The category of Best Animated Feature has historically been a fairly predictable one- you often can predict with relative success the general shape of the category even before a season starts: one or two powerhouses from the Disney/Pixar machine, maybe a standout or popular sequel or two from another major studio like Dreamworks, Illumination, Laika or the like, and every once in a while a scantly-predicted international or indie underdog that sneaks its way in. Clinging to that blueprint blindly, you’d have a fairly good success rate. However, this season, there have been a handful of surprises; the horse race at the time of writing is shaping up much differently than any of us expected. The surprises have run the gamut, with some juggernauts collapsing partly or totally and other smaller or unexpected movies making solid cases for nominations. Let’s look at which four animated contenders are down, four that have punched above their weight, and a couple that has managed to stay true to their expectations amid a whirlwind year in the category.
Down: “Strange World” (Disney, currently 8th in NPB odds)
This should be no surprise and is qualitatively the biggest surprise of the season so far in the Animated Feature race. “Strange World” on paper would appear as perhaps the default frontrunner for this category as Disney Animation Studios’ single horse in the race this season- a studio that just last season swept the season with the global sensation “Encanto.” Led by Academy Award winner Don Hall, who won for “Big Hero 6” and was nominated just last year for “Raya and the Last Dragon,” the pedigree here seems undeniable. It was slated into a late-November release slot (the same slot which served “Encanto” famously well) and looked poised to replicate that success by every indicator. That is, until Disney inexplicably (perhaps lost in the tumult of a major leadership change) failed to promote it in any meaningful way. The film premiered to the tune of $18 million over the extended holiday weekend and is currently estimated to lose over $100 million. Once a presumed frontrunner in the category, “Strange World” arrived with next to no fanfare, made little impression, and plummeted in the awards race. It missed all major televised precursors (BAFTA, Golden Globes, and Critic’s Choice). “Strange World” would need a true miracle at this point to avoid an awards season flop matching its financial flop.
Down: “Lightyear” (Disney-Pixar, currently 9th in NBP odds)
Despite its hamfisted beg for relevance in relation to the Toy Story IP, it’s hard to bet against a primary production from Disney-Pixar. Even if a fairly transparent effort to ride the financial and awards coattails of “Toy Story,” it’s a sensible strategy: the “Toy Story” franchise is perhaps the most successful animated property in the history of the Oscars (10 nominations, four wins across eight different categories, including Best Picture). Anything even tangentially related to the “Toy Story” universe would have to be penciled in by default for most predictors. After some buzz around its teasers and trailers, it made a fair bit of money ($226 million globally against a $200 million budget) and reached large audiences once it hit streaming on Disney+. Critical response was muted, however, and after managing a couple of Annie nominations and failing to appear at the Golden Globes, Critic’s Choice awards, and BAFTA (after making the longlist), “Lightyear” seems like more of a summer popcorn family flick than a legitimate awards contender like the “Toy Story” films that came before.
Down: “My Father’s Dragon” (Cartoon Saloon, currently 7th in NBP odds)
Directed by Cartoon Saloon co-founder and previous nominee Nora Twomey, this has the might of Netflix behind it and boasts a strong cast in an adaptation of a loved novel. Despite this, it failed to secure nominations at the Globes or Critics’ Choice awards, garnered two small Annie nominations, and missed the BAFTA longlist. “My Father’s Dragon” has been relatively resilient in the odds but is fighting for a surprise (at this point) nomination in the category’s seemingly fluid 5th slot.
Down: “The Sea Beast” (Netflix, currently unranked in NBP odds)
Netflix’s first solo-produced animated film appeared to have all the necessary parts to make a significant Best Animated Feature contender: a sprawling adventure story, Sony animation, and director and Oscar-winner Chris Williams at the helm, who has directed previous nominees and winners like “Bolt,” “Big Hero 6”, and “Moana.” On paper, and even just before its release, I imagined this would be very much in the conversation throughout the winter. It was widely watched on Netflix and was met politely by critics and audiences, but in general, it fizzled in the weeks after its release. Since then, it has failed to accumulate any significant awards attention whatsoever outside of a surprisingly strong 6 Annie nominations (including Best Feature) and is all but out of the picture for the Oscars, despite its impressive team and high viewership.
About the same: “The Bad Guys” (Dreamworks, currently 6th in NBP odds)
“The Bad Guys” made a load of money ($250 million globally against an $80 million budget) and was well received, but has failed to translate its success into awards recognition with critics or at either of the major precursors, so far, positioning it solidly on the bubble for the category. It missed Feature at the Annies and BAFTA after making the longlist- two places a nomination was really needed if it wanted to compete at the Oscars.
About the Same: “Wendell & Wild” (Monkeypaw, currently ranked 5th in NBP odds)
Henry Selick is far from a slam dunk at the Oscars (nominated only once for “Coraline”). Still, he is the creator of films that undeniably have massive footprints culturally and in the world of animation. His return to the screen after over a decade was hugely anticipated; considering his reputation and the immense power of Netflix in his corner (along with a star-studded and adored cast), “Wendell & Wild” felt like a big factor in the race on paper before its release. Despite the bombastic pedigree, it seemingly came and went with no box office numbers to boast about. It landed in a fairly cozy spot as an underseen and respected spooky-season watch for many. It did manage to secure a Critics’ Choice nomination and is nominated (only) for the top prize at the Annies, so it is plausibly still alive in the race for the Oscars. Its overall impact compared to expectations makes this something of a bubble contender at the moment, especially after missing the BAFTA longlist and PGA nominations, too. It could viably still snag that 5th spot.
Up: “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (Dreamworks, currently 3rd in NBP odds)
The late-breaking dark horse of the category at this point in the race! There was not much buzz about “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” before its first screenings, and the critical response was more substantial than expected from the first moment. Yes, its predecessor “Puss in Boots,” was nominated a decade ago, but those ten years hadn’t left many clamoring for a sequel at this point. It managed to secure nominations at the Globes and Critics Choice Awards right around the same time as its wide release, making for a quick rise. It has since made the four at BAFTA, received six Annie nominations, and made the PGA five, launching it into legitimate and strong contention relatively late in the year.
Up: “Turning Red” (Disney-Pixar, currently 2nd in NBP odds)
It’s a little hard to paint this as any kind of an underdog in the race with the Disney-Pixar name attached and led by Oscar winner Domee Shi, but I do think “Turning Red” has made a stronger case for itself in the race than certain possible paths for it. It was released outside the typical awards season push, all the way back in March (that’s right, before 2021’s Oscar Ceremony), and has remained in contention the whole way; that itself is impressive. While its original song was surprisingly snubbed on the Oscars shortlists, it secured needed nominations at the Globes, Critics Choice, PGA, Annies (6), and BAFTA; it feels like a comfortable and formidable contender at the Oscars.
Up: “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (The Jim Henson Company/Shadowmachine, currently 1st in NBP odds)
Guillermo del Toro is never to be underestimated. His “Pinocchio” was always going to be a big contender in the category, but I qualify it as “up” for a couple of reasons anyway. First of all, despite being a bankable nominee and adored advocate for cinema, this is del Toro’s first venture into animation. Even for an icon like del Toro, a career first is always something of an unknown quantity. Additionally, and most importantly, this animated film has shared the most awards conversation outside of the Best Animated Feature category. It’s positioned to be nominated for Best Original Song and Original Score as well, with a possibility in Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Production Design, and Best Sound- it even had palpable Best Picture buzz around its release. It seems unstoppable at the top of the category: winning the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award, leading Annie nominations with nine, and easily making PGA and BAFTA. Del Toro is coming for his third Oscar.
Up: “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” (A24, currently 4th in NBP odds)
“Marcel The Shell With Shoes On” is perhaps the biggest winner of the bunch. This felt like a true underdog with its slow rollout, a tiny budget, and improbable protagonist (adapted from a niche but admired YouTube series from the 2010s). It gained steam with critics groups throughout the late fall and seemed like it had a home there- until the litmus test for scoring major high-profile precursor nominations ahead of the Oscars was cleared again and again with the Globes, Critics Choice, PGA, and BAFTA all nominating it and having the second-most nominations at the Annie Awards (8). Like Marcel himself, this movie is tiny and independent but poised to do great things on the largest scale possible.
It’s been a whirlwind season so far for the contenders in Best Animated Feature. With Oscar voting closed, this is all we’ll know before nominations on Tuesday. This now-complete picture, however, presents a surprising and topsy-turvy race compared to what we might have expected just a few short months ago!
Which films do you think will be nominated for Best Animated Feature Film? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out our latest Oscar nomination predictions here.
You can follow Cole and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @CurtissOnFilm