The best animated feature category is usually a thorn in the side of the Oscar race, simultaneously ghettoizing the animated form while forcing a handful of movies into the discussion whether or not they deserve to be a part of it. In a weak year for animated movies, the lackluster stuff remains in contention no matter what.
Fortunately, this isn't one of those years.
The list of nominees for best animated feature showcase a diverse range of sensibilities: three studio movies with varying commercial traditions in play, a 2-D French-produced adaptation of children's book, and a mature Japanese biopic from one of the masters of the medium. Collectively, they provide one of the best representations of contemporary feature-length animation since the category's inception.
And yet one title looms above them all. Hayao Miyazaki's "The Wind Rises," the Japanese auteur's alleged final work, which delicately recounts the life of airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi. The movie has instigated controversy, both in its home country and abroad, for virtually ignoring Horikoshi's contribution to Japan's ugly wartime sins, by designing the aircraft eventually used in the attacks on Pearl Harbor. But Miyazaki's admiration for Horikoshi's inspiration takes the project away from the realm of historical specifics and roots it in the character's apolitical subjectivity, a magical place populated by his dreams of powerful airships and the liberating quality of drifting through the air unencumbered by physical restrictions. (In certain moments, it manages to outdo "Gravity" with its excitement over the feeling of being unencumbered by physics.)
The absence of Japanese imperialism from the plot is part of its creepy/mystical allure: "The Wind Rises" delves into profound questions of moral culpability by implication. It's a movie smart enough to trust its audience to engage with the context hovering just beyond each vibrant frame.
Nothing else in this year's category operates on that same level of subtle brilliance. While the Disney-mandated "Frozen" shakes up some of the studio's formula for animated musical fairy tales with its progressive female-centric narrative, it's still a slick piece of commercial entertainment that's virtually impossible to disentangle from the facile pop melodies of its hit single, "Let It Go." Above all, "Frozen" shows Disney operating at the height of its powers — that is, running on autopilot with a charming, largely forgettable tale that boasts its ridiculous budget in each shiny image.
At the other end of the spectrum, French directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar's "Ernest & Celestine," the watercolored portrait of a mouse and bear who become friendly in spite of resistance from their respective societies, has a gentle, handcrafted look that suits the innocent quality of the material. For those in the know, "Ernest & Celestine" suffers by comparison to the directors' previous effort. It's nowhere near as inspired as their maniacally funny "A Town Called Panic" — the discursive misadventures of a toy cowboy and horse that eventually climaxes underseas, it makes "The Lego Movie" look downright restrained. In contrast, the tame, affable plot of "Ernest & Celestine" comes and goes with an agreeable shrug.
The same issue applies to "Despicable Me 2," a hilarious super-sized sequel that aims for little beyond simple amusement with a stream of one-liners and sight gags, none of which hold much permanence. While "The Croods" engages with some insightful ideas about parenting and burgeoning adulthood, they're positioned in the context of a caveman adventure story particularly distinctive for its lush, colorful landscape than the themes positioned within it.
None of these movies endeavor to explore an issue with the intellectual sophistication in "The Wind Rises," which caps a historic run for the 72-year-old filmmaker. Its very nature as a controversial piece of storytelling enhances its weight. Miyazaki has crafted an extraordinary, dizzying portraits of imaginative worlds before, most memorably with "Spirited Away," for which he already bagged an Oscar. Yet "The Wind Rises" bests even that seminal work by reaching for the skies in more ways than one: It's simultaneously a celebration of creativity and a cautionary tale about the dangers of a world with the ability to take advantage of it. Miyazaki has crafted a passionate ode the plight of the insular artist. No other Oscar handed out this Sunday could make that point better.