In the 20 years of the Animated Feature Oscar there has only been one hand-drawn winner ever. It’s time for another.
The Irish pack behind Wolfwalkers, the latest Oscar-nominated animated feature from Cartoon Saloon, has been running with the big dogs all awards season long. This hand-drawn treasure is the culmination of director Tomm Moore’s triptych inspired by Celtic mythology, co-directed with Ross Stewart, which includes The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. This time around the release had the brawny support of Apple as co-distributor with GKIDS.
Based on critical reception, Wolfwalkers is the best animated film of 2020. Even if only considering the binary metrics of Rotten Tomatoes, Moore and Stewart’s movie leads. Wolfwalkers holds a score of 99% on the aggregating site, the highest among the five Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Feature.
The lupine fable has also received prizes from numerous critics’ organization around the country including LAFCA, NYFCC, and the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, public praise for their work has come from high profile artists the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Edgar Wright, and Peter Ramsay (who won the Oscar for Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse).
Still, it seems like an uphill battle for them to get their hands on the most coveted of trophies. The argument for this could point to Apple TV+ being a newer streaming service, or to the lack of Hollywood stars voicing characters in it, or to the fact that, in comparison to many of the big studio projects aimed at children, it’s not bombastic and offers a unique, even rustic, aesthetic.
But while all those factors might come into play in regards to the awareness of the general public, when it comes to awards voters, who have access to all the nominated titles, the problem stems from a more troubling and systemic disregard for animation as a whole. Such disinterest among the larger membership works in favor of the more prominent films bearing the stamp of major studios.
Wolfwalkers should win, and if it doesn’t, that’s a reflection of Hollywood’s lack of appreciation for animation when it’s not tied to a beloved marketing powerhouse or a superhero. The mere fact that a large number of people continue to refer to the medium as a genre or to pigeonhole it as a vehicle only useful to tell stories for young audiences shows a great disconnect. The Best Animated Feature category is among the least fair.
Yes, to speak of fairness in relations to a subjective and highly political affair as the Oscars is rather naïve, but even for their standards, the absence of actual competition is alarming. The established players continue to pick the statuette year after year with little push back.
These biases that honor only the largest efforts from mostly the same pair of companies relate to 3DCG animation becoming the norm since the inception of the category in the early 2000s. Subconsciously the industry has convinced itself that this technique is inherently better for theatrical features. The only hand-drawn animated feature to have ever won the Oscar remains Spirited Away, which, besides being a masterwork by Hayao Miyazaki, was distributed by Disney at the time. It’s time for another hand-drawn winner.
Intricately brought to life, Wolfwalkers follows Robyn, a British girl living within the puritan boundaries of the Lord Protector’s town in 17th century Ireland, and Mebh, a free-spirited rascal with the ability to leave her body as a wolf while sleeping. From the hand-painted backgrounds to the other production design components brilliantly on display across this historical reimagining of a dark period in the island country’s history, the movie is a stunner.
Looking at a single frame of Wolfwalkers rewards the viewer with endless detail often inspired by traditional Celtic designs. There’s also the striking wolf vision sequences that enhanced our perception of this magical realm through the eyes of the four-legged creatures, and the overall fluidity of the character animation that functions in tandem with the gorgeous geometric patterns.
Narratively, screenwriter Will Collins incorporates a complex human core grounded on the parent-child relationship with relevant historical aspects that also lead into idea around environmental conservation. These artists are operating with impressive levels of visual craftsmanship and emotional impact. As extraordinary as Moore’s previous two gems are, Wolfwalkers surpasses them because it’s the result of all the years of fine-tuning, exploration, and creative growth.
There’s solace, however, in the enduring legacy of Moore’s trio of fantastical tales. Oscar or not, he and the Cartoon Saloon team have sown the lasting seeds for a successful animation industry in Ireland. Along the way they’ve also enraptured fans around the world. That’s an accomplishment that can’t be measured in hardware. Of course, recognition for the outstanding work is never unwelcomed.
On Friday night, some of that validation materialized for the Wolfwalkers crew when they won five Annie Awards, including the one for Best Directing where it competed against this year’s heavy hitters. Nevertheless, that Cartoon Saloon has yet to win a BAFTA or an Academy Award remains a travesty.
Early on in the season, a glimmer of hope that this could be amended existed. With its massive resources, Apple mounted a campaign unlike anything that has ever been done for a Cartoon Saloon feature: billboards, installations, and numerous ads, more prominent perhaps than any of its competitors. The side of a building in NYC was covered with a Wolfwalkers poster.
But soon enough, the pattern that overtakes this field annually emerged: the obvious choice became the front-runner and everyone who covers gave into the perpetuation of a self-fulfilling prophecy: that Goliath is unbeatable no matter how beautiful the alternative is. It’s understandable; betting against the safest bet is unwise, especially in animation were the winner has become, because of everything aforementioned, so utterly predictable.
Through their Oscar nominations and in handing out the Annie Awards, the animation community has demonstrated they are appreciative of artists outside of the dominant forces in the medium. The only reason the five finalists still somewhat represent a broader spectrum of techniques, countries, and budgets is precisely because those making these selections are thoroughly watching all available contenders.
The same can’t be said about the Academy’s membership at large when it comes to voting on the winner. If there’s no interest from the other branches in the category, then the power to decide who ultimately receives the accolade should stay within the ranks of those who value animation. And if members from other disciplines are in fact compelled to see all the nominees, then they should be allowed to opt in.
The point being that only those who care should partake in the decision-making process, rather than the winner being chosen by people simply jotting down the one title they’ve heard about in passing. And if this still renders a win for the most publicized film, so be it. At least there would be a certain level of transparency and accountability. Last year, Netflix’s Klaus swept the Annie Awards, but still missed out at the Oscars against the fourth installment of Pixar’s Toy Story franchise.
It’s true, there’s no hard data for us to know who is watching what. Our only barometers as outsiders trying to look in are the anonymous Oscar ballots in trade publications (which reveal a disdain for animation), the widespread lack of vocabulary even from big-name insiders when speaking about the medium, and the limited coverage this segment of the industry gets outside of niche outlets. Even if, as is the hope, a large number of Academy members do take their task seriously, the consensus choice in the animation category leaves little room for outsiders to break in.
When a bona fide masterpiece of such breathtaking craftsmanship such as Wolfwalkers can’t realistically aspire to receive the highest acknowledgement—and the industry has collectively accepted that this is just the way things are—then the system is undeniably broken.
Images courtesy of Apple