By Zoe Rose Bryant
After a comparatively “light” year for the Best Animated Feature race that mostly saw the same five films being mentioned at every ceremony (“Soul,” “Wolfwalkers,” “Onward,” “Over the Moon,” and “The Croods: A New Age,” with “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon” subbing in for “Croods” at the Oscars), the competition is set to heat up significantly in the 2021-2022 awards season - with contenders coming from several different studios and animated in an array of diverse styles. Though Disney/Pixar has long had a stronghold on this category – and will be amply represented this year with “Encanto,” “Luca,” and “Raya and the Last Dragon” – it certainly won’t be a cakewalk to the trophy this time around, as Neon and Netflix are set to put up quite the fight.
Might Neon’s Sundance breakout hit “Flee” – an animated foreign language documentary about a queer refugee’s story of fleeing his home country – resonate with voters? How about Netflix’s long-awaited stop-motion adaptation of “Pinocchio,” directed by Academy Award winner Guillermo del Toro and equipped with an all-star cast of other Oscar winners like Tilda Swinton, Christoph Waltz, and Cate Blanchett? Though it may be early to start sussing out which film will win Best Animated Feature at the 94th Academy Awards, the category is definitely beginning to take shape. We’ve outlined the top ten contenders, arranged in alphabetical order.
After premiering at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, Mamoru Hosoda’s “Belle” may bring the director back to the Oscars, three years after his widely acclaimed “Mirai” secured a spot in this category (as the first non-Ghibli anime film to do so). The film follows Suzu, a 17-year-old high school girl living with her father in a rural town in the Japanese countryside who, wounded by the loss of her mother, seeks solace in the massive online world “U” as her avatar, Belle. Over time, Belle becomes quite a star in this digital space, but after coming across a mysterious dragon-like avatar who players dub the “Beast,” this connection changes her life in more ways than one.
While the story here is obviously Hosoda’s take on “Beauty and the Beast,” there’s enough inventiveness on display with the addition of his commentary on cultivating relationships in the digital age to make it stand on its own. Additionally, the film’s fascinating animation – which alters between classic hand-drawn anime artwork in “the real world” and futuristic CGI when Suzu appears in “U” – should certainly draw attention from Academy voters. At the moment, reviews are even more euphoric than they were for “Mirai,” with “Belle” earning a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes (and an 8.80/10 average rating) with seven reviews accounted for and an 89 on Metacritic based on six reviews.
After failing to win the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2016 for “Moana,” Lin-Manuel Miranda is back in a big way this year by providing the music for Walt Disney Animation’s “Encanto,” directed by “Zootopia’s” Byron Howard and Jared Bush. The 60th film produced by the studio focuses on a story about a magical family called the Madrigals, where each child has been granted a unique ability except for Stephanie Beatriz’s black sheep Mirabel. However, when her family’s magic is under threat, Mirabel may be the only one able to save it, allowing her to prove her worth to the Madrigals for the first time in her life.
While Walt Disney Animation hasn’t won this category nearly as often as its sister studio, Pixar, they have made an impressive show of strength in recent years, earning Oscars for “Frozen,” “Big Hero 6,” and “Zootopia.” It remains to be seen if “Encanto” is more akin to the aforementioned Anna and Elsa epic or something like “Moana,” though it’s sure to draw a lot of attention not only for Miranda’s toe-tapping tunes but also for its reverential representation of Colombian culture. If that terrific trailer is any indication, this is going to be one to look out for.
Upon making its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, “Flee” instantly asserted itself as not just a top contender in the Best Animated Feature race but as a frontrunner in Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature Film as well, thanks to its rave reviews (a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with an 8.60/10 average rating and a 91 on Metacritic). As such, if the film – which follows a man named Amin who, on the verge of marrying his husband, shares his story for the first time about his hidden past of fleeing his country as a refugee – truly does receive consideration across multiple categories, it could be tough to beat here with such broad exposure and acclaim.
Distributor Neon doesn’t have much experience handling animated awards contenders, which could put “Flee” at a disadvantage when competing with the marketing muscle of Disney and Pixar. But going off of initial reactions, the film seems to have the kind of story that propels it to success no matter what other obstacles may be in its way, and Neon would be wise to let Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s saga simply speak for itself. It’s coming into the awards conversation with a Grand Jury Prize in Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary section already under its belt, so underestimate this one at your own peril.
“Luca” may be considered “small-scale” Pixar to some. Still, reviews were as excellent as ever for this coming-of-age sea monster story, earning a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes (with a 7.30/10 average rating) and a 71 on Metacritic. While those aren’t necessarily scores that seem to signal the arrival of a winning title (trailing the studio’s past champions such as “Inside Out,” “Coco,” and “Soul“), they do still make a solid case for “Luca’s” inclusion in the category nonetheless. Additionally, audiences seemed to adore the Italy-set adventure as, according to Nielsen’s movie-streaming ratings, it nearly tied “Soul” during its first week of release on Disney+, being streamed for 1.57 billion minutes.
As simple as the story may be, critics have praised the movie’s low-stakes, Miyazaki-esque feeling to high heaven, and the character work on Luca and Alberto – two sea monster boys who assume human form on land and enter a contest to earn a Vespa and travel the world together – has been similarly lauded. Furthermore, the film has taken on even more significance as viewers in the LGBTQ+ community have projected their own interpretations onto the plot and compared it to the experience of “coming out,” providing it with even more power than the creators could have ever anticipated. Some still think it could be another “The Good Dinosaur,” but reviews are far more robust for this title, and it won’t go head-to-head with any other Pixar project, making it a likely contender at this juncture.
“The Mitchells vs. The Machines”
Netflix’s “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” was an absolute sensation this past spring, quickly becoming the streamer’s most-watched animated original movie in its first month and earning effusive acclaim from countless critics, notching a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes (with an 8.20/10 average rating) and an 80 on Metacritic. The film – which follows a dysfunctional family that winds up having to save Earth from a global uprising while on a road trip – was singled out for its subversive style and chaotically entertaining comedy, delivered expertly by an ensemble cast consisting of Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Eric André, and Olivia Colman, among others.
While this is only writer-director Mike Rianda’s feature debut, the film is produced by adored – and award-winning – auteurs Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who ushered their own “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” to an Academy Award win just three years ago. In addition, Netflix is also pretty good at getting animated features into the awards race (see 2019’s “I Lost My Body” and “Klaus” and 2020’s “Over the Moon“), and while they may end up with two contenders on their hands (see below), there’s no reason they can’t juggle both, especially after accomplishing this feat two years ago and having strong critical support on their side for “The Mitchells vs. the Machines.”
While Guillermo del Toro’s long-in-development stop-motion animated musical adaptation of “Pinocchio” doesn’t have a set release date at the moment, the last we heard it was still being planned for a 2021 release, and should it indeed come out this calendar year, it feels futile to bet against it. With del Toro’s distinguished direction, a cast comprised of names like Ewan McGregor, Ron Perlman, Tilda Swinton, Christoph Waltz, Cate Blanchett, Tim Blake Nelson, and Finn Wolfhard, and a sure-to-be stellar score from two-time Oscar-winner Alexandre Desplat, the film is prepared to fire on all cylinders.
Little is known about the particulars of del Toro’s adaptation at the moment, but he’s promised a “dark” and “twisted” retelling of the classic tale. Given the macabre whimsicality of his prior work (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Crimson Peak” and “The Shape of Water“), we can certainly count on him to deliver in that respect. There also always seems to be a spot or two for a stop motion film to factor into the Best Animated Feature race (2018’s “Isle of Dogs,” 2019’s “Missing Link,” 2020’s “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon,” etc.) and “Pinocchio” is the only contender of that kind this year. If the picture is as promising as we expect, we have a hard time seeing this get overlooked come fall.
EDITOR’S NOTE (8/4/21): We’re being told by our contacts at Netflix that Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio” will be pushed to 2022 and thus will not qualify this year for the Oscars.
“Raya and the Last Dragon”
If you feel like “Raya and the Last Dragon” came and went upon its release, you’re not alone. Premiering at the start of the Oscar eligibility window on March 5, it feels easy to envision a scenario in which the well-reviewed animated feature (95% on Rotten Tomatoes with a 7.70/10 average rating, 75 on Metacritic) is forgotten by awards season, overshadowed by more recent movies like Disney’s own “Encanto” or “Flee.” Nonetheless, audiences have really taken to the title, with its viewership jumping dramatically to 1.08 billion minutes watched upon its debut for “free” on Disney+ on June 4 – and it’s been near the top of the streaming service’s “Trending” list ever since.
The story, which sees the titular Raya team up with a dragon named Sisu to fight an evil force that threatens the land of Kumandra and seeks to divide its people, is undoubtedly one of Disney Animation’s strongest. There are plenty of timely themes for voters to latch onto. Still, with three major contenders in the race this year (“Raya and the Last Dragon,” “Luca,” and “Encanto“), Disney is going to have to make some tough calls, and we worry that “Raya and the Last Dragon,” given its early release date, could be on the chopping block. Still, if any studio could pull off the feat of capturing three nominations, it’d be the Mouse House.
”Ron’s Gone Wrong”
“Ron’s Gone Wrong” is perhaps the least buzzed-about title on this list. Still, as the long-awaited follow-up from “Arthur Christmas” director Sarah Smith (which just barely missed out on a Best Animated Feature nomination in 2011), we’d be remiss not to at least mention it. After being shifted around the schedule countless times due to the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, the science fiction coming-of-age comedy will finally release this October, and aside from Smith’s involvement, the project’s stacked cast (Zach Galifianakis, Jack Dylan Grazer, Olivia Colman, Ed Helms, Justice Smith, Rob Delaney, etc.) also has us curious.
The film follows Grazer’s Barney, a socially awkward middle-schooler who longs for his own “B-bot,” a walking, speaking, and digitally connected robot that most kids look to as their fondest friend in this version of the future. Unfortunately, when Barney’s dad gifts him a B-bot named Ron, his machine tends to malfunction, adding more struggles to Barney’s life instead of offering the expected emotional support. The premise may not be anything to write home about, and “Ron” may suffer from comparisons to “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” but we have faith that Smith has a few surprises up her sleeve, so we won’t count this one out just yet.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s second title in our top ten contenders for Best Animated Feature at the 94th Academy Awards is Netflix’s “Vivo,” a musical comedy movie that centers around the titular kinkajou (voiced by Miranda), who spends his days playing music to the crowds in a lively Havana square with his beloved owner, Andrés. However, when Andrés desires to reconnect with a flame from his past but finds himself unable to, Vivo takes on the responsibility of delivering a love letter to the legendary singer Marta Sandoval, accompanied by Andrés’ grand-niece Gabi, a peculiar preteen who marches to the beat of her own drum.
Initially intended for theatrical release under Sony Pictures Animation, “Vivo” is sure to make quite a splash on streaming upon its debut on Netflix on August 6 – though it is easy to see a scenario in which the picture is more of a “commercial” play while “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” and “Pinocchio” act as the steamer’s sole animated features in the awards race, especially since Sony Pictures Animation has rarely made a dent in this category outside of “Surf’s Up” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Still, it’s hard to bet against the musical brilliance of Lin-Manuel Miranda, even if we feel that “Encanto” will be the more promising project of his two in contention overall.
“Where Is Anne Frank”
Writer-director Ari Folman is no stranger to the Academy Awards (having directed 2008’s Oscar-nominated “Waltz with Bashir”), and with “Where Is Anne Frank,” his first film in eight years, he seems to have taken on his most ambitious project yet, adapting “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank as an animated feature that follows the journey of Kitty, the imaginary friend to whom Frank dedicated her diary. In the film, Kitty wakes up in the near future in Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, embarking on a journey to find Anne in modern-day Europe, who she believes is still alive; instead, she comes across the legendary legacy Anne left behind.
On paper, the film sounds like an emotional knockout, and given the Academy’s embrace of WWII-centric stories in the past – to say nothing of Folman’s standing with voters – it seems to reason that this would be an easy nomination for the epic to earn. However, out of Cannes (where the film premiered), reviews were a bit more mixed than initially expected, as it only achieved a 67% on Rotten Tomatoes (with a 5.80/10 average rating), and the sole review logged on Metacritic has the movie pegged at a 50. Still, with such stirring and sentimental subject matter, and an accomplished auteur at the helm, it’d be foolish to count out “Where Is Anne Frank” entirely.
So, what say you? Do you agree with our picks? Are there any animated films with bright awards hopes this season that we missed? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on our Twitter account!
You can follow Zoe and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @ZoeRoseBryant