For anyone looking through the pieces I wrote on the blog last year, one on the Golden Globes might catch the attention of some. As a brief summary for convenience, I criticized the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (responsible for hosting the awards) for failing to select a competitive lineup of quality animated films as a consequence of negligence or preconceived notions in favor of Western films. From there I attempted to run a few statistical tests that ultimately demonstrated that at least two films, Boss Baby and Ferdinand, were extremely questionable decisions given the reception was mediocre at best amongst critics and general audience members alike.
Given that I spotlighted the Golden Globes last year, I found it appropriate to compose another piece on the matter this year, especially with the actual broadcast of the event happening on January 6th. However, I have chosen to not to pursue the same format I utilized last year in order to provide a new angle on the matter with greater brevity. Alternatively, I will be spotlighting the films that garnered nominations this year in the hopes of better comprehending the state of animation as it stands right now, and provide a qualitative assertion rather than a quantitative one.
Before proceeding, the films that managed to earn nominations for “Best Motion Picture – Animated” are:
- Incredibles 2
- Isle of Dogs
- Ralph Breaks the Internet
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Compared to last year, there aren’t any films listed above that had general critical reactions of anything on par with or below mediocre like last year, with each film garnering favorable press. Interestingly, four of the five films are from the Western market, while only one is a foreign film.
Now one might assume that I am personally satisfied with the selection this year. And haven seen each film listed above, that assertion would be mostly correct. However, there are other thoughts that I want to express that are rooted in subjectivity and firm opinion that prevent me from wholly consenting with the notion.
So I’ll quickly lay it out bluntly with three key points that I will cover in further detail in this order
- Personally, I believe that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is clearly the best animated film on the list.
- I now feel it was misguided to rely heavily on critic and audience scores to determine the best animated feature, because there are deeply inherent biases that influence them.
- Preconceived notions about animated films are detrimental to the industry
Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse vs. Everything Else
Asserting that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the best animated film of 2018 seems like a safe bet to me, so I’ll take it up a couple notches: it is the best film adaptation of Spider-Man in existence period. Utilizing a colorful and fresh animation style reminiscent of those found in comic books, the film explodes with creativity shot-for-shot without compromises that doubly streamlines portions of the narrative and fosters original aesthetic choices. Text bubbles will contain the internal thoughts and questions of characters, comic sequences will lay out the backstories of the heroes in a minute’s time, miniscule details like the tapping of a pencil are given emphasis with small visual effects. All of these contribute to an authentic depiction of a “comic-book” movie created with genuine passion and artistic integrity never depicted on the big screen before.
Even then, my description ignores the fantastic art direction(s) on display. With multiple depictions of the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man at the forefront, no corners are cut to integrate each and every one into the movie while maintaining their unique attributes. Peni Parker and Peter Porker particularly give the illusions that they were ripped straight from a two-dimensional cartoon, and Peter Parker as Spider-Noire uses distinct shading to provide depth and distinction from the background.
Specifically amongst the six, I undoubtedly adore the suit design for Spider-Woman a.k.a. Gwen Stacy. It’s a slick costume with great color choices (most of my favorite colors are used in the design) and does a great job of extenuating prominent traits of Gwen seen within the film. The ballerina footwear reinforces the great agility and elegance of her movement, and the hoodie indicates the withdrawal she voluntarily chooses to indulge in after the death of Peter Parker in her universe.
And by virtue of its nature as an animated film, the action sequences are amongst the most fluid and exhilarating that Spider-Man has to offer. A detriment of live-action depictions of Spider-Man involves the intense amount of computer-generated imagery (CGI) used to depict the adrenaline of combat or web-swinging. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a significant offender of this; one comparison of the suit with and without CGI will reveal significant and noticeable compromises, but can easily be discerned in motion.
Meanwhile, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse requires no suspension of disbelief throughout its view time, since there are never altercations made within the film aside from stylistic choices to convey action, and it looks truly fantastic. Disclosing details would spoil the fun from a first experience, but fight choreography and set pieces are perfectly suited to compliment the primary abilities associated with Spider-Man: aerial prowess and quick web-slinging action.
As I mentioned earlier, the movie depicts a wonderful array of Spider-people stemming from consistent yet diverse backgrounds. This is not only satisfying to watch on the screen for the visual variety it provides, but it holds more weight in the context of its narrative. While the movie tells a compelling coming-of-age story surrounding Miles Morales pertaining to bravery and personal responsibility, a redemption arc for Peter B. Parker, and several mini-tales for its secondary characters, it reinforces the idea that anyone can embody the qualities of Spider-Man regardless of background. Best of all, the film handles this overarching theme naturally and perfectly through subtler details meant to foster inclusivity without explicitly alienating its audiences.
And I could continue to gush for hours about the film’s quality, from its killer soundtrack to the character writing, with more time to dedicate to the movie individually. Point in short, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse doesn’t merely settle as a cash-grab on the Spider-Man franchise; it takes a huge leap of faith to exceed animation benchmarks across the board and craft a movie that can truly be described as innovative. As I will cover in the near future, I can assure you that the movie is amongst my favorite animated films of all time, if not across all film. Sony Pictures Animation deserves much credit for its venture here.
In the service of length, I will not describe my thoughts on the other four films at the same length, but I find it essential to elaborate upon my experiences with the other four films, and what is preventing me from placing them upon the same caliber as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Out of the five films here, Incredibles 2 was the biggest commercial success, breaking box office records at release and grossing over $1.2 billion during its time in theaters. For reference, this is the second highest-grossing animated film of all time, just behind Frozen. This certainly requires acknowledgement and remains an impressive feat on its own.
However, the commercial success of a given film does not directly correlate to its quality, and this remains the case with Incredibles 2. For the vast majority of viewers, one would be hard-pressed to argue and defend that this film holds up to the original in any capacity. In my personal case, the movie turned out to be alarmingly decent. Lacking the charm and memorabilia of the original, largely thanks to the excellent charisma of Syndrome, Incredibles 2 fails to break new ground, and most importantly does not build upon its foundations enough from the previous film to fully justify its existence as a sequel. This is because it retreads certain themes and questions pertaining to the legality and purpose of superheroes within society without providing alternative perspectives or exploration of its complexities. What impact do superheroes have on children and teenagers? Is there a way to effectively regulate the activities of superheroes while providing enough leniency to contribute to a better society? Who directly benefits and suffers from the existence of superheroes? These are fair questions that ran through my mind, but remained unresolved by the film’s end, and potentially others as well who were intrigued by the initial premise.
Fortunately, the Parr family retains the same harmony and charm of the original and provides more fair spotlight to the entire family. Even then, I don’t feel that it’s enough to warrant much acclaim, let alone the title of best animated feature.
Isle of Dogs
It isn’t often that stop-motion animation grasps opportunities to shine at the forefront, but Wes Anderson tends to be most popularly associated with the art for good reason. The director behind Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s trademark quirkiness is apparent throughout the entirety of Isle of Dogs. Clocking in with the shortest runtime, the movie is content with documenting the small tale of a young boy hoping to rediscover his dog amidst an authoritative climate phobic of the household pet.
The movie holds many strengths: the animation looks fantastic with an excruciating amount of detail in the environments and textures. the odd humor leaves a lasting impression, and there exists a firm commitment to visual storytelling as a means of establishing its world.
Unfortunately, the film suffers from a lack of accessibility and broad appeal. The scriptwriting is unorthodox enough to be off-putting even to those willing to give it a fair shake. Even in my viewing, there was one character that I genuinely resented despite their depiction as a protagonist. Additionally, the room for loose interpretation leaves it subject to criticisms of cultural appropriation depending on the meaning that one derives from the events that transpire in the film. While it is still worth a watch, the roadblocks prevent it from shining as a pinnacle of animation’s best.
In its own way, Mirai finds itself breaking some new ground. Amongst the two major award shows (Oscars and Golden Globe), this is the first Japanese-animated film to be nominated that does not come from Studio Ghibli. If we isolate this to the Golden Globes, this is the first time a Japanese-animated film has garnered a nomination ever.
Fortunately, Mirai successfully provides a new perspective on the family dynamic through the sparse use of time travel through the eyes of Kun, a young boy who must become accustomed to his role as a big brother with a newborn sister, fittingly named Mirai. As expected of Hosoda, there is a whimsical flair present when Kun travels to different portions of his family timeline to relive portions of his ancestor’s lives, but there exists a deeper emotional connection that matures as Kun learns to acknowledge and develop compassion for the family amidst their frustrations and struggles.
Despite its strengths however, the internal logic of Mirai is noticeably inconsistent, often struggling to discern its reality from imagination in certain regards. Additionally, the ending lacks a satisfying payoff given the lacking presence of a certain character, and the films often falls into discernible, predictable patterns that wear off in wonder each successive time that they occur. Most importantly, it lacks the “hook” of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse or Isle of Dogs that helps it stand out from the crowd. A genuinely engaging movie nevertheless, but not ground-breaking.
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Whenever I see or hear anything related to Ralph Breaks the Internet, tides of pure anger flood the brain as I attempt to wash it out of my memory. As one may astutely discern from that brief description, I unquestionably hate this movie for its existence.
Yet it is not necessarily because of its story. While I find it mediocre and typical fanfare, there are inklings of a decent message about pursuing your passions. It also is not necessarily because it takes place on the Internet. If explored in a more nuanced manner, it would be the logical next step given that gaming is slowly transitioning to the cloud with streaming services and digital marketplaces. And it is not necessarily because it is a sequel. With the right foundations, sequels can effectively build upon its predecessors and produce a stronger movie.
In actuality, it simply lies with the idea that Ralph Breaks the Internet was not made with the intention of further exploring Ralph and Penelope as characters or expanding the video game premise that holds unlimited potential, but rather as an excuse of shoe-horning in unrelated advertisements and pandering to market for the mainstream audience.
Within this movie, the biggest lure had absolutely nothing to do with Ralph himself, but rather the endless cameos and references to Disney properties and popular applications one discovers on the web. It’s absolutely shameless; the inclusion of the Disney princesses were relentlessly advertised to no end in every trailer because they attract the biggest audiences. For a significant amount of time, Ralph and Penelope visit a Disney wonderland of sorts that serves to cram each and every ounce of Disney memorabilia down your throat (there is one cameo I do appreciate however). And what penultimate purpose does this serve? Absolutely and effectively none. When Ralph or Penelope aren’t even the driving forces of their own movie, something is clearly amiss. When the movie nearly abandons its central premise of video games, the narrative should be evaluated. And when the identity of Wreck-It-Ralph is compromised, some shame should be felt.
This is undoubtedly Disney’s worst animated feature since they began their full transition away from hand-drawn animation, and the ugliest representation of Disney’s willingness to generate as much cash as possible.
Hopefully this contextualized my thoughts on the films competing for the award. To cap off this section, I will briefly rank the films in terms of personal preference for complete transparency:
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
- Isle of Dogs
- Incredibles 2
- Ralph Breaks the Internet
The Waning Significance of Critical Reception
It is safe to assume that prior experience and nostalgia contribute to greater feelings of positive sentiment. Even in our attempts to remove it in the hope of “objectively”, it subconsciously influences our preferences and primes us for certain responses.
Within the film industry, I find that Disney tends to be a great benefactor as a result of this, and critical reception as a result sees an inflated upward trend across the board, even if the quality of the film can come into question. To provide a parallel example from the gaming industry for better clarity, Nintendo often finds itself in a position where the nostalgia and goodwill garnered from past decades has reflected positively in what I believe to be extreme leniency and praise for the company’s products. Despite some of its questionable business practices and stumbles, many gaming journalists are willing to ignore them and focus on their quality titles, while taking harsher stances on alternative companies.
In the case of Disney, it has a dangerous grasp on the entertainment industry given its acquisition of Marvel and LucasFilms, with 21st Century Fox soon to be under its ropes by the end of January. Most have viewed these decisions as a net positive, especially in the case of 21st Century Fox, for reasons mostly amounting from opportunities for other Marvel characters like Deadpool to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This unfortunately ignores the larger consequences of the acquisition, which hasn’t seen much coverage on mainstream news (partially because ABC is under Disney).
Veering back to animation, most are willing to shower praise about the latest Disney movies with most releases. I often think back to how Frozen took the world by storm as a shining example, failing to drift away from discourse for months on end. I think more recently of the upcoming remakes from Aladdin and The Lion King, movies people are unabashedly excited even though they will likely fail to capture the magic or spirit of the original animations. Even within the Golden Globes and Academy Awards, movies from Disney or Pixar find themselves winning awards time and time again, even if other movies probably deserved the greater recognition.
And that’s the primary issue: the reason many find themselves caught up with the award shows is because they provide great opportunities for great films to receive exposure and attention that otherwise might not be discovered under normal circumstances. If it weren’t for the Golden Globes, I might not have heard about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which I came to adore when given the opportunity to view it.
The fact of the matter is, aggregate numbers that assign scores to entertainment no longer hold the weight they once did, nor should they ever be definitive measures of quality with the exception of extreme cases. The merits of animation especially require particular debate about their detail, impact, and relative importance, something that cannot be quantified with a numerical score alone. And with the biases that a good portion of the media and general public hold, it remains optimal to expose ourselves to various films to uncover new favorites and preferences rather than relying on prior notion.
“Animation Is Just For Kids”
Throughout this year alone, I heard a sleuth of unfounded or incomprehensible questions and lines that wrapped my mind: “How can you be a college student and a former high school student?”, “Facts don’t matter because your opinion matters”, “The government can print money, so budgeting isn’t a problem”. Yet amongst them all, one continues to persist like an itch that will not go away: “animation is just for children”.
This is a statement that I never quite understood given the current state of entertainment, because it is assuredly and blatantly incorrect. Series like The Simpsons and Bojack Horseman clearly do not target children as their primary audience, and movies such as Perfect Blue handle subject matter that would fly over the heads of younger individuals.
With that presupposed, a decent portion of animation is clearly meant to be consumed by younger audiences. Most of us likely grew up with it in some capacity as a matter of fact; I cannot name a single person my age who excitedly tunes in to the latest PAW Patrol episode every week. And enough of this animation exists in the marketplace to fabricate the perception that the purpose of animation is for children.
Unfortunately, this presupposes that animation is a genre in some capacity, while in actuality it merely serves as a medium for storytelling and expression. It should also be noted that the statement is clearly meant to undermine or insult those interested in animated films given their preconceived notion.
Yet this mindset persists amongst a larger fraction of people than one might assume, even amongst those we might consider to be well-versed within the film industry
A survey was conducted in 2014 of seven Oscar voters responsible for choosing a candidate to take home the prize of the best animated feature. Out of the seven, a select few or minority of the members either had not watched the films in question, or had some interesting remarks to make about the films in question.
This is by no means representative of the voter base for either the Oscars and Golden Globes, but it certainly highlights the loose qualifications needed to have a say in some of the categories, as well as the mindset that I briefly referred to earlier. Needless to say, that is unacceptable within the context of film analysis and promotion if one hopes to keep an open mind about the movies viewed, and the language on display by this voter is jarring for multiple reasons I will not discuss in further detail. Put simply, there is clearly an issue at hand when I could name others, including myself, more “qualified” to provide a vote for such an award on the basis that the films nominated were viewed in their entirety.
And if we want to take another approach, the commercial success of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse should be bigger than it currently is. While it broke the record for the largest animated box office opening in the month of December with roughly $35.4 million, and has currently grossed a respectable $120.9 million at the domestic box office, I still believe there to be no excuse why these numbers shouldn’t be higher.
It’s the most critically successful Spider-Man film of all time. It’s a fresh take on the Spider-Man universe. It takes significant risks with its animation to create something unique for Spider-Man. Did I forget to say that it was a Spider-Man film?
For everyone that goes out in droves to the movies every time a new Marvel movie comes out, that same enthusiasm did not seem to translate over for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which literally features multiple incarnations of the most popular superhero in America. Call me misguided, but my expectations for this film would be much higher if not for the inherent stigma around animation and its appeal.
As I compose the final lines in this post, the Golden Globes are to have come and gone by tomorrow. Everything written here will likely have no impact or instigate much change, but it will certainly provide something to reflect on when the award for “Best Motion Picture – Animated” rolls around tomorrow. At first glance, this year features a much stronger lineup of animated films that may or may not represents a subtler shift in philosophy. However, my cynical self cannot manage to generate much optimism.
That’s because the answer seems to be quite obvious based on trends: Incredibles 2 will be the winner. Because it’s Pixar and the easy choice.
To provide some history, the award for “Best Motion Picture – Animated” has only been around since 2006; it was the last new category added, cementing the lack of acknowledgement that animation managed to garner prior to that point. Of the thirteen years the award has been given, Disney and Pixar have stood victorious twelve times, and the only year (2011) they did not win had Cars 2 as the forerunning nominee, which was and is Pixar’s least critically successful film in its history.
Unless something drastic changes between now and tomorrow, I do not expect to be incorrect here. And compared to previous years, it will likely sting the most because such a creative and pioneering venture in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse won’t obtain the recognition that it rightfully deserves.
So to end off my thoughts, I simply have one request of anyone reading: please go watch Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in theaters when you get a chance. If you truly enjoyed it, maybe give it another go, or even support its eventual Blu-Ray release. You truly don’t get something like this film on an annual basis, and I maintain confidence that it has the quality and style to become timeless. In regards to animation, the more that we continue to expand our boundaries and seek out more, the more exposure great animators will receive in return.
There’s so much within the realm of animation that has yet to be seen, yet to be conceived, that something is bound to resonate with every individual. Hopefully with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse amongst a fantastic repertoire of animated films, the medium of animation will finally garner the opportunity to continually fulfill its potential.
UPDATE (01/06/2019): Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse actually won the award! I am genuinely shocked that it managed to accomplish that, but moreover extremely proud that the film will now be recognized on a larger scale than before. Even though handing out the award near the beginning might imply that it was less important or less relevant compared to the other awards tonight (a perception that I hope will continue to be diminished over time), the greatest volume of people are probably tuning in at the beginning, so no reason to complain!
And as I said before, go watch this movie!!!
*On another note, I am not editing any of the content in my original article. My comments represented my candid feelings and projections, and I was glad to be proven wrong on this regard.