THE LONG SHOT: Cartoon network

Posted by · 7:56 pm · December 9th, 2009

Mary and MaxAs the year winds down, and critics and entertainment journalists search for neat blanket tags with which to label the year that was, “the year of animation” is a phrase that is getting increasingly bandied about – some going so far as to declare 2009 the greatest year of all time for animated product. (Certainly, TIME magazine has fed that narrative, by naming a trio of ‘toons the year’s three greatest films.)

It’s up for debate whether such talk is a result of extraordinary across-the-board quality, or sheer numbers. Make no mistake, this year has turned up more visible animated titles, in a broader range of artistic formats, than any in recent memory.

Confirmation of this deluge comes in the Academy’s official listing of 20 titles in the hunt for the Best Animated Feature Oscar – the largest number since the category’s inception in 2001, and one that ensures the first five-strong slate of nominees since 2002.

Of course, 2002, despite the higher-than-usual proportion of contenders, was hardly a banner year for the medium: “Spirited Away” may have taken a well-deserved Oscar, but the amount of filler it had to beat in the process – including such already forgotten snoozes as “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” and “Treasure Planet” – was proof positive that quantity doesn’t equal quality in this particular race.

Happily, 2009 looks to offer a rather more credible field of options: from Henry Selick’s “Coraline” to Hayao Miyazaki’s “Ponyo” to Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” to Adam Elliot’s magnificient “Mary and Max,” the year has served up an unusual amount of quirky, even arty, contenders. Provided the Academy isn’t persuaded by the global commercial pull of “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” or “Monsters vs. Aliens” (both long shots at best) there’s every reason to hope for (and even expect) the category’s most broadly acclaimed field to date.

Meanwhile, the near-inevitability of Pixar’s breakthrough Best Picture nomination for “Up” (which would make it the second animated contender for the top prize in 82 years of Oscar history) looks set to seal 2009’s banner-year status for the medium – even if longstanding rules and formats had to be tweaked to enable such a crossover.

UpThis all sounds marvelously progressive and encouraging on paper … so why am I still feeling so dissatisfied with the state of this particular race? Well, aside from the fact that I’m a hard-to-please bastard (I’m only saying it to spare you the trouble), I’m not convinced that enough of the field’s likeliest nominees portend genuine classic status.

“Up” and “Ponyo” have much to recommend them, but both come from stables that have offered finer fillies in years past – and as pleased as I would be to take either over a “Brother Bear” bomb any day of the week, the old adage of good being the enemy of great is hard to shake. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” offers bijou delights aplenty, but I can’t help wondering if the film’s weak commercial performance can’t partly be explained by audiences clocking its storytelling lags less forgivingly than auteur-enraptured critics.

Of course, even I can acknowledge that the field offers up some unadulterated wonders: “Coraline” manages the dazzling feat of playing equally to adult and child audiences with not a hint of smarminess or condescension, trumping its mainstream peers for literary elegance and visual splendor.

And on the artier end of the spectrum, having recently caught up with the starkly stylized, idea-rich Irish wonder that is “The Secret of Kells,” I can only state my (astonished) endorsement of the film’s recent surprise Annie nod. (Meanwhile, the gorgeous-looking “A Town Called Panic” is a gift I have yet to unwrap.)

The potential depth of the field is somewhat negated, however, by the inevitability of the outcome: can we sincerely call it a vintage Oscar race when “Up” had the award sewn up in June? The generally uncompetitive nature of the Best Animated Feature award (I’d venture that only twice in its eight-year history has there been a genuine contest for the prize) is among the strongest arguments for its cancellation.

This premature narrowing of the field goes beyond the animation-Oscar ghetto, too: amid a host of critically beloved peers, why should Pixar’s film be the only animated title in the Best Picture (or Best Screenplay, for that matter) conversation?

It’s in the final stages of this article that I’ll lay my cards on the table and admit the real (and wholly subjective) reason this issue has been on my mind this week: the fact that the animated film I’d place head and shoulders above any of this year’s competitors (yes, even “Coraline”) seems to be struggling to make any headway in this race at all.

Adam Elliot’s “Mary and Max” is, not to put too fine a point on it, a miracle movie. A raucously funny, exquisitely designed tearjerker with a knockout voice turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman at its center, the film bears some striking narrative parallels to “Up” – most obviously the mutually therapeutic relationship between two misfits across the age divide.

Mary and MaxHowever, the film wades through commendably dangerous thematic waters on its way, touching on issues of sexuality, abuse and mental illness in a disarmingly frank manner. Some have labelled in “adult”; I’ prefer to think of it as a challenging family film, one that, in a perfect world, should invite many a searching parent-child conversation after viewing. Its reach is large; its payoff larger.

The film, a scarcely-released (and, if the above description didn’t make it clear, wildly eccentric) Australian production, was always going to face an uphill climb towards Oscar consideration, but its disheartening failure to appear in any precursor lists so far (most notably a staggering shut-out in the Annie nominations) suggests that, even in a so-called banner year, the cream might not always rise to the top.

On the other hand, should the Academy use one of its five slots to spotlight an off-the-radar masterwork that could genuinely use the attention, this frequently flat, much-maligned “ghetto category” can prove it has some purpose after all.

→ 36 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Long Shot

36 responses so far

  • 1 12-09-2009 at 8:02 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***including such already forgotten snoozes as “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” and “Treasure Planet”…***

    I’m sorry, try watching “Treasure Planet” again. It’s really actually quite nice, BEAUTIFULLY animated and quite touching. Great voice work also. By no means a top-tier work (certainly not “Spirited Away” level), but a fun, worthwhile Disney flick.

  • 2 12-09-2009 at 8:07 pm

    Rob said...

    “I can’t help wondering if the film’s weak commercial performance can’t partly be explained by audiences clocking its storytelling lags less forgivingly than auteur-enraptured critics.”

    How does this even make sense? People chose to not go see “Mr. Fox” because they anticipated there would be story lags? Seriously, stop pretending your opinions dictate the consensus or box office performance.

  • 3 12-09-2009 at 8:08 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Speaking English: Always glad to hear people sticking up for under-defended films. Still, my criticism wasn’t an idle one — I found “Treasure Planet” thuddingly inert on first viewing, and very much doubt a second look would bring me round to your point of view. Agree to disagree.

  • 4 12-09-2009 at 8:08 pm

    Rob said...

    And where were those “auteur-enraptured” critics for Anderson’s last two films? Maybe they just *Gasp* liked this movie.

  • 5 12-09-2009 at 8:16 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Rob: I’m not doubting they sincerely liked the film. I sincerely like (if not love) it myself. But going on reports and conversations with others — not a scientific appraisal by any means, I fully admit, which is why I phrase it as a query rather than a statement — I fear the word-of-mouth among casual filmgoers has been that it’s a little on the leisurely side.

    Sorry to have upset you. Peace.

  • 6 12-09-2009 at 8:23 pm

    Pablo (Col) said...

    Such asterpieces in animated film and people just tend to overlook them. Movies likes WALL-E, Up, most of Miyazaki’s work… They ARE masterpieces. It will be such a year in which an animated film could share the best picture nominations with scifi, drama and others… And, i know im dreaming, but i would totally love that an animated film won the Oscar. I personally think Up is far more touching and better crafted than many of the so called frontrunners. A woman winning best director and an animated film winning best picture… That would be heaven.

  • 7 12-09-2009 at 8:31 pm

    daveylow said...

    I’ve seen many, many movies in my lifetime and I’m sick of being overstimulated when I see a film. I liked Up but parts of it were annoyingly over the top and quite frankly like several other animated films, the movie could have been over after an hour and told its story just as well.

    The audience I saw Fox with was very attentive but maybe the typical audience for animated films want more action and more exaggerated emotion.

  • 8 12-09-2009 at 8:46 pm

    N8 said...

    I am not convinced of the “inevitability” of a Best Picture nomination for UP. Even with 10 slots open, the bias is just too strong.

  • 9 12-09-2009 at 9:16 pm

    Mike said...

    I think the close races were probably between Cars and Happy Feet in 2006 (what a farce that Happy Feet won) and The Incredibles and Shrek 2 in 2004. And I liked Brother Bear.

  • 10 12-09-2009 at 9:35 pm

    Alex said...

    If they had more money to market it, Mary and Max might have been a Best Picture Nominee.

    It certainly deserves a nomination. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette, Eric Bana and Barry Humphries should go on a few talkshows to promote the film.

    It might be a small release but it has quite a well known cast (second to Fantastic Mr Fox of course).

  • 11 12-09-2009 at 9:38 pm

    bill said...

    PABLO, Im one of the few in the view that UP does have a chance of sneaking up and winning the best picture this year, if avatar doesnt explode, i feel it could happen, and what better a way to end the decade, woman director, animated movie. its possible, especially with the new voting system, wall-e in my opinion should have won last year to, id argue the lion king(if it hadnt been against shawshank, gump, and pulp fiction) should have won, and beauty and the beast could have stood a real chance at being second that year

  • 12 12-09-2009 at 10:02 pm

    Adam K. said...

    The Lion King wasn’t nominated in 1994.

  • 13 12-09-2009 at 10:14 pm

    bill said...

    im aware adam, either was wall-e, but these were two movies I feel were deserving of the win

  • 14 12-09-2009 at 10:16 pm

    Joey said...

    I’ll be honest. Even for someone who strives to see everything out there, I had never heard of Mary and Max. Definitely going to check it out.

  • 15 12-09-2009 at 10:16 pm

    Matthew said...

    I’m calling my shot:

    UP gets nominated for Best picture because…
    1. The Wall-E snub
    2. General feeling among voters that Pixar is finally due to be recognized with a Best Picture nomination.
    3. It’s a superb film in it’s own right.

    Up will get a BP nomination and voters will cede it’s spot in the animated feature category to another film.

  • 16 12-09-2009 at 10:51 pm

    Dylan said...

    I know Up is the “inevitable” winner…but I wonder how many people actually think it’s the best animated feature this year. I think it’s Pixar’s third worst movie (after A Bug’s Life and Cars) and that Ponyo, Fox, anf Coraline are all better, and I know a lot of people share my opinion.

  • 17 12-09-2009 at 11:05 pm

    Bryan said...

    I am afraid this only continues the Academy’s nagging policy to “make up” what it screwed up in previous years. What? We missed Wall-E? Well, nominating Up should do it. I mean, the same people made it, right? I want an animated film to be nominated for best picture, and even win. But only if it deserves it. Up does not. Unfortunately, I’ve no idea when Mary and Max will be available for me to see. But so far, I’ve got 10 films that are better than any animated one I’ve seen this year.

    Eloquently written and thoughtfully assembled as always, Guy.

  • 18 12-09-2009 at 11:40 pm

    Matt King said...

    I also loved “Mary and Max.” It was a wonderfully moving experience, so delicate and different in its construction with really interesting design.

    However, my props still goes to “Up,” probably in my top 5 films of the year. Although I do hope “Mary and Max” at the very least gets a nomination in the ridiculous Animated category. That’d be great.

  • 19 12-09-2009 at 11:42 pm

    PJ said...

    I guess the thing with Miyazaki and Pixar films is that despite almost always being superlative pieces of cinema, they come from sources with a lot of critical and commercial “establishment” clout. As the pattern repeats (and really, there hasn’t been a misfire from either for a long time) this only becomes stronger. This makes it slightly harder to lend full support to the films when it comes to end-of-year considerations or urge them on in awards races. Imagine if “Up” was made by an unknown independent studio, or if “Coraline” was a Pixar title. Things would be a little different I suspect.

  • 20 12-10-2009 at 12:08 am

    Terrence said...

    UP was awesome. Fox was solid, but It comes in at a comfortable 2nd. UP will win animated feature, but in the likelihood it gets a BP nom, then it’ll be either Fox or Princess and the Frog for the win. UP getting the BP nomination is pretty much a win in itself.


    This has been a great year for animation, but none of this year’s animation comes close to Wall-E’s excellence.

  • 21 12-10-2009 at 12:10 am

    AmericanRequiem said...

    wait, im confused, if UP is nominated for best picture does that mean it cant be nominated for best animated feature as well?

  • 22 12-10-2009 at 12:28 am

    SHAAAARK said...

    Up will get nominated easily because several contenders have basically collapsed, and in searching for ten films to put on their ballots, they’ll remember it, and, finding little else worthy, put it on there.

  • 23 12-10-2009 at 12:33 am

    Terrence said...


    It can be nominated for both (animated and best picture). Some people are predicting that if UP does get that best picture nomination, that voters might pencil in another animated film in UP’s place in the animated category.

  • 24 12-10-2009 at 1:02 am

    Nigel Bridgeman said...

    “Mary & Max” is available here in Australia on DVD already. I haven’t seen it but might get it if it’s not too expensive.

    It’s also nominated for Best Film in this weekend’s AFI awards. It’s up against “Balibo” and Australia’s entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, “Samson & Delilah” (read my rather poor review of that film here – If it does fairly well that might – MIGHT – help its Oscar chances… but I doubt it. I expect it to be one of the five Animated Feature nominees anyway.

  • 25 12-10-2009 at 3:50 am

    Glenn said...

    Nigel… you can go to Blockbuster (or your local equivalent).

    I’d looove to see “Mary and Max” nominated, it’d be super amazing, but none of those tiny tiny films have ever made the cut and they’ve proven several times that they prefer their animation to be childrens movies (Surf’s Up, Jimmy Neutron, Brother Bear) over more “adult” fare.

    I’m still not even sure “Up” can be nominated for Best Picture. But, then again, I didn’t think it was anywhere near Pixar’s best.

    Mike, I love “Cars” and “Happy Feet” equally, but I’m so glad “Happy Feet” won. It was a true original, a musical to boot and a break from Pixar winning and making that category even more useless.

  • 26 12-10-2009 at 3:53 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Mike: 2004 was no contest: “The Incredibles” had that one sewn up. And for my money, “Happy Feet” was far superior to “Cars” — I was surprised that so many people were surprised by that result, if that makes sense.

    Matthew: I understand your theory, but the problem with thinking like that is it implies the Academy compiles its nominations as a committee. I think it unlikely that a majority of individual voters would think to cede a film’s spot in animated because of a presumed BP nom.

  • 27 12-10-2009 at 4:14 am

    BenitoDelicias said...

    “The generally uncompetitive nature of the Best Animated Feature award is among the strongest arguments for its cancellation.”

    I don’t think this is fair at all. That’s like saying that Visual Effects should be eliminated too. I mean seriously, once the three nominees are announced has there ever been doubt about the winner? I can only recall 2007 as being the shocker year with Transformers losing.

    And if that’s true, then we could have lobbied to have the Best Actress race eliminated after the horrible set of nominees from 2005.

    And common, competitive means that there’s a close race among the nominees, when was the last time we saw that even in the bigger categories? In the biggest category of the night a competition actually happened what? Three times? Brokeback vs Crash, Chicago vs Pianist during the ceremony after it won those three key Oscars and Traffic vs. Gladiator (not even Crouching Tiger).

    Maybe we should eliminate Best Picture too.

    I don’t think the Academy or the category should pay for either Pixar putting out the best animated film of the year almost every year or for others not trying or for others not having the money to market a film into a nomination.

    I do agree that it’s looking like a great year, and if we go by Oscars, like you all say, it’ll turn out to be the best ever, seriously there must be at least 7 amazingly looking contestants for those 5 slots.

  • 28 12-10-2009 at 4:52 am

    aspect ratio said...

    It’s been a strong year for animation, with ample films covering all bases of animation, but I can’t really agree with any claims that this was the “Year of Animation” or that the output was so above and beyond other years this past decade. To me the moniker of it being the female director’s year feels far more apt.

  • 29 12-10-2009 at 5:54 am

    Chris said...

    As a complete outsider, I feel like “Coraline” could upset in the Best Animated race. I certainly hope it can. “Up” is not as great as other Pixar films have been, and it certainly doesn’t have the charms of “Wall-E”. Therefore I think it could be vulnerable, because voters might feel like not awarding Pixar for lesser work.

  • 30 12-10-2009 at 7:55 am

    Estefan said...

    I thought Mary & Max was a great piece of work and I feel it’s more deserving of being nominated than Fantastic Mr Fox.

    However, I’m surprised and offended that in an article targeting the wide array for animated feature contenders, you don’t even give a mention to The Princess and the Frog. It’s a return to classic Disney hand-drawn animated films and likely their best film since Lilo & Stitch (which, I think had a very strong chance at beating Spirited Away).

    No matter how you feel about it, The Princess and the Frog is a massively important film in the animation world as it plays a major role in hand-drawn animation making a serious comeback (which I seriously think it will).

  • 31 12-10-2009 at 7:59 am

    Michael said...

    Pixar has won many times before in best animated film so I honestly will not be upset if it does not win for Up (although I apsolutely loved that movie!) and would be so very happy if Coraline was able to come in and snatch it b/c Henry Selick has never been better and that film is such a great experience.

  • 32 12-10-2009 at 8:39 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Estefan: No slight intended to “The Princess and the Frog” — I simply haven’t had a chance to see it yet. It’s an oversight that I didn’t mention it in passing, but there’s no need to get offended.

  • 33 12-10-2009 at 8:44 am

    Rob said...

    I loved “Mary and Max” and would certainly put it on my 10 best list… but did it even get a release? Does anyone know when/where?

  • 34 12-10-2009 at 9:13 am

    maurier said...

    I think this year the Oscar will go to “Princess & Frog” or “Coraline”. Pixar can’t win every year and “Up” was a bit dissapointing.

  • 35 12-10-2009 at 10:30 am

    SHAAAARK said...

    Monster House should have beaten Happy Feet. Such an underrated film. :(

  • 36 12-10-2009 at 12:43 pm

    Charles said...

    Up was excellent. I wouldn’t put it in Wall-E’s level, but it is right up there along with Ratatouille. The abovementioned threesome are Pixar’s finest imho. Though the masses lean towards Nemo and Toy Story, which were pretty solid, It’s Pixar’s last 3 films wherein they really dared convention and tackled stuff that American animation houses wouldn’t dare touch to this day. And guess what, Pixar succeeded in doing so. I will not begrudge Up getting a BP nom. Though it will most likely be a “make-up” for the Wall-E snub, it’ll be more of a “career achievement recognition” for the studios 10 exemplary years of crafting fine animation. Even so, if UP wasn’t a solid film, it wouldn’t ilicit such talk, so many obviously think highly of it.