While Oscar pundits are bemoaning the lack of any clear front-runners in this year’s Best Picture race, another, less-watched, contest is heating up as the One to Watch.
This year, the best animated feature category is saturated with such a rich array of qualifying films that both the Academy Awards and Golden Globes have bumped up the number of nominations from three to five. This throws the race open beyond the usual Pixar versus DreamWorks Animation showdown (in which Pixar usually wins) and means that a number of dark horse candidates might actually have a shot at a golden statuette.
“It’s a bizarre enough idea,” admitted Up director Pete Docter. “It was not easy to get sold even at Pixar. I can’t imagine doing it anywhere else.”
The Daily Beast has selected its five picks, representing an eclectic landscape of aesthetics and technologies, from Henry Selick’s dark, brooding Coraline, a 3-D motion capture film; to the bright, vibrant hand-drawn animation of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo; to Wes Anderson’s punctiliously crafted The Fantastic Mr. Fox, another stop-motion entry; to first-timer Shane Acker’s apocalyptic, steampunk creation, 9, which combines CGI with stop-motion techniques. (When the animation industry’s Annie Awards were announced this week, Coraline emerged with the most nominations with 10, including best feature, best directing, and two for character design.)
And then there’s Up, the latest masterpiece from John Lasseter and the Pixar gang, which The Beast proudly hails as its top pick. Since it debuted at the Cannes film festival in May, the film has emerged as the most well-reviewed picture of the year, and has grossed a mighty $506 million at the worldwide box office. The film is generating buzz not just as the year’s best animated film, but as its best picture, period. Should it garner a nomination in that race, it will be the first time an animated film has been considered for Best Picture since Beauty and the Beast in 1991.
A follow-up to last year’s Wall-E (winner of last year’s best animated film), Up pushes the envelope even further when it comes to brilliant unconventionality: a cartoon, essentially, about a very old man whose house is swept up by thousands of balloons.
“It’s a bizarre enough idea,” admitted director Pete Docter. “It was not easy to get sold even at Pixar. I can’t imagine doing it anywhere else.”
The key, Docter said, was the film’s “emotional core”—the impetus for Carl’s journey is to fulfill the promise he made to his deceased wife that he would take her—or, her spirit--on an adventure.
“In the end, it was a film that speaks about the truth of our experience as humans,” Docter said, “and that got John [Lasseter]” So much so, that after the verbal pitch, Lasseter welled up. Docter, who co-wrote and co-directed Up with Bob Peterson, knew he had a movie.
One of the most moving sequences in the film comes early on—a flashback over Carl and Elie’s life that runs for nearly five minutes, without a single spoken word.
The decision to make the sequence wordless “harked back, for me, to watching Super 8 films that my parents shot,” Docter said. “There is something about watching something without audio that is almost more emotional to me, than video tape. We wanted to capitalize on that. By stripping away [dialogue], the audience is invited in. They become an active participant in that sequence—the audience fills in the blanks, and it all comes to life in their own head a bit.”
The same could be said for the entire film—it all comes to life in a way that you never want to end.
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.