2020 Oscar-Nominated Animated Feature Films

This year’s animated feature nominees span the gamut from overtly, wildly, disgustingly commercial to overtly, wildly and disgustingly esoteric. And then a bunch of stuff in the middle. Which is not to say they aren’t quality films. They mostly are.

So…here are your five nominees with trailers for each to follow at the end…

“How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” (USA)
Directed by Dean DeBlois

Jay Baruchel in How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019)In spite of some terrible VO performances (I’ve always thought Jay Baruchel was a terrible choice for our three-time hero, Hiccup), and occasional cringe-worthy humor, the “Dragon” Saga has always been delightful. The animation, in all three versions, has only ever been outdone by the imagination and craft of the animators (with one glaring exception) and the storytellers (with one not so glaring exception).

But, here in 2019, and in this version, the animation is simply spectacular. Giving us more camera points of view than previously possible, there are huge swaths of such scenes that absolutely feel like actual film. Normally I might view this as a detriment…we go to see animated films BECAUSE they’re animated, and allow us to escape from the restrictions of filmed reality. But in these few instances, they are welcome and add to both our wonder and subsequent  connection to the film and story line. Attention must be paid to the entire DreamWorks Animation team, led by Liron Topaz and Kristof Serrand. This is action animation at the highest level. If there is any criticism to send their way it would be that they seem to have much more trouble with the small intimate scenes. The hyper-focus on the characters talking – the center of the screen – leads to an exclusion of smal background activity (birds, wind, etc…). Yes, there are usually shenanigans going on behind – but it’s the little things that make a universe seem real. This is a teeny-tiny thing, but it does take away from the emotional connection to these characters that the script is actually expecting from us.

As for the voice-over performances, there are stars and there are those that pull us out. The biggest issue for me, as mentioned earlier, is Baruchel. He never seems of Hiccup’s body. Here in the third chapter, it’s a slightly better fit, as he is older and more courageous. Yet it still feels like he’s playing at the words of the script instead of inhabiting Hiccups imagined body. This is never the case with America Ferrera, as Astrid, who has remained the emotional anchor of the entire saga. Connected, real, and utterly embodying Astrid, she is terrific. Also terrific, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, is Gerard Butler. When I saw the first one, I couldn’t believe it was Butler…and I still can’t. This is “300”-era Butler…exciting, invested, real. If only he put this much imagination and effort in to his action films. Other returnees are fine, especially Craig Ferguson…but of course, he would be. Scottish and witty? Check. And Kit Harrington returns in a much smaller presence, but has, maybe one of the more heroic voices ever. New additions include a terrifying and terrific Russian-tinged performance by F. Murray Abraham and a not quite as successful, if not bad, Kate Blanchett, neither of whose characters I can reveal without giving plot away.

But the failings of Blanchett are only half her fault. And this goes to my biggest issue with the film. Every character in the entire saga – whether human or creature – has been equally well drawn, showing off its personality not just in aural performance but in image, facial expression and reaction. Not so, Blanchett’s character…and to some extent, Abraham’s as well. They seem flat, without affect…as if they ran out of budget when they got around to adding the humanity to them. And while this is not true of the newly introduced creatures, who are spectacularly drawn, the fact that I noticed, meant that during the most important emotional moments of the film, I was often pulled out.

That said, “Hidden Dragon” is a gorgeous film that, on a large 4K TV, will delight.

“I Lost My Body” (France)
Directed by Jérémy Clapin

J'ai perdu mon corps (2019)The top of the poster to the right of this text states that “I Lost My Body” is “a life-affirming work” (The Wrap). Well…that’s the best description I can think of. There are so few full-length animated works out there that attempt what “Body” does…and even fewer that succeed. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of many at all beyond “Anamolisa”, “The Red Turtle”, “Persepolis”, “Chico and Rita”, and maybe, “Waking Life”. No matter. This is film-making of ANY kind at its finest. The script is made with such economy of words…distilling its haunting themes of loneliness, dread, hope and love with ease and, in spite of its extremely light touch, crushing power.

Now, as with “My Life as a Zucchini”, I would suggest seeing it in its original French. Luckily Netflix gives you the option. There does exist an all-star American cast on the English soundtrack, but there is something so magical about the French language as it wends its way through around the film’s tragic and hopeful ins and outs. The performances are, likewise, incredibly subtle…sometimes barely audible, but with a volume and quiet intensity you imagine these people actually possess. None more so than our lead, Hakim Farris, who portrays the everyman at his loneliest, Naoufel. And the object of his hope, Gabrielle, is wonderfully portrayed by Victoire Du Bois. She reminds one of a young Jennifer Jason Leigh – independent, filled with doubt, and yearning for connection.

But the animation, while 2D and hand-drawn, is equally connected to the story. Lead animators, Julien Belloteau, Jeanne Irzenski and Romain Vacher, and their team, in conjuction with a perfect sound team, put us in places that seem totally normal, even if we could never go there normally. It’s a stunning balancing act of make-believe and reality. All of which comes together due to Clapin’s terrific script and story. And Dan Levy’s score, while ever-so-slightly reminiscent of Laurent Perez del Mar’s “Red Turtle” compositions, is incredible. In context of the film it never gets in the way and guides one…in the tiniest of ways…toward an emotional response. Out of context, I can’t stop listening to it. It’s fantastic, and brings you right back to the emotions of the film.

Finally, there is a scene in this film that made more impact on me than perhaps any other this year. It is a small scene toward the beginning of the film. It brought me right back to the first time that, as result of a simple interaction with another, I realized how much I desired a way out of my own alone-ness. Not many films can do that. And almost none of them are animated.

A special film to be savored.

“Klaus” (Spain/UK)
Directed by Sergio Pablos, Carlos Martínez López

Joan Cusack, Jason Schwartzman, Rashida Jones, Sergio Pablos, Will Sasso, J.K. Simmons, and Neda Margrethe Labba in Klaus (2019)Call me scrooge. I hated this film. Of course, it should also be stated that I am not a fan of Christmas tales. I find them laboriously of their own mythology…none more so than Santa Claus flicks. And the rationale of disguising them as simple “spreading the message of giving and Holiday spirit” confections makes it all the more obnoxious to me. That is how I felt about this film…UNTIL I read an interview with its creator, Sergio Pablos, about the thoughts and ideas behind it…the impetus behind it. Now, I shouldn’t have to read an article to make a judgement on a film. But, then again, I give auteur directors a wide swath of leeway simply because I know their work. Not so with Pablos, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

When I first viewed it I thought it was a total re-hash of the Grinch myth…only worse since not only is the Grinch character Grinch-like, so are the inhabitants of the village. But, there were tremendously creative elements as well. It being a Santa origin-story, I was a little confused with the film’s need to make everything less magical. No flying reindeer, no elves, etc. Of course, this is where Pablos’ creativity comes in to play…making those legends less fake and more real, and yet still staying between the lines of the legend is pretty masterful. However, the movie wants it both ways, since it does its best to make it as wild and gleeful aand typical as any other Santa film. For instance, carriages defying gravity (even if not specifically flying). Hell…everything defies gravity. Now, I appreciate the director trying to tell a new story here…and choosing to do so with a race of people that look like elves, and reindeer that don’t actually fly. But, again…

Anyhoo…on to the VO performances. We’re talking Jason Schwartzman, JK Simmons, Rashida Jones, Norm MacDonald and Joan Cusack here. These are tremendously accomplished actors, most of whom have done great work in animation. And yet, here, they seem completely disconnected from their drawn selves. I don’t know if the fault lies with the actors, or with the animators…but something was truly amiss. Granted, these are the kinds of things a VO performer like myself is hyper-aware of…probably more than necessary. Nonetheless, if the VO performances aren’t spot on, then neither is the rest of the film.

“Missing Link” (U.S.)
Directed by Chris Butler

Zach Galifianakis in Missing Link (2019)“The Missing Link” is really close to being a terrific film. Directed by “Kubo” writer, Chris Butler, and produced by Laika, the studio that brought us “Kubo”, almost everything about it is spot on. The story is all over the place in a fun way and the animation is spectacular…and sometimes so real it hurts. And the imagination necessary to get us from London, to the old Pacific Northwest, to the mountains of Tibet, and back, in a rational way, is massive.

And yet, it never quite comes together, and I think it comes down to character creation. Not the animation of the characters. The animated style of all the characters is distinct, successful and  follows a specific theme. And the caricature aspect of each character is note-perfect. No, it’s the writing…the dialogue…and, to be fair, also the performances. Not one character is particularly likeable, nor do you exactly root for any of them. The subject of the story, the Missing Link, should be lovable, innocent and empathetic. But by casting Zach Galifianakis, they’ve instilled in the character a clueless, yet noxious element that undercuts all else. You never truly root for him because you never really know how earnest he is. And everyone else in the film is fairly despicable. Hugh Jackman is a blowhard as Frost, our hero. and, well…every other character is either a bad guy or has a bad ulterior motive, which leaves little room for rooting or empathy. Kudos to Adam Godley who has a small role…not for anything he does specifically, but simply because I think he’s a brilliant character actor. Zoe Saldana acquits herself well in the vastly underwritten role of Adelina. And Emma Thompson is wasted as the head of an entire race of species.

I don’t know. I really wanted to love this. I think Laika does incredible work. But, alas, I think they got stuck trying to follow up the incredibly successful, and Oscar-winning “Kubo” by attempting to make a film that was all things to all audiences. And that’s extremely difficult to do…and usually happens only by accident. This ain’t that. But it sure is pretty to look at. Oh, and an original Carter Burwell score never hurts anything!

“Toy Story 4” (USA)
Directed by Josh Cooley

https://m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BMTYzMDM4NzkxOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzM1Mzg2NzM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_.jpgSo I was not a huge fan of Toy Story’s 2 or 3. I never thought they made enough use of the wider world in a way that, say, the much less accomplished “Secret Life of Pets” does. In other words, we know what the original group of toys was in their own environment. I always hoped to see themvmove far outside that comfort zone – and introduce us to a universe of other toys, dolls and adventures.

Well, hello “Toy Story 4”! Replete with all the emotional ups and downs of its predecessors, “4” moves us in to a whole new galaxy of possibility thanks to a creaky antiques store and an adjacent world of “lost toys”. Further it introduces us to creepy ventriloquist dummies, vindictive dolls from the Fifties, plastic utensils come-to-life, and a hilarious Key & Peele-voiced stuffed animal duo. And, yes, all the other characters we’ve come to know and love.

Of course, all the excitement of this new-ness wouldn’t matter a bit if the story wasn’t great, or and filled with our own toy memories, as in past “Toy Story” efforts. And while this movie really does have less to do with the human child than with the growth of the toy characters, it is great…and in many ways more connective. After all, our toys meant something big to us before we cast them aside. Smartly, the creators of this film recognized that it’s equally important to imagine that there is a life for them beyond us. And this film scratches that itch delicately, beautifully and hilariously.

Much of that is thanks to the voice over performances. Yes, Hanks, Tim Allen and Annie Potts are there, and terrific. But now, in addition to the brilliant push-me-pull-you back and forth of Key & Peele, there is the perfectly uber-masculine Keanu Reeves, as Nuke Kaboom, and the elegantly weird, strange and awkward Nathan Hale as Spork. But, best of all, for the purposes of this film attaching itself to us the way it does, they cast Christina Hendricks as Gabby Gabby. The decision to have an actor who made her name in “Mad Men”, a show about the late fifties and sixties, to voice a defective doll from the same period, while genius, could’ve been disastrous if not pulled off correctly. They needn’t have worried. She’s devastatingly dark, and sad, and open to change. It’s the best performance of the film. Kudos to casting directors Natalie Lyon and Kevin Reher for putting it all together.

Production wise, it is the usual brilliance we’ve come to expect from Pixar…maybe more so, as the tech gets better and better. And director Josh Cooley never lets it get too syrupy, even when it looks like it has no choice but to careen in to Saccharin Land. Finally, Randy Newman’s score is new enough to sound new, but of the earlier films enough to sound comfy. That said, I don’t know how his song, “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” was nominated, other than out of comfort. There is a much better and more poignant song in the film by Chris Stapleton, “The Ballad of the Lonesome Cowboy”. It’s a MUCH better, more emotional, and more film- and plot-specific song.

A great movie. Worthy of the win (if not my favorite).

How would I vote?
1) “I Lost My Body”
2) “Toy Story 4” (will win)
3) “How To Train Your Dragon
4) “Missing Link”
5) “Klaus”

TRAILERS (in alphabetical order):

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