When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the creation of the Best Animated Feature award in the fall of 2000, critic and animation historian Charles Solomon summed up the feelings of many in the industry with one word: “Finally.”
The category, the first the Academy had added since Best Make-up in 1981, arrived at the end of a decade of resurgence and innovation within the genre. The Disney Renaissance, kicked off by the arrival of The Little Mermaid at the end of 1989, was a rising tide throughout the industry (albeit one that would crush some that attempted to sail its waters, such as Titan A.E. and Quest for Camelot). The release of Toy Story in 1995 proved that computer animation could not only work at feature length but could produce an industry-changing classic. It was a heady moment for a rapidly evolving, artistically undeniable medium. The Oscars, however, rarely reflected this. While animated films made regular appearances in the Best Original Song and Best Original Score categories, acknowledgment elsewhere was more elusive. Rather than opening up the category to animation, Beauty and the Beast’s Best Picture nomination in 1992 ended up being the only such nomination in the 1990s. In 1996, Toy Story became the first animated film nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category and picked up a Special Achievement Oscar for its technical breakthroughs. But even an incomplete list of films that went unacknowledged in the Oscars’ top categories tells a story of oversight: Aladdin, The Lion King, Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant, Ghost in the Shell, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Princess Mononoke.
The Best Animated Feature was intended to correct that, giving animated movies a category of their own, a high-profile award to honor the best the art form had to offer. But just over two decades since its creation, it’s hard to definitively determine whether it’s worked. A list of the category’s nominees includes many of the best feature-length animated movies released since 2001, but the list of winners almost exclusively honors high-profile Hollywood productions (most of them released by Disney and Pixar) and, a few exceptions aside, the category’s existence has seemingly taken animated features out of contention for the top prizes. The Best Animated Feature may have increased animation’s prestige, but it’s also, however inadvertently, placed limits on that prestige by curtaining off animated features and awarding the usual suspects year after year.
Solomon, who’s continued to cover animation extensively as a journalist and author of books about Disney and director Mamoru Hosoda, now gives the award itself a mixed review. “By creating this category they can kind of dodge considering animation for other major categories,” he says. If anything, it might have decreased animation’s ability to compete in categories like Best Screenplay and Best Production Design rather than expand it. “There was some discussion,” Solomon recalls, “the year Beauty and the Beast was nominated about, well, should Glen Keane and Robby Benson be considered for Best Actor for the performance of Beast?” But such conversations now seem as dated as Hypercolor shirts and George Clooney–inspired Caesar cuts. This year did anyone even consider nominating, say, Stephanie Beatriz for her work in Encanto?
Coincidentally or not, the introduction of the Best Animated Feature award coincided with an animated film making a serious bid for Best Picture consideration. After years of sequels, imitators, toys, and memes, Shrek probably isn’t remembered as a contender for the Oscars’ top prize. But it was given a hard push by the still-young DreamWorks Animation and producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, who played a key role in the Disney Renaissance before leaving the studio in a cloud of acrimony and lawsuits. Peppered with jokes at the expense of his former employer and Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner, Shrek escalated and brought a personal edge to the ongoing Disney-DreamWorks rivalry. It was also a huge, well-reviewed hit that debuted in competition at Cannes and remained a part of the Best Picture conversation up to the announcement of the nominees. It was eventually left out of contention for the top prize, undoubtedly to Katzenberg’s frustration. But it did win the first Best Animated Feature Oscar—an early suggestion that animated features could have one award or the other, but not both.
That first field of nominees established another pattern too. Shrek competed with Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. and the Nickelodeon-produced Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, both products of the American animation industry. Left without a nomination: Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, a dreamy, unconventional, and highly acclaimed film that was deeply philosophical and looked nothing like its mainstream competition. The next year saw Hayao Miyazaki’s masterful Spirited Away take the top prize. In 2005, the award went to Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and in 2006 to Happy Feet—English and Australian films, respectively. But since then, one American studio film after another has won, with only Rango and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse breaking Disney and Pixar’s stranglehold on the category.
Solomon blames the homogeneity of the nominees on the voting process, which allows the whole of the Academy to vote. “I wanted to see the animation branch take over choosing these nominees,” he says. “As long as the body at large is choosing the nominees, they’re going to go with what’s familiar, and what they think would appeal to their kids, rather than the works that are perhaps a little more unusual.” That includes this year’s nominees. “I think there were three really compelling films made in animation this year: Belle, Flee—which is nominated in three categories and I fear is going to lose in all three of them—and the French film Summit of the Gods. All of them are really interesting films that push animation in directions Americans generally aren’t used to thinking about. But only Flee got nominated.”
Others, however, offer a glass-half-full assessment of the category. Monica Castillo, an associate curator at the Paley Center who’s contributed reviews and analysis to NPR and RogerEbert.com, notes that an outside-the-studio-system film’s nomination helps broaden its audience, however unlikely a win. “I think the Best Animated Feature Oscar has put a lot of really interesting films on people’s radars.” She points to Cartoon Saloon, the Irish studio behind The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner, and Wolfwalkers, all Academy Award nominees. “I think that attention helped them secure better distribution for future projects. And it’s why Apple TV+ shelled out for Wolfwalkers.” You can add to that list films like The Triplets of Belleville, Waltz With Bashir, Chico & Rita, Ernest & Celestine, and Anomalisa, also-rans that resemble each other only in looking nothing like Disney or Pixar productions.
That’s not to knock Disney and Pixar, who’ve collectively put out great films since the invention of the Best Animated Feature Oscar, even if their honors during that period have rarely extended much beyond the category. The exclusion of Wall-E from the list of 2008’s Best Picture nominees was often cited as a reason to expand the category beyond its then-traditional cap of five. The next year, the first after the expansion, saw a nomination for Up. A nomination for Toy Story 3 followed the year after that. Then, apart from Inside Out’s Best Original Screenplay nomination, nothing.
In Solomon’s 2000 piece about the creation of the award, some animators voiced concerns that the new Oscar would wall off animation from top-tier honors, fears the years that followed have largely confirmed, even if appreciation for animation has never been higher. Animation no longer has to struggle to be taken seriously—or at least struggle quite as hard as in the days when the art form was synonymous with kids’ stuff. That owes a lot to the cross-generational appeal and remarkable artistry of films like Ratatouille and Frozen, but the introduction of a dedicated Oscar category almost certainly hasn’t hurt. It’s both given animation an annual spotlight moment during the Oscars ceremony—one diminished this year by the decision to prerecord the awarding of the Best Animated Short Oscar rather than televising it live—and extended films’ immediate reach and long-term shelf lives.
The focus of that spotlight, however, has narrowed since the award’s creation: Pixar has won 11 out of 20 times; Walt Disney Animation Studios has won three. Of the other contenders, only DreamWorks has won more than once, the second time for Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, a coproduction with Aardman Animations. “The award itself,” Solomon says, “seems to be reserved for the major American studios. And at a time when everyone is calling for a greater diversity of visions, they’re not giving us that kind of diversity and they’re not opening it to different talents and different voices.”
It’s hard to tell when, or if, that will change. There’s not a bad film in this year’s five nominees. But, predictably, two (Encanto and Raya and the Last Dragon) come from Walt Disney Animation Studios and one (Luca) from Pixar. That leaves the previously mentioned Flee, a remarkable Danish documentary that uses un-flashy animation to recount the story of an anonymous man who fled Afghanistan as a child, and The Mitchells vs. the Machines, a fun science fiction family adventure filled with wildly creative gags and a style that’s not that far removed from the Disney-Pixar school. A win for Disney or Pixar remains likely, if not inevitable. (Encanto is currently the odds-on favorite.) And there are far worse outcomes than a terrific film winning a deserved honor, however predictable that outcome might be. But the Best Animated Feature was born out of a sense that animation deserved better, that the form needed support and attention as it pushed beyond previous boundaries. Twenty-plus years into its existence, the limitations of the award itself, which grow more evident and pronounced each year, can’t help but stir similar feelings.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.