Over the last decade or so, we have become accustomed to the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars being frequently uncompetitive. Films in recent memory like last season’s “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” and other powerhouses “Soul,” “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse,” “Coco,” “Zootopia,” and “Inside Out” came into Oscar night with the awards essentially already won- many of these times, the easiest ballot bubble to be filled out for everyone watching at home. This year is shaping up to tell a different story. Although that means a bit more of a struggle to fill out our ballots, it also means more excitement in a frequently-uncompetitive category.
While the full slate of five at the Oscars is a strong one overall, the race pretty clearly is going to come down to two huge contenders: “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” and “The Boy And The Heron.” These two films are incredibly interesting as Oscar contenders in very different ways. They are driven down the campaign trail by fantastic achievements and merit as animated films and by undeniable and inseparable narratives in their larger contexts. Both of these films have already been awarded a good number of prizes this awards season- in competition with each other in many of these cases. While the fields in Best Animated Feature are often dominated by films that run the table, as I said, I have to imagine that either of these films would be proper sweepers in other years without the other challenging it. But of course, only one can win- let’s take a look at who it may be and their paths to Oscar gold.
Setting The Stage: The Predictions Outlook
At the time of writing, it seems like “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” has the edge to win over “The Boy And The Heron.” The predictors on Next Best Picture’s staff break 8-3 in favor of “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” at the time of writing, and all have those two placed in their top two spots. The predictions of the top performers over at GoldDerby tell a similar story, breaking 19-4 in a similar direction. My Oscars Prediction Model, built alongside my brother this year, reflects this with live odds of winning, and the outlook is right in line with the predictors; our Model gives “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” a 57.3% chance of taking home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature on March 10th, and a 32.9% chance to “The Boy And The Heron” as the underdog (No other contender crosses 4.3%). These metrics help us characterize the race at this point in time as clearly favoring Sony’s web-slinging sequel. Now, this would be convenient news if the Oscars were tomorrow, but of course, they’re not! We have a month until Oscar Sunday, and a month is a long time on the awards trail, especially at this stage when the guilds and BAFTA can change the race. To fully understand what things might look like in March, we must examine where these two films have come from to get here and where they might go.
Going for Gold: The Awards Path
As we begin the turn into the home stretch, an evident truth has appeared already in this awards season: both films are winners. In the first part of the awards season, “The Boy And The Heron” started strong with lots of critical love, taking home the top prize in the category at the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, most notably. While significant stepping stones and momentum builders, neither of these groups has a particularly strong track record of ordaining the next Oscar winner; over the last decade, NYFCC has aligned four times, and LAFCA only twice. “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” garnered early wins, too: it was recognized by the National Board of Review who also have predicted the Oscars four times in the last ten years, as well as at the HCA Astra Awards, which have gone an impressive four-for-six in their short history. Heading into the televised awards, they were essentially tied.
At the Golden Globes, the first major televised awards of the season, both were nominated in Best Animated Feature, and “The Boy And The Heron” pulled off a somewhat-unexpected win; the first “Spider-Verse” film won the Globe the first time around, and the second seemed likely to repeat. However, with no one from “The Boy And The Heron” in the room to accept the award, the moment at the Globes came and went pretty quietly, with only the most basic headline able to be written about it. What could have been a real moment for the film (the first non-English language film to win the award!) to chart its course and build momentum ended up being almost a non-factor. A rematch came a week later at the Critics Choice Awards, and “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” took that one home, following the original’s footsteps, reestablishing dominance and getting the televised speech “The Boy And The Heron” missed out on a week prior. Both the Globes and the Critics Choice Awards have aligned with the Oscars eight times out of ten in the last decade.
Both films have matched each other step-for-step otherwise at the major precursors, showing up (as expected) in the PGA, BAFTA, and Annie award nominations. After solid showings on the Oscars shortlists in December, it looked like the eventual Oscar nominations would give us a hint if either managed to be nominated outside of the Best Animated Feature category; a vast majority of animated films who score additional nominations outside this category go on to win it. Alas, both only showed up in Best Animated Feature as single nominees. How the race ends up on Oscar night will strongly rely on how those last big three awards- Annie, BAFTA, PGA- break, in that order. With the help of our Model, here’s who would be ahead going into the Oscars in all the possible permutations of the other three, according to the math:
The Story Behind the Nominee: The Inseparable Narrative
While precursor data and strength are a big part of predicting Oscar winners, and numbers can tell a relatively complete and confident story, there is always more to a race than math- this race is no exception. Both “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” and “The Boy And The Heron” have intangibles that make folks look a bit deeper than the precursor haul. On the narrative side of things, I think “The Boy And The Heron” has a lot working for it, and at the same time, “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” has almost as much working against it.
Simply, I think some Academy voters may feel inclined to use their vote to support “The Boy And The Heron” because of what the film symbolizes for the iconic writer and director Hayao Miyazaki. This film was at one point widely acknowledged to be the 83-year-old Miyazaki’s final film, capping a decades-long career and arguably one of the most impressive and airtight filmographies of any director in film history. There have been reports since the fall that there may be another one coming from him, but in any case, there is little denying that “The Boy And The Heron” is a special one for not only him but for Studio Ghibli as a whole. As many have cleverly viewed, the film is packed with metaphorical power surrounding Miyazaki as the leader of Studio Ghibli and the conflict of succession in that realm. This reading is only strengthened by Miyazaki’s candid comments about the numerous biographical elements in the film. Academy graciousness and goodwill towards Hayao Miyazaki may run deep within a group that has nominated him four times now. His first and only win came way back in 2003 for “Spirited Away,” so many folks could definitely view him as overdue, lest he retire with only a singular competitive Oscar.
On the other side of the coin, “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” may oppositely suffer from different parts of its narrative. Simply, the film is a sequel, and no matter how much some voters may have loved both this and the original, the Academy has a way of sneering slightly at sequels that don’t have “Toy Story” in the title. Now, the “Spider-Verse” saga may join in as a repeat winner, but this is the real test of how deep that love runs against formidable competition. Not only is it a sequel to a film that came prior, but it is explicitly a launching point of the next preposition-switching film, “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse,” coming down the road. Some pundits have speculated whether voters will view this one as “half a movie” or somehow incomplete because of this and wondered if they will delay the heaping-on of awards until the trilogy ends (like the Academy has done before, most famously with The Lord of the Rings franchise).
All of these considerations conjure a bit of a cloudy crystal ball for those trying to predict the eventual Best Animated Feature Oscar winner. For now, “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” has the apparent edge in the predictions markets and seems well-positioned to hold onto the top spot except in the case of significant hauls for “The Boy And The Heron” in the remaining major precursors- a distinct possibility. And even if the late-season hardware does favor “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse,” the narrative around “The Boy And The Heron” might just be enough to propel it to an underdog, passion-pick win no matter the stats and odds. Many folks are living with the assumption that “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” will maintain and become a multi-Oscar winning franchise, and others live in hope that Miyazaki’s newest will become his second Oscar winner. The question is: how do you live?
What do you think will win Best Animated Feature at the Annie Awards, BAFTA, PGA, and, of course, the Oscars? Will it be “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” or “The Boy And The Heron?” Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account. Also, please check out their latest Oscar winner predictions here and the 2023 precursor awards tally here.
You can follow Cole and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @CurtissOnFilm