Sunday, January 20, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: The Animated Films

With less than 2 days to go before the Oscar nominations, I've been trying to cover my bases and watch as many contenders across the various categories as possible. Undoubtedly, one of the most interesting races to follow has been Best Animated Feature, where new frontrunners continuously emerged throughout the course of the year. As usual, I focused on those main contenders in my personal viewing of the slate. And ultimately, I agreed with the consensus on one particular December release which stands above the rest. Here are my thoughts, personal rankings and predictions for this year's Oscar contenders for Best Animated Feature:

From Aardman Studios, the masterminds who brought us such gems as "Chicken Run" and "Shaun the Sheep Movie" comes a new animated tale called "Early Man". As its title suggests, the film takes place in prehistoric times, when cavemen and other early creatures roamed the earth. In this setting emerges a story of Dug, a young caveman determined to protect his primitive tribe from Bronze Age colonizers. After being introduced to their affinity for an early form of football, Dug makes a deal to keep their home by beating them at their own game. The film thus becomes a typical underdog story which only delivers a few chuckles. It certainly has some of the quirks of Aardman's house style, but "Early Man" is definitely one of their lesser efforts. Rating: ★★★1/2

Nearly 10 years after his "Fantastic Mr. Fox" snagged a pair of Oscar nominations, Wes Anderson makes a welcome return to stop motion animation with "Isle of Dogs". Set in a dystopian Japan, "Isle of Dogs" follows a young boy Atari as he goes on a mission to find his dog, which was banished to Trash Island after an outbreak of canine flu. Upon arrival on Trash Island, he hooks up with a pack of dogs - delightfully voiced by Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum - who help him on his search. Their journey subsequently takes them on a madcap adventure which is relentlessly entertaining. Admittedly, the film doesn't fully sustain its initial madcap energy. But Anderson's distinctive offbeat style shines through in film's hilarious comic timing and wondrous mise en scene, which earned him a well-deserved Best Director prize at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival. Rating: ★★★★

With Pixar now firmly into their sequel phase, it was inevitable that they would make a follow-up to one of their beloved hits. This summer, audiences were reunited with the titular family of "The Incredibles 2", as they aim to save the day and restore the good reputation of superheroes. If you've seen the first film, there's not much that will be new to you here. But in trademark Pixar form, the screenplay works in some surprisingly mature commentary on the challenges of domestic life, vis-à-vis parenting and marriage. And when coupled with some truly exciting action setpieces, "The Incredibles 2" becomes fun for the whole family. Rating: ★★★★

After the success of its prequel, Wreck-it Ralph returns with a whole new adventure called "Ralph Breaks the Internet". Once again, the film focuses on the duo of Ralph and Vanellope, as they embark on a mission to save Vanellope's Sugar Rush arcade game by braving the strange new world of the internet. As their journey takes them to Oh My Disney, where this media empire dominates our attention, it's hard to miss the blatant self-promotion on display. And yet, the zippy storyline is genuinely fun and funny, with clever pop culture references and winking nods at Disney cliches. Most impactful is the film's second half, however, which offers a surprisingly mature commentary on toxic friendships. While "Wreck-it Ralph" came up short at the Oscars, this sequel puts forth a strong argument to win it all this time around. Rating: ★★★★

Joining a slew of other superhero narratives in the race, "Teen Titans Go! To The Movies" is one of the most peculiar of this year's animated films. Directed by Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath, this parody of comic book movies is based on the TV series "Teen Titans Go!" and those roots are quite obvious. Indeed, this juvenile film is hardly much deeper than a Saturday morning cartoon, with the fart jokes and frenetic energy to match. But once you're able to shut off your brain, you'll find a entertaining story about a bunch of carefree young kids who simply want to live out their Hollywood dreams. Rating: ★★★1/2

Fans have long awaited a cinematic iteration of Miles Morales as Spiderman and now, their patience has been duly rewarded. "Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse" is a Miles Morales (a half-black half-Latino version of Spiderman) origin story, a regular high schooler who is gains special powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. With the city of Brooklyn and the wider world under threat by a villain named Kingpin, he must summon the courage to use his newfound abilities for good. But he'll have the help of a few friends, as a mysterious occurrence brings together different versions of Spider-man from alternate universes. They include the familiar characters of Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, in addition to a pig named Spider-ham, a Japanese girl called Peni Parker and a brooding version of Peter Parker from the 1930s. To be sure, it's an outrageous premise. But the result is a complete reinvigoration of the Spider-man mythology that practically explodes off the screen with its creative energy and features some of the most eye-popping animation you'll ever see. "Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse" is not only the best of this year's animated features, it's one of the best films of 2018. Rating: ★★★★

If I had high expectations for "Smallfoot", I'd say it is the most disappointing animated film of the year. But this Warner Animation production is exactly the run-of-the-mill cash grab I expected it to be. It tells a story about a Yeti named Migo, who is ostracized from his community after claiming to see the a smallfoot (i.e. a human), which goes against the insular beliefs of his community. As you ventures out into the unknown to prove his findings and salvage his reputation, the script puts forth a valuable message about the importance of intellectual curiosity. But otherwise, this predictable film offers nothing noteworthy to really distinguish itself from your typical animated adventure. Rating: ★★★

Here's how I'd rank these films (in order of preference):
Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Isle of Dogs
The Incredibles 2
Tito and the Birds
Teen Titans Go! To The Movies
Early Man

My prediction:

Best Animated Feature
Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse
The Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Ralph Breaks the Internet

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