Oscar nominations are in, thus marking that special time of year when movies are subjectively judged on supposedly objective grounds, and every movie review site feels compelled to put in its own two cents about the competition. Here's my unabashedly subjective contribution.
And the nominees are…
The Ambitious “Peaceful Easy Feeling” Music Video
Of the two stop-motion animation films amongst this year’s nominations, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On may take the prize for innovation. Years of planning and labor went into this film adaptation of a viral YouTube video featuring Marcel, a young mollusk interacting with a live-action world (think Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but instead of toons you have quarter-sized stop-motion shells). Marcel lives at a human-sized AirBnB with his grandmother, Connie, patiently awaiting the return of around a hundred missing family members. When a documentary filmmaker offers to help find them, Marcel decides to venture out into the world – finding it filled with unexpected dangers (namely, humans).
There are moments in the movie where you will cry from laughter and other moments where you will just plain cry – the heartbeat of the movie is a brilliant statement on a child’s experience of loss. Jenny Slate (co-writer) and Isabella Rossellini offer pitch-perfect voice performances for Marcel and Nana Connie, respectively, and the touching, relatable storyline involving Dean Fleischer-Camp (actual director and appearing as a director-character) elevate this worthy entry in the 2023 Academy Awards.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On can be rented or purchased on VOD or through A24’s blu-ray shop.
It’s icing on the cake for this strong year of animated feature nominations that only one of them is a Disney movie – and if only one Disney movie could be selected, I’m glad it’s Disney/Pixar’s Turning Red. Pre-teen Meilin’s status as a responsible and dutiful daughter is threatened when the prospect of seeing her favorite boy-band, 4*Town, comes between her and her strict mother. Meilin is literally coming-of-age as her body begins to change – into a giant red panda.
The animation is Pixar at its best, with the scale of the panda(s) and the 4*Town’s concert standing out amongst the studio’s always-stunning character animation. Turning Red is undeniably a return to form for charming and well-crafted Disney/Pixar stories, but the puberty metaphor offers an uncharacteristic boldness. It’s refreshing to see any animation studio take on a challenging reality for all pre-teens from the perspective of a young girl and her mom. From director Domee Shi and featuring a predominantly Asian cast (including the legendary James Hong and Wai Ching Ho), Turning Red is worth a watch on Disney+.
How to Train Your Kraken
Nexflix Animation’s The Sea Beast is the animated lovechild of The Pirates of the Caribbean, Moby Dick, Jaws, Godzilla, and King Kong combined. A young orphan and her legendary monster-hunting hero embark on a mercenary voyage and soon find themselves at the mercy of the dreaded Red Bluster. The creature’s unexpected gentleness begins to change both their perspectives on who the real monsters are.
The movie’s central message is a perfectly valid but at times too shallow lesson that history is rewritten by those in power. Much of the humor is aimed at children, but adults can catch an Alien reference and be startled by the amount of drinking – rivaling The Banshees of Inisherin – present in the first act. The 3D animation is often beautifully sleek, and the gargantuan sea beast itself is almost as cute as Dreamworks’ Toothless. The major achievement of The Sea Beast is in the animators’ life-like portrayal of the surface and the depths of the sea itself, notoriously difficult to replicate believably. This one is an easy watch on Netflix.
The first thing you need to know about Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is that, in a movie saturated with powerful vocal performances, Cate Blanchett follows her stellar performance in Tár by portraying a non-verbal antagonistic monkey. With your interest now piqued, you can view the umpteenth iteration of the classic fairy tale with the knowledge that it brings something fresh to both the talking puppet and the world of animation itself. GDT covers all the familiar themes of parenthood and childhood, integrity, and independence, along with all-new messages on war (specifically pre-WW2 Italian fascism), religion, and the nature of life and death.
This is no children’s animated feature; perhaps an indicator of the target audience for the movie comes from GTD’s co-director, Mark Gustafson, who amongst his other adult-oriented stop-motion credits assisted Wes Anderson as Animation Director on Fantastic Mr. Fox. Gustafson’s eye for motion-based storytelling and GDT’s embrace of the darkness of fairy stories is a winning combination, and Pinocchio is an important watch for anyone the least bit interested in the oldest form of animation or the oldest kinds of stories. Catch it on Netflix and check out Joseph’s expanded review here.
Into the Fairy-Verse
From Dreamworks, the studio that spawned the first-ever winner of the Oscar for Best Animated Feature (Shrek ), comes a franchise entry that no one was waiting for and yet was still miraculously better than any Shrek spinoff has the right to be: Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. The popular meow-sketeer is down to the last of his nine lives, and to get them back he must team up with a friendly stray dog and a dangerous old flame to race a host of fairy-tale characters to a fabled wishing star.
The Last Wish proves the continued evolution of animation. Like its grandsire Shrek before it, this project draws on the latest and greatest techniques to bring the swashbuckling cat into the new decade. The action sequences channel the smoothness and rapid pace of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), ensuring the audience doesn’t miss a beat. The coloring is soft but pops when needed, the backgrounds are gorgeously fully rendered, and the character-crafting catches every last detail – especially important when your lead character’s fur needs to stand straight to communicate his fear of a terrifying sickle-wielding wolf. The overall effect renders The Last Wish one of the most fun (and most chilling) adventure movies of the 2020s. Complete with an all-star cast including Antonio Banderas (returning to the title role), Salma Hayek (what better choice could there be for Kitty Softpaws), Harvey Guillén (of FX’s What We Do in the Shadows fame), Florence Pugh, Olivia Coleman, John Mulaney, and more, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is one that you want to catch before its long run in theaters ends or, at the very least, rent at home as soon as you can.
And the Oscar goes to…
As much as I adore Marcel the Shell with Shoes On and respect Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish steals my vote for Best Animated Feature and one of the most engaging movies of 2022. All of them have something fresh to offer and I’ll happily applaud as the nominations are read, but I’ll be unashamedly rewatching The Last Wish over and over again long after the Academy picks the winners from this exciting year for film buffs.