The nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards are in, and, as usual, snubs abound: Women directors including Greta Gerwig (Little Women) and Melina Matsoukas (Queen & Slim) were shut out completely. Jennifer Lopez’s buzzy performance in Hustlers didn’t make the cut. Lupita Nyong’o’s haunting turn in Us appeared to count for nothing.
Snubs? Yes. Surprising? Not so much.
While overlooking women and people of color is pretty much on brand for the academy, there was one genuinely shocking snub that is good news.
For best animated feature, Disney’s Frozen 2 was edged out this year by How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, I Lost My Body, Klaus, Missing Link, and Toy Story 4.
Mainstream blockbusters, particularly from Disney and Pixar, have a strong history of sweeping the best animated feature category. Over the past decade, a Disney or Pixar film has won best animated feature seven times. When you factor in that Frozen 2 is now the highest-grossing animated movie of all time and that Disney dominated the year’s box office by a huge margin, putting your money on Anna and Elsa’s nabbing a second nomination for best animated feature seemed like a sound bet. But Frozen 2‘s only nomination this year is for best original song, with “Into the Unknown.”
This may be devastating news for your five-year-old—and a disappointing setback for the representation of women at the Oscars. But the fact that three out of five nominations for this year’s animated feature category are from nonmajor studios is a welcome change.
Some of the most exciting work in animation is coming from the independent sector, a place that is less risk-averse than the major studios. “You can’t out-Pixar Pixar,” David Jesteadt, president of indie animation distributor GKids, told Fast Company in a previous interview. “These studios are so good at creating films that are meaningful to incredibly broad audiences. And while I think that they create great films with that mandate, that does provide some natural limitations in terms of the kind of things that you can do before you start worrying about narrowing the potential audience.”
From more diverse animation styles (2D/CGI hybrid in Klaus; stop-motion in Missing Link, etc.) to edgier stories (a severed hand finding its way home in I Lost My Body), indie animated films are pushing the genre as a whole forward, as opposed to churning out unnecessary sequels and pure cash grabs.
When it comes to the Oscars, however, the problem has been a general lack of familiarity with the art form.
Unlike other categories, where members vote for nominees in their own branch (e.g., cinematographers vote for best cinematography), the best animated feature category is voted on by all members of the academy. That means there’s a good chunk of voters who simply vote for the films they know. And the films they know are often what bubbles to the surface: highly marketed, mainstream, family-friendly blockbusters.
“Any illusions I had of us actually being able to win going into Oscar night were dashed the moment our category was introduced by Woody and Buzz Lightyear,” said Duke Johnson, codirector of 2015’s best animated film nominee Anomalisa, in a previous interview with Fast Company. “As if to say, this category contains films that are cute and whimsical and ultimately for children. I don’t think people know what to do with animation that’s not broad. They don’t feel qualified to judge it in the same way they do live action. Many indie offerings just don’t fit into the narrow understanding of what animation is and should be for most people.”
Which is why this year’s crop of nominations amounts to a major win for indie animation.
Even if the obvious front-runner, Toy Story 4, wins on February 9, the fact that the academy looked beyond the usual suspects to recognize Laika’s Missing Link, Netflix’s Klaus, and I Lost My Body (also from Netflix) is cause for celebration. Compare that to last year, when only one of the five nominees—Japan’s Mirai—was made outside the U.S. studio system. I Lost My Body would be a particularly subversive and welcome 2020 pick because it’s a French-language film that is not for children. Considering that no animated feature with a rating more mature than PG has ever won, an I Lost My Body victory is a long shot.
Still, this is progress, and we’re not going to sneer at that.