Belle” For Best Animated Feature At The Oscars

By Reza Mardian 

‚ÄčEven after its 14-minute standing ovation at Cannes, terrific reviews, and awards season buzz, Academy Award-nominee Mamoru Hosoda’s animated visual and auditorial feast, “Belle,” has been snubbed at the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Awards, and most recently didn’t even make the longlist for Best Animated Feature at the BAFTAs, making it now an underdog for an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. But that doesn’t mean Hosoda’s film won’t be a surprise nominee on February 8th. Hosoda is still well-respected enough in the industry and managed a Best Animated Feature nomination for his last film, “Mirai,” so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could score his second Oscar nomination for his latest. Here are the reasons why…

The Best Animated Feature category currently has no clear frontrunner. Golden Globe winner “Encanto” is only now most recently making a play for that title, but before January 9th, it felt like anyone’s race. Usually, there will be one or two contenders that we could predict would win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature every year. Last year, Pete Docter’s “Soul” was the clear winner without a formidable challenger in sight. While some people felt Tom Moore did a great job directing “Wolfwalkers,” a follow-up project after his previous Oscar-nominated features “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of The Sea,” the animation branch of the Academy still went with Disney/Pixar, and it’s looking like they may default to “Encanto,” “Luca” or “Raya And The Last Dragon again just as they have in year’s past. But with critical darlings such as “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” and “Flee” still in the mix, this helps a smaller film such as “Belle” because there won’t be large chunks of voters focused on a single choice. Such division could allow “Belle” to edge out one of the Disney contenders for a nomination in the end. “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” may currently have the most prizes for Best Animated Feature this awards season. Still, a shocking snub at the Golden Globes is leading many to think it will be similarly snubbed at the Oscars like “The LEGO Movie” was in 2014, which could also present an opening for “Belle” to slide in its place.

The animation branch of the industry seemed to favor “Raya And The Last Dragon” at the Annie Awards, considering it had the most nominations despite its early March 2021 release. However, “Belle” managed a nomination in the Best Independent Animated Film category (same as “Wolfwalkers” did last year). If it picks up a win there, it may explain how messy the branch’s preferences are and help its buzz grow into a possible nomination at the Oscars.

GKIDS has previously done a great job distributing their films during award season. Still, the question now is: what narrative has to form to sway Academy voters to vote for Mamoru Hosoda’s film? The answer is more straightforward than many may think. It’s actually something that’s already happened organically within everyone’s mind after they finish watching “Belle.” Hosoda’s film is highly relevant to today’s society as it tells the story of a girl who’s adored in a fictionalized internet body-sharing technology named U. It’s a digital universe that enables its users to experience the internet with more than just a screen where they could choose their avatar and surf in another dimension. An ordinary high school student named Suzu becomes a global sensation in it when she sings with a beautiful voice she’s afraid to share with the real world.

We’ve heard this story (not to mention the parallels to “Beauty And The Beast”) before on social media with different names. This is how someone becomes famous on Youtube, Instagram, or even TikTok. What makes U even more relevant is the body sharing technique where users enter the virtual world. Does this sound familiar? Facebook’s Meta is launching right before our very eyes, and Mamoru Hosoda’s film couldn’t ride a better piece of social relevance to connect with viewers both to the positives and negatives of such a societal shift.

Even without the Facebook Metaverse connection, Mamoru Hosoda created a film that will be deeply contemplated in the pandemic where we’re constantly connected online. We have the authority to redefine how we would like to be perceived versus how people see us in the real world. Hosoda used the utilization of avatars as a metaphor and how anonymity in U could unlock someone’s most powerful potential. Nobody would even guess that a person behind a global sensation like Belle is actually just an ordinary and silent girl named Suzu, and yet, there she is.

While the story by Hosoda is impressive, what’s even more important is how the animation branch of the Oscar could appreciate “Belle’s” technical achievements. “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse” was widely praised for its visuals which looked a lot like the comic books which inspired the character. 1991’s “Beauty and The Beast” was similarly praised because of its groundbreaking techniques of merging 2D animation and computer effects in its ballroom dancing scene. Both films would win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, with the latter becoming the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture. “Belle’s” animation style incorporates both techniques making it one of, if not the, best animation achievement of 2021, and such technical mastery might be enough to impress voters if they give it a shot.

Since his first “Digimon” movie, Hosoda has split his animation style between the real and the digital world. His previous films, “Summer Wars” and “Digimon” are some other terrific examples of his cinematic style. In “Mirai” and “The Girl Who Leaped Through Time,” he utilized time as the concept of different dimensions to provide a unique storytelling experience, and he’s done the same again with “Belle.” It’s an ambitious project that incorporates all of his preferences within the world of animation, which makes it stand out as a unique entry in this year’s Oscar race since there’s no other storyteller working today with Hosoda’s vision. “Belle” features monsters, different dimensions, and a staggering blend of 2D and 3D animation styles. When Suzu is in the real world, the animation looks like most 2D Japanese animated films. Yet, when she enters U, 3D sophistication is introduced, which can feel so immersive and transportive if witnessed on the big screen with a booming sound system. Hosoda didn’t get to use this technique a lot in “Mirai,” except towards the ending. In “Belle,” the stunning animation of U is introduced early and dominates most of the film, thus providing a breathtakingly memorable visual experience.

At this point, I could hypothesize how some people in the animation branch would vote for Hosoda to be nominated for an Oscar for “Belle.” But how would he receive enough endorsement to win the Oscar? That’s a different question altogether and one which I’m perfectly willing to try and answer and advocate for. It’s been twenty years since Hayao Miyazaki won an Oscar for “Spirited Away.” The Academy has been nominating International contenders in this category which Disney has predominantly dominated since its very inception. But, in the years since Miyazaki’s win, the Academy has expanded its membership, diversity and has added more members outside of the United States. The animation branch is no different. Animators from “Flee,” “The Summit Of The Gods,” and “Belle” may have the upper narrative here over the standard Disney pick. While “Raya And The Last Dragon” attempts to portray Southeast Asian representation and “Encanto” with its depiction of Columbian culture, both have their shortcomings in those areas. While I’m still furious that brilliant films such as “Your Name” and “Weathering With You” failed to receive nominations at the Oscars, Mamoru Hosoda feels most like the one to have inherited Hayao Miyazaki’s legacy in the industry. He’s the first non-Ghibli director to get nominated for his work on “Mirai,” which, like “Belle, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, a prestigious world-renowned festival that does not allow simply anyone to premiere their films there.

Will Mamoru Hosoda be the first non-Ghibli director to win Best Animated Feature at the Oscars? Maybe we should stick with the nomination talk first and see what happens after that. But with no clear consensus yet on the category and Hayao Miyazaki’s twentieth anniversary for winning an Oscar amongst us, the conversation could start to take a different turn. The ball is now in GKIDS’s court to beef up their campaign strategy and give “Belle” a last-minute push right as it’s opening theatrically for more audiences to see it. I’m hopeful they can pull off not just a nomination but also a win for what I think is one of the best films of the year.

Have you seen “Belle” yet? If so, what did you think? Do you think it will get an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and be sure to check out the NBP Team’s current Oscar predictions here.

You can follow Reza and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @rezamardian13

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