It would not be controversial to say that the continued importance and relevance of the Academy Awards is highly questionable, with this year’s crop of nominations in particular rightfully coming under fire for their lack of diversity. There is, however, one field in which the competition is as diverse as it’s ever been: the Best Animated Feature category. Aside from Pixar’s Inside Out, though that is the obvious frontrunner, none of the nominees — Charlie Kaufman’s contemplative Anomalisa, Aardman’s wordless Shaun the Sheep, Studio Ghibli’s understated swansong When Marnie Was There, and the stunning Brazillian confection Boy & the World— were produced or distributed by the giants of US feature animation, the highest ratio of alternative to mainstream nominees since the category’s inception in 2001.
The field hasn’t always been so diverse; from 2001-2002, there were only two nominees from outside the major US studios, with Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar accounting for 10 of the 14 nods. Among those were some choices which in hindsight seem dubious. History has not been kind to the likes of Shark Tale, Brother Bear, Jimmy Neutron and Treasure Planet, most of which received tepid reviews upon release. Was this really the best animation had to offer? The rules, then as now, necessitated a US release, which did something to reduce the number of potential contenders. Nevertheless, such excellent, eclectic and eligible works as Waking Life, Metropolis, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfather and Ghost In The Shell 2 were passed over in favour of middling major studio fair during this period.
However, recent years have seen more and more nominations go to films which, for simplicity’s sake, I will term ‘alternative’. This can encompass any films which deviate from the typical American family fare which tends to dominate the ceremony, whether they were recorded in a foreign language, given a limited release, produced or distributed independently or aimed exclusively at adults. Depending on one’s personal stance this could be expanded to include the output of up-and-coming American studio Laika, the popular stop-motion work of auteurs like Wes Anderson and Tim Burton, and even the films made by the UK’s Aardman in conjunction with DreamWorks and Sony.
Even without these borderline cases, however, the stylistic, disciplinary and international diversity on display in the field of nominations is regularly pleasantly surprising, especially when compared to the frequently predictable major categories: since 2008, the last year in which all three nominations were CGI films from major US studios, 33 features have been nominated for the award. Only 14, less than half, were computer animated. 8 were stop motion and 11 were traditionally animated, ranging from the painterly Ernest & Celestine to the smoothly stylised Song of the Sea. 8 were non-English-language, and only 13 were produced by either Disney, Pixar or DreamWorks. Whatever hang-ups and prejudices restricted the scope of the award in its early years have clearly been left in the past, which could be attributed to the ever-increasing membership of the animation branch. Of around 350 members, nearly 137 have been invited since 2004. Despite the fact that 45% of these new additions work at one of the three biggest studios, there is a clear correlation between the growing voter-base and the diversification of the nominees.
While studies have shown that Best Picture performance in and of itself has no correlation with box office receipts, this is because the nominees in that category tend to come with other indicators of quality, such as star performances, which are likely to produce modest hits regardless. Many of the more obscure Best Animated Feature contenders lack any obvious traits to recommend them to a broader audience; foreign features with idiosyncratic visuals and little-known directors are understandably a tougher sell than even the more eccentric Best Pictures such as Birdman, which at least boasted recognisable stars. As such, Academy recognition can often have a more palpable effect on the prospects of alternative animation: Spirited Away, The Triplets of Belleville, Persepolis, The Illusionist, The Wind Rises and Song of the Sea all saw dramatic increases in the number of US screens on which they were shown in the weeks surrounding the ceremony. Along with the increased exposure and name recognition that necessarily comes with being mentioned in a telecast viewed by 40 million people, a nomination undeniably amplifies the potential audience for the films, even if that rarely translates to stellar box office takings.
With the Oscars being the Oscars, of course, criticism of the category abounds. Firstly there’s the well-worn argument that the addition of the category could have a negative impact on an animated feature’s chances of winning Best Picture, with only two receiving nods for the big prize since 2001. However, given that there was only one such nominee before the category’s inception, it is clear that there are many more hurdles to overcome. More worrying is the fact that only two non-CGI films, Spirited Away and Wallace & Gromit, have ever actually taken home the animation prize, with Spirited Away the only foreign language winner, and both were distributed by major US studios. This speaks to a wider potential issue with how the awards are handed out: while the nominees are selected solely by the animation branch, the whole Academy is free to vote for the winning film. Without specialist knowledge, the broader membership is less likely to have seen every nominee, and more likely to simply vote for the films they have heard of. As such, it may be a long time before we see alternative candidates regularly pocketing the prize, but although the category’s voting process bares all the flaws which pervade the awards as a whole, it remains far less beholden to formula, tradition and the old guard than its counterparts. As Anton Ego puts it in Pixar’s (Oscar nominated) Ratatouille, ‘the new needs friends’, and when it comes to ‘the discovery and defence of the new’ no Oscar category is more prolific and consistently relevant than Best Animated Feature.
 Weiling Zhuang, Barry Babin, Qian Xiao & Mihaela Paun (2014),”The influence of movie’s quality on its performance: evidence based on Oscar Awards”, Managing Service Quality, Vol. 24, Issue 2, pp. 122-138.
Sam Summers is a PhD candidate at University of Sunderland’s Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies. His research focuses on the use of intertextual references in contemporary animation in general and DreamWorks’ animation in particular, with a view to contextualising and historicising the studio’s role in the development of the medium.