Friday, March 29, 2013

ParaNorman (2012)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Animated Feature - Sam Fell and Chris Butler

Yesterday I wrote about how the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards is a bit of a joke and how unworthy films get nominated in the category, especially when there are five nominees.  Last year proved to be an exception to this problem, as five quality animated films were nominated for Best Animated Feature, with Brave ultimately winning the trophy.  What frustrates me about the category is that nominations are granted to films that are merely competent, decently told stories that hit all the right notes but are entirely predictable and lacking any uniqueness.

Though not as unique as some of the recent nominees from outside the studio system (i.e. Chico & Rita), ParaNorman is far from a paint-by-numbers effort.  It's actually quite a weird film, the story of a young outcast (Norman, voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) capable of communicating with the dead, much to the disbelief of nearly everyone around him.  Young Norman must undertake a ritual in order to protect his town from a witch who cast a spell on the town decades ago, but he is interrupted by the arrival of the undead.  This sounds more like a Roger Corman or George Romero plot than a major studio offering; indeed, ParaNorman is even weirder than Tim Burton's animated offering of the same year, Frankenweenie.

I didn't enjoy ParaNorman as much as I did fellow nominee Wreck-It Ralph, and the films drags at times and suffers from underdeveloped characters.  Still, it was anything but predictable, deeply inventive for a major studio animated release, and well deserving of its Oscar nomination.  Maybe it's not such a bad thing after all that so many animated films are nominated...

Remaining: 3158 films, 874 Oscars, 5428 nominations

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Rio (2011)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song - Carlinhos Brown, Sergio Mendes, Siedah Garrett

In 2001, the Academy recognized the renaissance in animated feature films by creating the category for Best Animated Feature.  The Academy only gives this award from a choice of three nominations when at least eight eligible animated films have been released in the year, and if 16 films are released the Academy nominates five films.  While this is well deserved recognition for the makers of animated films, it sets a very low bar for the quality of these films.  In a year when only eight animated films are released, just under half will be nominated for an Oscar, and in a year with 16 releases, just under a third are nominated.  To put this in perspective, at the most recent Academy Awards, 282 feature films were eligible for Best Picture.  If the same percentage of films were nominated for Best Picture, the Academy would have nominated between 88 and 106 films for Best Picture.  Under such a scenario, one can easily imagine the level of mediocrity that would be rewarded with Best Picture nominations.

This is the main problem with the Best Animated Feature Film category.  While every year there have been worthy nominees, the percentage of films that must be nominated have led to some real stinkers receiving nominations.  In the year of Rio's release, while Rango, Chico & Rita, and A Cat in Paris each received deserved nominations, the very ordinary and uninspired Puss in Boots and Kung Fu Panda 2 were also nominated, a sign that though there were enough animated films released to trigger the extra nominations, three nominations were more than enough.  Even in a year like 2012 in which five strong animated features were released (Brave, ParaNorman, Frankenweenie, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and Wreck-It Ralph), would it have been any more unfair to leave two of these films without nominations than it was to leave Ben Affleck without a nomination for Best Director or Jean-Louis Trintignant without recognition for his masterful performance in Amour?  It is time for the Academy to figure out a new method of honoring the best animated feature films without being forced to recognize mediocre efforts because of a silly numerical requirement.

The Academy's recognition of unworthy films is particularly troubling to the Oscar completist, who in addition to already suffering through some of the moronic films nominated in the sound and visual effects categories, must also films nominated solely because of a quota.  After trudging through the five animated features released in 2011, only three which deserved to receive nominations, the fact that I had to watch a sixth animated film not even good enough to receive a Best Animated Feature nomination in this dubious system was disappointing.  Rio received its sole nomination in the Best Original Song category for "Real in Rio," co-written by Carlinhos Brown, Siedah Garrett, and the great Brazilian musician Sergio Mendes, and thus I dutifully checked it out from Redbox.

There's not much wrong with Rio.  Like most of the studio-backed animated feature films, it is a well-plotted and briskly paced story featuring generally likable characters, told with sweet and innocent humor.  The story uses the well trodden trope of two characters who are lost and must work together to find their way home (see Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, Bolt, and many more).  The film has some great visuals; the animated shots of colorful tropical birds flying over Rio de Janeiro are easy to overlook, but are really quite stunning, and the attention to detail by the animators should be lauded.  Still, the plot just isn't that interesting and the characters just aren't that compelling, and as a result Rio is instantly forgettable.  Worst of all, the film is entirely predictable.  Yes, animated feature films targeted to kids are always predictable to a point.  Is there any doubt that Woody and Buzz will find their way home to Andy?  Still, the path from Point A to Point B need not be straight, and the best animated filmmakers find ways to constantly keep the audience guessing.  Rio is just too predictable and safe, and what results is a boring and uninspired film, albeit with moments of beautiful animation.

Rio received its Oscar nomination for its music, a nomination that was probably deserved.  The songs in Rio are pleasant samba-inflected pop songs that fit in the Brazilian locale without pushing the auditory tastes of the audience too far.  I can't say any of the songs terribly impressed me, and I can only vaguely recall the melody to the nominated "Real in Rio," but the film was well served by its music, and it was nice to see a musician as universally respected as Sergio Mendes recognized by the Academy.

As long as the Academy continues to over-recognize animated feature films, I'm afraid that I'll have to continue to watch films like Rio: perfectly pleasant and inoffensive films without much new to offer.

Remaining: 3159 films, 874 Oscars, 5429 nominations

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Shore (2011)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Short Film, Live Action - Oorlagh George and Terry George

"The Shore" is a film that could have been made only by the Irish.  The short film tells the story of two young friends in Northern Ireland who were separated by The Troubles that divided the island, and what happens when one of them attempts to repair their friendship.  In the hands of most filmmakers, this would be a somber tale, perhaps with a cathartic ending.  In the hands of Irish filmmakers, the film instead includes a hilarious chase scene involving a galloping horse and discarded prosthetic limbs.  

It is this humor that makes "The Shore" a success.  The story is relatively straightforward, and through the first half of the film not much has happened and the film begins to feel long, despite its approximately half hour runtime.  But once the film is done with its serious exposition, the levity of the storytelling elevates it into a lovely film.  

I am not terribly familiar with the details of The Troubles beyond the broadest of broad strokes, so I don't feel qualified to comment on the political context of the film or how the filmmakers deal with the film's political and historical theme.  But merely as a tale of two friends coming together after being divided due to reasons both political and personal, "The Shore" is a success.

Remaining: 3160 films, 874 Oscars, 5430 nominations

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Cat in Paris (Una Vie de Chat) (2010)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Animated Feature Film - Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli

The 84th Academy Awards had one of the more interesting crops of nominees in the animated feature film category.  Aside from a pair of more traditional studio offerings (Puss in Boots and Kung Fu Panda 2), the Academy also nominated a far less conventional studio film in Rango, and two foreign films: Chico & Rita and A Cat in Paris.  The latter film, titled Una Vie de Chat in its native France, is the story of a cat burglar (voiced in English dubbing by Steven Blum) who is partners in crime with a young girl's (Lauren Weintraub) cat.  When Zoe witnesses the crime boss responsible for her father's death stealing a statue, the boss (JD Blanc) comes after her.  It's all very twisty turny, far more than seems possible in a 65 minute children's film, yet the story is told with a clever simplicity that keeps the story tight and briskly moving.

Unlike Rango, which won the Oscar for the animated feature category, the filmmakers behind A Cat in Paris utilized much simpler animation, a wise choice for the subject matter.  The film feels like something that might come out of Studio Ghibli, if Hayao Miyazaki decided to make a film grounded in realism.  It's neither terribly original nor all that entertaining, but  A Cat in Paris is still a well made little film that far exceeded my expectations, and it is easy to see why the Academy was charmed by it.

Remaining: 3161 films, 874 Oscars, 5431 nominations