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Editorial: The 2003 Best Animated Feature Oscar Race
Opinion and Winner Predictions
by Joe Tracy, Publisher of Digital Media FX Magazine

The 2003 Oscar nominations have been announced and the movies competing for Best Animated Feature Film of 2002 are the following (in alphabetical order):

Ice Age (Fox)
Lilo & Stitch (Buena Vista)
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (DreamWorks)
Spirited Away (Buena Vista)
Treasure Planet (Buena Vista)

It’s definitely a great year for Disney, garnering three of the five nominations, with Treasure Planet being a surprise. This years nominations, however, weren’t without controversy.

The Controversy
Prior to the nominations announcement, a short list of movies eligible were announced, including Stuart Little 2. Now apparently the Academy didn’t watch this movie, because if they had they would have seen that it violated their definition of an animated movie:

“An animated feature film is defined as a motion picture of at least 70 minutes in running time with a significant number of the major characters animated, and in which animation figures in no less than 75% of the picture's running time.”

Now if Stuart Little 2 does meet the criteria of being an “animated movie” then the Academy must change its rather pathetic definition. Otherwise it would have to let every other visual effects film (including the Star Wars movies) be declared “animated”. Seeing Stuart Little 2 as eligible for a Best Animated Feature Film nomination made the Academy (and more specifically, The Executive Committee of the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch) a temporary laughing stock of the animation community; a mistake that was righted by not giving it a nod when final animation nominations were announced. Stuart Little 2 as a visual effects film? Yes. Stuart Little 2 as an animated feature? You’re joking, right? That’s like Roberto Benigni's live-action Pinocchio getting a nod because it has subtitles and Benigni’s nose grows. No lie! Hopefully the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch watches the movies before nominating them next time.

Who Will Win and Who Should Win
Controversy aside, this year’s final list includes a nice diversity and a much tougher competition since there were five films nominated versus three like last year. Below I’ve outlined each film, and my opinion on whether it will win, whether it should win, and whether it has an outside shot at winning. Naturally these selections will be debatable, so feel free to fuel the debate in the Digital Media FX forums.

Ice Age:
Will it Win?
Outside Shot
Should it Win? No.
Debate Points: Ice Age has an outside shot of winning the Oscar because it was clearly the favorite movie of the public at large. In fact, it was the ninth highest grossing movie of the year, bringing in an astounding $176.3 million. While the animation experience in Ice Age isn’t quite up to par with some of the other nominations, being an audience favorite definitely gives a boost to this film’s chance.

Lilo & Stitch
Will it Win?
Should it Win? No.
Debate Points: Lilo & Stitch was Disney’s most successful animated movie of 2002. And that says a lot, considering that they released four of them! While Lilo & Stitch had a different flavor, it still failed to break new ground. The animation was good, but not sweeping. The story was good, but not engaging. The movie could have played out as a live action visual effects feature (ala Stuart Little 2 or Men in Black), making you ask the question as to whether or not it really needed to be animated.

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron
Will it Win? No.
Should it Win? Yes.
Debate Points: I feel that Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is clearly the best animated movie of the year. In fact, it is the only movie of those nominated that breaks new ground for an animated movie. DreamWorks took a very bold step about creating a movie about animals (horses) in which the animals don’t talk! It is something that Disney should have done when creating Dinosaur. Furthermore, some scenes in the movie are so well carried out that you forget you are watching an animated movie, thus increasing the impact. The merging of 2D/3D in Spirit is absolutely flawless. The story is good, the animation is breathtaking, and the use of certain elements (like the Eagle) enhance the story for those willing to look beyond the words for deeper meanings. Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron also has one of the best growth segments for a villain who reverts to an honorable act consistent with leaders of the 1800s. This movie is simply brilliant and deserves to win the Best Animated Feature Film Award outright.

Spirited Away
Will it Win? Yes.
Should it Win? Possibly
Debate Points: The genius work of Hayao Miyazaki once again shines through in the Japanese Anime Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi). Japanese audiences love this movie so much that when it was released in 2001, it ended up becoming the highest grossing film ever in Japan. Critics can’t say enough good about Spirited Away and it has already walked away with nearly every animation award from other critic associations. It is definitely the easily favored to win and it will win if Disney successfully puts all of their efforts behind promoting it to Academy voters with a well-organized campaign. So how can I heap all this praise on Spirited Away and then turn around and say that Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron should beat it for the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar? Well, simply put, Spirited Away doesn’t break new ground. Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron does. And animation wise (this is, of course subjective since Spirited Away is anime), Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is far superior with its sweeping visuals. But my opinion won’t matter here, because barring a major surprise, Spirited Away will run away with the Oscar. However, I shouldn’t sell short the DreamWorks marketing department, which has proven to be the best marketing group in the entire movie industry.

Treasure Planet
Will it Win? No.
Should it Win? No.
Debate Points: Treasure Planet had some nice visuals and a sometimes captivating, albeit annoying, story. However, this movie does not deserve to be classified with the rest of the nominees. It simply falls short in nearly every area. And it doesn’t really do anything new that we didn’t see in past animated movies like Titan A.E. There is no new ground broken with Treasure Planet.

In short, if I was to rank the nominations in the order of who should win, that ranking would be as follows:

Winner: Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron
Second: Spirited Away
Third: Lilo & Stitch
Fourth: Ice Age
Last: Treasure Planet

How Others See It
Now, to make things more interesting, let’s look at who the winners would be if determined by box office receipts (or as some might refer - "the public at large"):

Winner: Ice Age (by a landslide)
Second: Lilo & Stitch
Third: Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron
Fourth: Treasure Planet
Last: Spirited Away

Now let’s take a look at one more list – consensus based on mainstream critic reviews.

Winner: Spirited Away
Second: Ice Age
Third: Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron
Fourth: Lilo & Stitch
Last: Treasure Planet

On Sunday, March 23, expect Spirited Away to win Oscar gold. It has already proven to be the favorite in other critic award programs and has one of the best minds in the anime world, Hayao Miyazaki, behind it. Rightfully or not, Spirited Away has emerge as the clear winner in this year’s battle of animated…. er… anime... movies.

That’s my opinion, now share yours.

Click here to discuss this story in the Digital Media FX Forums.

Joe Tracy is the publisher of Digital Media FX, author of four books and former editor of the visual effects print magazine, NewTekniques. He is also a visual effects columnist for The Hollywood Forum.

All editorialized columns, including this one, that appear in Digital Media FX are not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Digital Media FX, its partner sites, and its advertisers.

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