At the recent Academy Awards ceremony, Encanto, the musical fantasy by Disney, won the award for Best Animated Feature. The other nominations were Luca, a cute coming-of-age monster story from Pixar, Flee, an autobiographical drama by Vice Studios, The Mitchells versus The Machines, a fast-paced sci-fi adventure from Sony, and Raya and the Last Dragon, a fantasy adventure from Disney.
Earlier that evening in the opening monologue, co-host Amy Schumer made a comment on this category, stating that she hadn’t seen any of the other nominations and only knows about Encanto because her child wanted to watch it many times. Just before the award was announced, the three presenters of Lily James, Naomi Scott, and Halle Bailey also commented on how animation is less of a medium and more something that parents are forced to watch with their kids.
This was a huge slap in the face to the animation medium but more specifically the nomination of Flee. Flee is Amin Nawabi’s coming-of-age story about being a refugee from Afghanistan and later coming to terms with his sexuality to marry his husband in the present. The film was so brilliantly profound but it is not an easy watch for the dark depictions of the world. It’s a film that flies in the face of the notion that animation is only something to keep your kids entertained.
The Academy’s lackluster attempt to joke about animation being just for kids would be depressing if it weren’t for the fact that this has been an issue for the longest time.
The Best Animated Feature category is one of the youngest Oscar categories. It came about in 2002 as animated films became far more frequent. Previously, animated films were reduced to either honorary awards or sometimes breaking into a handful of categories. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, being one of the first animated feature films ever made, won an honorary award, as did the films Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Toy Story. The few times that animation films received legit nominations was The Little Mermaid being nominated for Best Original Song and Beauty and the Beast being nominated for Best Picture.
Some have speculated that the reasoning behind the creation of the Best Animated Feature category was to keep animation out of the Best Picture category. This argument falls apart when considering that Pixar’s Up and Toy Story 3 were both nominated for Best Picture as well as Best Animated Feature.
The Animated Feature award is open to the entire Academy for voting with no specific branch targeted and here is where things get messy. Typically for most categories, screeners are sent out to voters in a particular branch. Actors will vote with regard to Best Actor and Actress, directors for Best Director, writers for Best Adapted and Original screenplay, and so on. However, there is no specific branch of voters targeted in animation and this is a fairly open category for all within the Academy to vote. Documentaries had this same problem for a time as well.
The problem with voting in this category is that often the voters will not see all the nominations or just vote for whichever films their kids liked the most. Even worse, the votes that were cast were often made by people who resorted to slandering films they had not seen.
Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter surveyed seven Academy members on their picks for Best Animated Feature at the 2015 Academy Awards. The nominations for that year were Big Hero 6, The Boxtrolls, How To Train Your Dragon 2, Song of the Sea, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Here were the responses.
Voter #1 voted for Big Hero 6 and said “If you can call anything a “snub,” this year, it was The Lego Movie, which was one of the best movies of the year. I don’t know what happened there, but it is inconceivable to me. Of the five they did nominate, my favorite is Big Hero 6, which was adorable and original.”
Voter #2 voted for How to Train Your Dragon 2 and said “Where’s our Finding Nemo this year? It’s not a very great group. I liked Song [of the Sea] and The Tale [of the Princess Kaguya], but I’m voting for [How to Train Your] Dragon  because it was superbly entertaining and works on most levels, although its story could be a little better.”
Voter #3 abstained from voting and said “I never got a chance to watch those screeners. There were so many films to watch and I just had to pick and choose.”
Voter #4 voted for Big Hero 6 and said “I loved Big Hero 6. Then I saw The Boxtrolls and I thought the animation was great — but the movie didn’t knock me out. I must admit that I have not seen How to Train Your Dragon 2. But I have seen Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, both of which I loved very much — they were really unique. If I was just voting for animation, I’d have gone with Boxtrolls. But since you have to consider everything, I went with Big Hero 6.”
Voter #5 voted for Big Hero 6 and here is where things fly off the rails. The voter said: “I only watch the ones that my kid wants to see, so I didn’t see [The] Boxtrolls but I saw Big Hero 6 and I saw [How to Train Your] Dragon . We both connected to Big Hero 6 — I just found it to be more satisfying. The biggest snub for me was Chris Miller and Phil Lord not getting in for [The] Lego [Movie]. When a movie is that successful and culturally hits all the right chords and does that kind of box-office — for that movie not to be in over these two obscure freakin’ Chinese fuckin’ things that nobody ever freakin’ saw? That is my biggest bitch. Most people didn’t even know what they were! How does that happen? That, to me, is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.”
For reference, the obscure Chinese films he was referring to are Song of the Sea and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Neither of them is Chinese. Song of the Sea is Irish and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is Japanese. In fact, both films are pretty overt representations of their respective culture it’s embarrassing how someone could make that generalization. Of course, it’s easy to go down that route if you haven’t seen those films.
Voter #6 voted for Big Hero 6 and said: “I saw all five. I like to sit down with [the young people in her family] and watch them. We all loved Big Hero 6 and there was no discussion, no argument, no nothing. The kids watched that one three times — what does that tell you?”
And Voter #7 abstained, simply stating: “Frankly, I didn’t see any of them.”
I always try to keep these responses in mind whenever the winners for Best Animated Feature are announced. It’s why there was a little shock to me that for the 2021 Awards, Pixar’s Soul, which was good but not great, beat out Wolfwalkers, a far more impressive 2D animated film by Cartoon Saloon, who previously worked on Song of the Sea. I can’t speculate on if the voters still think Cartoon Saloon is just one of those obscure Chinese animation studios that are not actually Chinese, but I do know how these films are pushed out to voters.
Part of the push to get voters to vote for a particular film is not so much the quality of the film as the campaign around it. For Your Consideration campaigns are a big deal in trying to gain the attention of the voters and studios spend quite a bit of money to vie for the eyeballs and the votes. The bigger studio, the bigger the push. And given how much Disney already markets their animated films to a heavy degree, the For Your Consideration campaign only increases the already bursting notoriety even more. Think about how many adverts you’ve seen for Encanto and how many you’ve seen for Flee. Did you even see any ads for Flee?
Flee isn’t even the most recent adult-oriented animated film to be nominated in this category. Previous years have seen such nominations as I Lost My Body, Isle of Dogs, and Loving Vincent. None of them won and you can’t help but feel the voters viewing this category – mostly for their kids or just not being interested in animation – played a part in these films not winning.
To be completely fair here, Encanto is not a bad film. It is a great film with wonderful storytelling, beautiful animation, and great songs. But, when comparing it to the animation innovations in The Mitchells versus The Machine and the poignant drama of Flee, I didn’t feel it was the better film. And, sure, maybe some voters really did look closely at all the animated feature films and really did come to the conclusion that Encanto was the better film.
But, given the history of voters in this category and the twice admittance during the ceremony of this being a medium specifically targeted at kids more than adults, the bias is incredibly hard to shake.
I know I’m preaching to the choir at this point and I don’t know who needs to hear this but animation is not a kid-exclusive medium. Everything from the raunchy pictures of Ralph Bakshi to the surreal drama of Don Hertzfeldt has already illustrated this point. Not every adult animated film is great but there is a high enough volume that they’re not anomalies.
Also, by that same token, not all animation that is marketed at kids is explicitly intended for that demographic. Encanto is a great film but not because it’s a virtual babysitter. There is no shortage of animated films on streaming services to accomplish that. Encanto is a great film because it’s about generational trauma and honesty about that trauma is a key factor in having a stable family household. It’s a great film because the songs are catchy and exciting to watch, regardless of your age. It’s a great film because the animation is just mesmerizingly exciting and colorful and in a visual medium, that’s a huge draw that isn’t beholden to one audience more than the other. This all goes double for The Mitchells vs The Machines.
Encanto winning the Best Animated Feature award did not surprise me. It was my one-for-sure locked pick of the night for all the reasons I mentioned. That type of voting seems as though it won’t be changing for a long time. So the announcement of the obvious winner didn’t faze him.
What did rub me the wrong way is the open admittance to animation still being a medium that is more for kids than parents. It hasn’t been that strict with the demographic for many years. If you really need examples of adult animation now, then you’ve clearly not been paying attention.
Maybe start by actually watching Flee. If you do, you may find out for yourself why it’s a great film and a brilliant showcase of what animation can do beyond Disney movies.