Aside from Pixar’s Inside Out, the other four nominees are indie, global and non-CG with two stop-motion and two hand-drawn entries. Last year, when I complained about The LEGO Movie being shut out, an animation voter told me to get used to less American studio efforts being nominated. This helps explain why Blue Sky’s brilliant The Peanuts Movie.was this year’s biggest casualty. But the Oscar still belongs to Pixar and Disney, which is why Inside Out remains the heavy favorite.
1. Inside Out: Pixar’s most abstract and adult movie paid off creatively and commercially in spectacular fashion (the fourth highest domestic grosser in 2015 and number three in Pixar history). Pete Docter delves deep inside the cartoony mind of 11-year-old Riley, but it’s Joy’s story about attaining emotional maturity yet growing up with the spirit of innocence intact. Good thing he switched antagonists from Fear to Sadness because that’s where the darkest conflict resides. The elaborate candy-colored world of theme parks and islands is a remarkable achievement, as is Joy, who literally shines brightest as an effervescent light bulb, requiring her own special rig and geometric lighting model. And what a powerful message: It’s OK to be sad. That just makes the happiness more meaningful.
2. Anomalisa: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson take stop-motion in a deeply personal, adult direction. Like all of Kaufman’s work, it’s about overcoming solipsism and trying to connect. But while the movie has divided the animation community, the Academy at large should have less of a problem embracing its story and aesthetics. The animation achieves a delicate balance between the naturalistic and the artificial, with no attempt to hide the seams on the 3D-printed faces. It enhances their frailty, especially during the unforgettable sex sequence, which took six months alone to animate. Never has stop-motion been tapped so daringly to explore what it’s like to be trapped in our own bodies and realities.
3. Shaun the Sheep Movie: Academy favorite Aardman achieves a new stop-motion plateau with the whimsical adaptation of its popular TV franchise. There’s no dialogue and therefore more opportunity for warmth and absurdity through pantomime. Summer boredom turns into a wild adventure from the farm to the Big City. It’s about good and bad parenting and not taking your life for granted. The farmer becomes a wildly successful hairdresser while the sheep wind up in a San Quentin-like animal shelter full of Hannibal Lecter riffs and silent movie tropes. And best of all, there’s plenty of adult appeal.
4. Boy and the World: The sharp-eyed GKIDS chose well. This hand-drawn Brazilian fable from Alê Abreu unfolds like a sumptuous tapestry for a small stick figure of a boy, who experiences an exciting and devastating rite of passage. Culled from the remnants of a Latin American doc Abreu wanted to make, there was an “almost urgent way in which he was drawn.” It’s a clash of personal and political opposites as the boy travels from the simple line drawings of his village to bushels of cotton-lined country roads to industrial landscapes filled with animal-machines, whirling carnival colors, exploding fireworks and flashing neon adverts. All of this accompanied by pan-flute, samba and Brazilian hip-hop. And the visceral impact is startling.
5. When Marnie Was There: GKIDS’ other nominee fittingly concludes Studio Ghibli’s remarkable run on a mysterious and meditative note (let’s hope it’s only a temporary hiatus). It’s based on Joan G. Robinson’s popular YA novel (one of Miyazaki’s favorites) and explores the magic and melancholy of adolescence with shy, artistic Anna encountering strange, empathetic Marnie in the marshes of a seaside town. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi didn’t consciously intend to make a ghostly tale but rather a story of love. As a result, he very poignantly depicts through animation the warmth, the smells and other sensations that Anna experiences. And as a Ghibli departure, he achieves a more ethereal quality with cloudy skies yet beautifully, distinct landscapes.