This year, three movies will compete for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. And while all three movies are worthy of praise, we can't help feeling that the Oscars could have done more. The award for Best Animated Feature didn't begin until 2001, and due to the way the rules are structured, usually only three movies get acknowledged. That just isn't enough.
We thought it was time to honor the impact animation has made in the world of film, with a fun look at what could have been. In our alternate history, beloved classics, genius voices and the kings of animation would have been receiving awards for decades, side by side with their "real" counterparts. To see how different the world of movies could have been, check out our list of animation history's Oscar winners.
Imagine a world where animation could receive Oscars for (voice) acting, direction and writing. We tried to make it as simple as possible, and hold the cartoons to the same eligibility rules as live-action films. The following list presents highlights in each category, from each decade in our alt-history.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' (1937)
The animated Oscars came into play at the 1938 Academy Awards, honoring the release of Disney's pioneering fairy tale feature, the first full-length animated film. With men like Walt Disney, Max Fleischer and Friz Freleng pushing animators to innovate at studios ranging from MGM to Paramount to Warner Bros., the Academy deemed it necessary to acknowledge the creative work of all those in the animation field.
'Fantasia' would beat out fellow Disney film 'Pinocchio' for the top award. The dazzling collection of images with classical music, from the work of Disney's top animators, would be indicative of the studio's grip on these early Oscars. Disney would receive Best Picture honors for films like 'Dumbo,' 'Bambi' and so on.
'Sleeping Beauty' (1959)
'Beauty' would mark a stylistic departure for Disney, featuring incredibly lavish painterly designs. Due to 'Beauty''s elaborate goals, it became the most expensive film in the studio's history up to that point. And while it would win our award for Best Feature, it also underperformed at the box office, contributing to Disney's declining profits; as they were forced to begin laying off animators and cutting budgets -- and after Walt Disney passed away -- the quality of Disney films would slowly begin to slip and they would no longer remain as dominant at the animated Oscars.
'The Phantom Tollbooth' (1970) Chuck Jones still stands as an influential figure, thanks to his pioneering visual efforts, in the world of the Looney Tunes. 'Tollbooth,' the first feature-length film he produced (and co-directed with Abe Levitow and Dave Monahan), would provide the Academy with another chance to reward his entire filmography. Additionally, an Oscar victory for this adaptation of the clever children's classic would give veteran voice actors like Mel Blanc, Daws Butler and Thurl Ravenscroft another notch in their belts, as the three men alone voiced over half a dozen characters between them.
'Fritz the Cat' (1972)
'Midnight Cowboy' became the first X-rated movie to win the Best Picture Oscar and 'Fritz the Cat' would soon follow suit, as not only the first X-rated cartoon, but also the first X-rated cartoon to win an Oscar. The adaptation of underground comic legend R. Crumb's satire, starring a neurotic, anthropomorphic feline, shocked and titillated audiences with its send-up of the sex-and-drug-filled counter-culture. The film marked the feature debut of Ralph Bakshi, an alternative-skewed animator who reigned for two decades afterward, creating acid-like sci-fi and fantasy (including a 'Lord of the Rings' adaptation) and scathing social parody. The film divided critics and Crumb himself disowned it, but 'Fritz' had an immediate impact signifying the changing voices in animation.
'Watership Down' (1978)
This British production came from an adaptation of the best-selling fantasy novel, an allegorical tale about a society of rabbits searching for peace in a world filled with animal bloodshed. 'Watership Down' resonated with audiences upon its release, thanks to its lush water-colored design and realistic characters. The film not only shocked viewers with its depictions of brutal violence in the animal kingdom, but also displayed a mystic, lyrical atmosphere.
'The Secret of NIMH' (1982)
At a time when Disney was suffering from a creative lull, 'NIMH' swooped in and provided a new voice to the world of animation, offering up this fantastical tale of a widowed field mouse who must find a cure for her son's illness before their home is destroyed. The movie also marked the feature-length directorial debut of Don Bluth, a Disney expatriate who tirelessly worked to eschew cheaper animation techniques, in favor of developing 'NIMH' in a classical animation style. 'NIMH''s hypothetical Oscar victory would provide healthy competition to Disney for the remainder of the 80s.
'Beauty and the Beast' (1991)
You might recall that 'Beast' became the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture, but in our animated Oscar world, that was just one of many accolades bestowed upon the film. In addition to being a worldwide blockbuster, the film's combination of technical wizardry with brilliant story telling would push it to dominate that year's animated Academy Awards. It served as one of many highpoints in Disney's 90s renaissance.
'Toy Story' (1995)
Everything that could be said about the impact of 'Toy Story' and Pixar has already been said, but by winning our animated Oscar, perhaps audiences would have sooner realized that the story of Buzz Lightyear and Woody the Cowboy was a wonderful peak in our collective artistic experience. By being both modern and American, and timeless and universal at the same time, 'Toy Story' was not just Pixar's debut feature, but a new addition to the world's collection of fairy tales.
'Toy Story 2' (1999)
And the second installment would go on to do more of the same. In our fictional history, 'Toy Story 2' would do what only 'The Godfather II' could do before it: become a Best Picture–winning sequel. Now that it looks like 'Toy Story 3' is poised to win the Academy Award this year, imagine a world where each part of the 'Toy Story' journey was rewarded with a deserving Oscar. Not even the 'Godfather' series could culminate in as satisfying a note. BEST VOICE ACTOR
Phil Harris as Balloo the Bear in 'The Jungle Book' (1967)
A man of many talents -- from big band singer to actor to radio comedian opposite Jack Benny -- the barrel-toned Harris would be honored for his distinctly joyous and lovable work as the carefree bear who performs the movie's most lasting musical number.
Robin Williams as the Genie in 'Aladdin' (1992)
The manic comedian took what should have been a traditional supporting player and turned the magical character into a dominating, scene-controlling force of nature. Disney took a big chance by allowing Williams to improvise and ad-lib during voice recording sessions. The Academy would reward such an usual departure for animated films with an Oscar win.
Depp has become one of the Academy's oft-nominated, never-won actors, but this animated team-up with director Tim Burton, his most successful creative collaboration, would finally provide Depp with another opportunity to indulge in his own off-beat mannerisms and finally earn some kudos.
George Clooney as Mr. Fox in 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' (2009)
The charming, fast-talking schemer in the unique adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic finally gave Clooney some award recognition as a leading man, and also gave director Wes Anderson another avenue to display his talents at orchestrating a comedic ensemble.
Walt Disney signed the opera-trained singer to a studio contract to prevent her from performing elsewhere and spoiling the illusion of Snow White's voice. As her only credited screen performance, the connection between her voice and the fairy tale character were inseparable, giving her an Oscar win.
While critics are raving this year about Natalie Portman's performance in 'Black Swan,' Satoshi Kon's anime thriller told a similar story 13 years prior. As the pop star Mima gives up the music world to pursue acting, she quickly finds herself stalked by a ominous stranger. Soon Mima begins to lose her grip on reality, unsure who to trust, and finds herself mysteriously connected to the dangers around her. Iwao's portrayal of a young woman on the verge of a breakdown was so unnervingly effective that the Academy awarded her with the Oscar, making her the first Asian woman to win the award and the first foreign-language-speaking recipient as well.
Like Robin Williams before her, DeGeneres took what should have been a supporting part and commandeered each scene she appeared in; by using her hilariously genial approach to such a broad character -- a fish with frustrating short-term memory -- she infused Dory with genuine sweetness.
The acerbic, dry comedian was provided with an opportunity to step outside her usual range of screen types and deliver an energized screwball performance that delighted Academy members, who were not afraid to reward a performance that made them laugh. BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE ANIMATED FEATURE
'Fantastic Planet's' psychedelic, surrealist sci-fi parable served as a perfect model for all the amazing animation work being produced around the world. The pure vision of French artists Rene Laloux and Roland Topor has remained colorfully captivating and thematically entrancing for almost 40 years.
Anime has impacted not just the world of international animation, but all of pop culture. And 1988 would have proven to be a banner year for the Japanese art form; Academy voters had the chance to acknowledge the ground-breaking, cyberpunk thriller 'Akira' or the blockbuster phenomenon 'My Neighbor Totoro' (which launched a globally iconic cartoon character). Instead however, they shocked audiences by bestowing the award on the lesser-seen 'Grave of the Fireflies.' Telling the story of an orphaned brother and sister trying to survive the fire bombings of Kobe in the last days of WWII, the film's hauntingly beautiful approach to heartbreaking material demonstrated all the humanistic potential in animation. Roger Ebert has opined that it serves as one of the greatest anti-war movies ever made.
In the real world, 'Mononoke' became the first anime to win Best Picture at the Japanese Academy Awards and was the nation's highest-grossing movie (until 'Titanic'). Unfortunately, it failed to reach a large audience stateside due to a poorly received English dubbing and an almost-spiteful lack of advertising from the Weinstein Brothers. But in our award show, the epic fantasy battle between man and nature would have been given the proper spotlight.
We remember 'Belleville' losing to 'Finding Nemo' in 2003, and it looks like Sylvain Chomet's subsequent film, 'The Illusionist,' will have to place runner-up to Pixar again this Sunday. But our animated Oscars found a deserving accolade for this quirky, expressive story of junkyard musician grandmothers, sad cyclists and the Mob. This may end up being the most wordless foreign language winner ever, but when words are spoken, it's through infectiously-catchy jazz numbers.
Filmmaker Satoshi Kon developed a following in the world of cinema fairly quickly, captivating audiences with stories that blurred the line between reality and imagination. 'Paprika's' sci-fi tale of a psychiatrist who must prevent thieves from invading people's dreams offered up a visual cornucopia of trippy, mind-bending imagery. While in the real world, genre fans are upset at 'Inception's' snubbing by the Academy, our animated Oscars rewarded the imaginative material in 2007. Sadly the Oscar victory would be bittersweet, as 'Paprika' became Kon's last finished film before passing away in 2010.
Serving as the film's supervising director, Sharpsteen -– like his colleagues David Hand and Clyde Geronimi -– represented the kind of talent that Disney employed to oversee his animated features. Sharpsteen would win again for 'Dumbo,' while other Disney directors would trade off the directing awards for the next decade or so.
After overseeing their ABC cartoon, the commercial illustrator moved onto the Beatles' big-screen animated adventure. Working with German art designer Heinz Edelmann, Dennis Abey (who shot the live-action sequence) and over 200 artists, Dunning supervised the production of the psychedelic pop musical, whose rainbow-colored whimsy became a cultural sign of the times.
After 'NIMH's' victory, Bluth would team up with Stephen Spielberg as his producer, and become the preeminent figure in 1980s animation. He would subsequently win directing Oscars for their collaborations 'An American Tail' and 'The Land Before Time.' Bluth's style was reminiscent of golden age Disney; he was not afraid to challenge his audiences, young and old, with dark material in the name of his story.
Though 'Akira' would not win Best Picture honors, it would be impossible for the Academy to ignore the efforts of its director. Adapting his own manga comic work with an elaborately detailed anime design, Otomo served as an auteur in the truest sense. In the end, he crafted a film with a reverberating legacy that is still felt to this day.
No, Tim Burton didn't direct the holiday classic, and if the animation Oscars existed back then, audiences might not make that mistake so often. Selick's meticulous approach, pulling from a variety of visual influences, created a final product that represented the imagination of everyone involved in the landmark production.
Even though it had to live in the shadow of 'Toy Story 2,' the Academy couldn't ignore the classical efforts of Brad Bird, and his brilliantly simplistic adaptation of Ted Hughes' sci-fi novel. With his infusion of atomic-age comic-book wonder and stylized, retro designs, Bird brought a two-dimensional depiction of a robot to emotionally-gripping life.
Hayao Miyazaki for 'Spirited Away' (2001)
When 'Spirited Away' won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2002, it grabbed the attention of most American viewers who were still unfamiliar with anime. But with our animated Oscars already upholding a long tradition of recognizing international work, 'Spirited Away''s across-the-board success would finally give Miyazaki the worldwide recognition he deserves as the modern-day Walt Disney.
A vaudeville star capable of jazz renditions, novelty songs and radio teleplays, Edwards most iconic role came with his performance as the sweet conscience of the puppet-boy, and allowed him to capture an Oscar for his work.
Despite his far-reaching influence over everything in cinema, Welles was sparsely rewarded by the Academy. His final role, voicing the planet-sized Decepticon in the big-screen adaptation of the toy line, wasn't his proudest moment, but with his passing just days after finishing his voice recording, it was inevitable the Academy would honor him with a posthumous award as a career "thank you."
Jerry Orbach as Lumiere in 'Beauty and the Beast' (1991)
Orbach was a beloved character actor of stage and screen, and the Academy saw fit to honor him for the difficult task of bringing life to a suave, talking candlestick -- a role that used his musical theater charisma to its fullest potential.
There was no way that the Academy wouldn't reward one of the most unmistakable voices in American culture. Beyond his career longevity however, Jones' Oscar victory came from his unique ability to convey power, trust and security in only a few scant scenes.
In real life, 'Shrek' became the first recipient of the Best Animated Feature award, but that wasn't its only feat in our story. Continuing a long tradition of supporting comedic relief in cartoons, Murpy brought his distinct energy and attitude to the pop-culture slaying, fractured fairy tale. Despite the sometimes-polarizing response his broad jokes receives, the Academy was unanimous in their love of Murphy's performance; 'Shrek''s multiple Oscars would establish Dreamworks' animation studio as a major player. BEST SUPPORTING VOICE ACTRESS
Her commanding presence and her uniquely-stylized voice allowed Gerson to skewer the traditional Disney villain and escalate the vampy energy for maximum comedic potential. Gerson somehow achieved the rare feat of taking a sinister character fond of animal cruelty, and somehow turning her into a spotlight-stealing, iconic favorite.
Being considered one of Hollywood's most underrated comedians would finally pay off for Cusack, with her bittersweet portrayal of a forgotten toy, impressively sliding into the ongoing 'Toy Story' adventure and immediately developing a joyous repartee with the popular ensemble.
Kitt experienced something of a late career revival in this little-seen Disney film, but 'Groove,' which owed much of its style to Chuck Jones-inspired hijinks, served as the perfect venue for the catty cabaret star to steal all the attention away from her younger co-stars.
It remains to be seen if Bonham Carter wins her first Oscar this year for 'The King's Speech,' but the animated Oscars would have acknowledged her work in the British claymation farce -- which had already won Best animated feature of the year. Her ability to completely disappear into a character was on display with her campy portrayal of a boisterous English lady. BEST ANIMATED FEATURE SCREENPLAY
For creating some of America's most iconic cartoon characters and successfully translating the 'Peanuts's' world of childhood whimsy and wistful melancholy to a feature film, Schultz was honored with a new kind of accolade to add to his already illustrious career.
Despite receiving a Grand Jury Nomination at the 1988 Sundance film festival, we only know 'Toaster' as something of a cult hit; but if the animated Oscars were in play, it might have gotten more recognition in its time. The film's child-like look at the world has had a lasting impact on audiences thanks to its story-team, which included Ranft, a member of the Pixar storytelling brain-trust.
Plympton is notable for being the only cartoonist to draw every single cell of animation for a film project -- on his own. His idiosyncratic style was rewarded for his bizarre musical tale of a man who can pursue every deep id-filled impulse in outlandishly imaginative ways.
The creative team behind the 'South Park' TV series have taken what was once seen as a gimmick designed only for shock value and created some of the most pointed and powerful social satire since Mark Twain. Their grandest cinematic outing, tackling everything from Canada to censorship to learning how to please a woman, marked a turning point in the Colorado camp's creative achievement. The animated Oscars would have enthusiastically rewarded its script.
Satrapi adapted for the big screen her deeply personal graphic novel about her upbringing during the Iranian Revolution, and carefully maintained its intimate look at changing cultures, generational divides and the pain of growing up. For offering a story that was both topical and timeless, with a voice that could not be duplicated, she was rewarded with an Oscar.
The Academy has spoken. What accomplishments in animation history do you think were Oscar-worthy?