The Long Shot: Curbing the cartoons
Yesterday, the news landed that 19 films have been entered for consideration in the Best Animated Feature Oscar race -- a small pool that could get smaller once the Academy starts vetting the submissions for eligibility. (Hard to see the significantly live-action "The Smurfs 2" meeting with their approval, for example, but don't lose heart -- there's always the chance of a history-making Best Actress nod for Katy Perry's voice performance.) The number all eyes are focused on, however, is 16 -- the number of qualifying contenders required for a five-wide nomination field. Fewer than that, and it's down to four; fewer still, and we're looking at three.
The politics of the situation at this stage are rather conflicted: studios with a viable shot at a nomination are currently willing as many of the no-hopers as possible to pass muster, before the back-biting can begin. Smurfs, you peers are rooting for you, if not for long.
Of course, even if 16 titles qualify, the animators' branch doesn't have to nominate five films if they don't think the field is up to snuff. Academy rules specify five as a maximum; they can nominate as few as two, if they so wish. Still, the animators have never opted to discriminate in this manner -- seemingly undistinguished films that lack critical and/or audience support have been nominated in the past, usually on their technical merits. In the dozen years that the category has been in existence, the voters have nominated the maximum number of films every time, yielding five-wide fields in the 2002, 2009, 2011 and 2012 races. With animated productions more commonplace in our multiplexes than ever before, five is looking to be the new standard.
Even at three, however, the system makes Best Animated Feature by far the least challenging of all Oscar categories in terms of nomination odds. If a minimum field of 16 films yields five berths, that theoretically gives each contender a 31% chance (that's nearly one in three, for the mathematically flummoxed) of going to the ball -- and even those easy odds can be slashed when you discount the makeweight contenders. (It was nice knowing you last year, "Tinker Bell: Secret of the Wings.")
To put that figure in perspective, there are also five slots available in the Best Foreign Language Film category, with 76 eligible films fighting it out -- which makes for less than a 7% chance of a nomination. (And those films have already jumped through the tricky hoop of national selection to compete in the first place.) And even those odds are better than ones qualifying films face in the big ol' Best Picture derby: it may have double the number of available slots, but 282 films were competing for them last year. (Want a percentage again? Less than 4%, and only if the Academy collectively elects to fill all 10 spaces.)
Hold up, some of you might say -- that's an unfair comparison. The Best Picture longlist is dominated by joke contenders or extreme long slots that won't come within a sniff of a nomination in any category; the real competition is a fraction the size. That's true, but it's not as if the animated contenders are so uniform in quality either: a Best Animated Feature nod for Disney's wholly unremarkable "Planes" or DreamWorks' paint-by-numbers flop "Turbo" would be the aesthetic equivalent of, say, "Olympus Has Fallen" landing in the Best Picture category. The former's an admittedly outside possibility; the latter a patently absurd notion.
Does the Best Animated Feature category really need five nominees? Critical and industry consensus has it that 2013 hasn't been a banner year for the medium. Some animation institutions (be it Pixar or Studio Ghibli) are inevitably going to land nominations for respectable films that, I and many others would argue, don't rank with their greatest achievements -- and they'll be among the leading contenders. But even in richer years than this one, is the art form so rich and diverse as to necessitate nominating a third or a quarter of its annual output? Even three-wide years have yielded some pretty unmemorable nominees, from "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" to "Surf's Up." Some issue may be taken, as in any Oscar race, with the voters' taste or conservatism, but even so, the number of slighted contenders each year can be counted on the fingers of a single hand.
The flip side of the argument is that the more accommodating odds allow for the inclusion of quirkier independent contenders, which frequently give the nominee slate refreshing artistic balance: GKIDS, for example, has benefited from the system, nabbing unexpected nods and otherwise impossible exposure for such worthwhile foreign titles as "Chico and Rita" and "The Secret of Kells." Certainly, the inclusion of one of this year's GKIDS hopefuls, the exquisite French creature feature "Ernest and Celestine," would make for a richer, more credible category than one filled out with average studio fodder like "Epic" and "The Croods."
But as Sylvain Chomet's "The Illusionist" proved in 2010, as it beat popular favorites "Tangled" and "Despicable Me" to a place on that year's three-wide ballot, outstanding underdogs don't need the extra slots to make the cut. It's harder, yes, but getting an Oscar nomination is supposed to be hard. That 2010 race was exciting because, even if the winner ("Toy Story 3") was a foregone conclusion, a nomination felt like something worth fighting for, a meaningful achievement in itself. If the nominee maximum were set at three, whatever the number of qualifying contenders, worthy films would certainly miss the cut in some years. Well, show me an Oscar category where that isn't the case on an annual basis.
Owing to the relative paucity of heavyweight contenders, Best Animated Feature is already the least routinely competitive of all Oscar categories -- when "Brave" edged a presumably tight victory over "Wreck-It Ralph" earlier this year, it was the first time in six years that any degree of suspense had surrounded the outcome. (Happily, it looks like we may be in for another of those years, whatever the standard of the competition.)
Some have gone so far as to suggest that the animation pool isn't deep enough to justify its own category, particularly now that the Academy has shown willingness to nominate crossover successes alongside live-action titles in the Best Picture race -- a race they'll never win as long as toons have their own ghetto category. (They'll probably never win in any event, mind. Still, what's the greater achievement: a Best Picture nod, or an Animated Feature win? It's a valid question.)
One might even advocate a system a bit like the one the Academy had in place for foreign-language features before the Best Foreign Language Film award was introduced in 1956, whereby a committee simply singles out a single, notably worthy film for an Honorary Oscar on a semi-annual basis. I think we're past that, but it'd still be possible to bring such discernment to a competitive system, and to enliven a category that often feels a little less animated than it should.