Looking at the Animated Feature ballot, I'm reminded of the wealth of Best Picture nominees for 1939, the greatest of all movie years. That 10-place ballot also had a prohibitive favorite -- 'Gone With the Wind' -- among a list that included 'The Wizard of Oz,' 'Wuthering Heights,' 'Dark Victory,' 'Goodbye Mr. Chips,' 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' 'Of Mice and Men,' 'Love Affair,' 'Ninotchka' and 'Stagecoach.' Given the number of extraordinary animated features released in the U.S. during 2009, it seems almost unfair to point to one of them -- Pixar's computer-animated 'Up' -- as the best in class. But such has been its destiny from the day it was released last May, and on Sunday, it will claim its prize as 2009's Best Animated Feature. The movie is also on the Best Picture ballot, something only one other animated movie -- Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast' -- had managed before.
Looking at the Animated Feature ballot, I'm reminded of the wealth of Best Picture nominees for 1939, the greatest of all movie years. That 10-place ballot also had a prohibitive favorite -- 'Gone With the Wind' -- among a list that included 'The Wizard of Oz,' 'Wuthering Heights,' 'Dark Victory,' 'Goodbye Mr. Chips,' 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' 'Of Mice and Men,' 'Love Affair,' 'Ninotchka' and 'Stagecoach.'
Every one of those nominees has become a classic and so have a few from year that were not nominated -- 'Gunga Din,' 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame,' 'Babes in Arms,' 'Intermezzo,' 'Destry Rides Again,' 'Drums Along the Mohawk' and Jean Renoir's 'Rules of the Game,' a picture that tops many lists as the greatest film of all time.
The current ballot for Best Animated Feature, which includes 'Coraline,' 'Fantastic Mr. Fox,' 'The Princess and the Frog,' and the Irish surprise 'The Secret of Kells,' is the strongest since this Oscar category was added in 2001. It is the only second time that enough animated features were released to have a five-place ballot. Usually, there are just three nominees. But as with the Best Picture ballot of 1939, there wasn't room for such deserving films as 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,' '9,' 'A Christmas Carol' or 'Ponyo,' by the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki.
Movies are nominated for Best Animated Feature by a volunteer committee of Academy members who are required to watch the eligible submissions in a theatrical setting. Like regular features, the films have to have played for at least one week in a commercial theater in Los Angeles before the end of 2009. The release of 'The Secret of Kells' was apparently a secret itself, because I have not found any U.S.-based reviews for it from last year. It begins a limited U.S. release on Friday in New York.
Those who have seen 'The Secret of Kells' rave about it, comparing it to the French film 'The Triplets of Belleville,' a 2004 Oscar nominee that was produced by the same company. Using hand-drawn animation, 'Kells' tells the story of a 10-year-old boy who ventures into an enchanted forest in ninth-century Ireland where he encounters creatures of good and ill intentions. (If you've seen it, drop us a note.)
'The Secret of Kells' seems like the longest long-shot on the board. If 'Up' were to be upset, the likely winner would be 'Fantastic Mr. Fox,' Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach's cleverly written version of the Roald Dahl children's classic, in which George Clooney, as the voice of the irrepressible hen-hunting Mr. Fox, gives what may have been his best performance last year.
'Fantastic Mr. Fox' was made with stop-motion animation, as was fellow nominee 'Coraline.' The latter is the darkest of the nominees, the story of an adventurous young girl who passes through a portal in her house and ends up in a parallel universe where nothing is what it seems and not nearly as safe. It's a brilliant movie, but one whose PG rating (parental guidance advised) means what it says.
Disney's hand-drawn 'The Princess and the Frog' is a retelling of the classic story of 'The Frog Prince,' relocated to Jazz Age New Orleans. The movie is a throwback to Disney's pre-CGI era when it had a string of animated musical blockbusters, including 'The Little Mermaid,' 'Beauty and the Beast,' 'Aladdin' and 'The Lion King.' 'Princess' has not done as well at the box office as those movies, but its look, its story and its Randy Newman music bring back warm memories.
However, only two non-CGI movies have won Animated Feature Oscars -- the stop-motion 'Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit' (2005) and Hayao Miyazaki's hand-drawn 'Spirited Away' (2002) -- and 'Up' may be the best CGI movie of them all. It's the seventh of Pixar's 10 features to be nominated in this category and the first CGI work to make the Best Picture ballot, as well.
While Pixar's computer animation has been the state-of-the-art since 'Toy Story' in 1995, the company's greatest gift may be its story sense. The animators at Pixar keep coming up with ideas, characters and stories that we can appreciate beyond the humor and sight gags of the traditional cartoon. 'Up' is loaded with the conventional wonders of animation, from exotic jungles to cute kids to lovable, anthropomorphic animals, but it is driven by the notion of undying love that is sublimely developed at the beginning of the movie.
That opening section -- which takes us through the cycle of a loving couple's life from their first meeting as children to the woman's death in old age -- could have been released as an animated short and won that Oscar. It is counterintuitive to begin a family adventure with the death of a character we immediately like, but it proves to be a perfect set-up for the adventure that follows, the widower's attempt to reach the distant paradise he and his wife had always planned to visit.
I still rank 'Ratatouille' at the top of my list of favorite Pixar movies -- perhaps because the cynical food critic in the story reminds me of myself -- but 'Up' is a very close second and it is, indeed, the best in a very good class of animation that was the year 2009. Its Oscar will make it three in a row for Pixar.