The year isn’t technically over yet, but it’s time to start getting all your ducks in a row for the 95th Academy Awards. Voting is set to begin on January 12th, 2023, less than a month away and one category I keep all my attention trained on, unsurprisingly, is the Best Animated feature category. I’m here to tell Disney fans everywhere though to get ready for the nominations and expect Pixar’s Turning Red to be nominated, but don’t expect much else from the Walt Disney Company in this arena this year.
Many Disney fans (and some industry insiders) always assume that the company, whether it be through Walt Disney Animation Studios or Pixar Animation Studios, is a lock for the category. Let me remind you, the category debuted in 2001 (controversially, as many in the animation field believed it was to prevent Oscar wins for Best Picture, etc), with Walt Disney Animation Studios proper not winning the award until 2013, when it won for Frozen. Pixar took home the third-ever Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2003 for Finding Nemo. The inaugural award went to Dreamworks’ Shrek, with the second going to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
Now despite the history lesson, let’s focus on the upcoming nominations. There are so many studios and artists now pumping out films that can be considered for the category, but in terms of entries from the Walt Disney Company, don’t be surprised if the only one you see is Pixar Animation Studios’ Turning Red. From Oscar-winning director Domee Shi (Bao), the coming of age story tells the tale of Meilin “Mei” Lee, who (although confidently) traverses her way through adolescence until she discovers she has the ability to turn into a giant red panda. Though at it’s basic synopsis sounds like traditional Pixar fare, a viewing of the film will also uncover a story that addresses expectations passed through generations and the anxieties they cause, stresses of middle/high school life and friendships during puberty, and cultural influences based on the ancestry of the Lee family, as well as the Toronto setting of the story. On more than one occasion, I have said that this is Pixar’s John Hughes-esque film, channeling titles like Sixteen Candles in its own way. It’s a refreshing entry in the Pixar catalog and was grossly overlooked for theatrical release, where I firmly believe it would have outperformed any other animated feature released by the Walt Disney Company this year, instead debuting directly to Disney+ for all subscribers.
Shi has explained in various panels and press moments that this story is largely inspired by her youth in the early 2000s, which (perhaps not so) coincidentally the film just happens to take place in. Audiences found the story largely relatable, and critics agreed. As of this writing, The film has a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a higher rating than more anticipated films like Avatar: The Way of Water (78%) and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (84%). Upon its Disney+ debut in March, it was the most streamed title breaking the platform’s global viewership record within three days of its premiere.
While I fully expect a nom in the Best Animated Feature category, I also would not be surprised if we see a nom for Best Original Song. Heavily featured in the plot of the film is the fictitious band 4*TOWN, who’s songs populate the movie and may or may not save the day. The film features three original songs written by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, the latter of which appeared as one of the members of the fictional boy band, alongside Disney regular Jordan Fisher, who voices Robaire, the lead singer of the group.
Now I’ve put a heavy emphasis on the streaming release of the movie, but I need to point out that the movie does, in fact, qualify for Oscar contention. Turning Red got the requisite Oscar-qualifying theatrical run in L.A., NYC, and Oakland, making a great impression, thanks to the bold imagination of Shi, as she continued to explore her conflicted relationship with her mother creatively, and personally, following the Oscar-winning short film, Bao.
We even took a closer look at the film during our installment of Laughing Place Movie Club, seen below.
Now, Pixar has the opportunity to once again get nominated twice in a single year, similar to what happened recently when the studio competed against itself for the Oscar when both Soul and Onward were nominated. However, not to be a complete Debbie Downer, but I would honestly be surprised if Lightyear were nominated for Best Animated Feature this year. Not only is there substantially stronger competition, the very premise of the film confused audiences and critics everywhere. Thanks to mismarketing as “the definitive origin story of Buzz Lightyear,” many thought they were walking into some kind of Toy Story prequel. Originally pitched on a Disney Shareholders Day by Pixar Chief Creative Officer Pete Docter as “the movie that Andy saw that made him want the toy,” the movie was troubled from the start, and should have just used Docter’s line in all marketing from that point forward.
Marketing can’t be blamed (entirely) on why I don’t think it will be nominated though. First of all, it’s a sci-fi adventure story, told beautifully, and the Oscars typically don’t play with space adventures in major categories. I think they would in the case of Lightyear for animation, but perhaps in a different year where other nominees aren’t as strong or prevalent. The story follows the aforementioned Space Ranger known mostly for his toy-counterpart in the Toy Story films (though this is an entirely separate movie) after he’s marooned on a hostile planet 4.2 million light-years from Earth alongside his commander and their crew. As Buzz tries to find a way back home through space and time, he’s joined by a group of ambitious recruits and his charming robot companion cat, Sox.
While still a fun tale, the story is nowhere near as personal or grounded in reality as much as Turning Red is. That’s not to say it’s without emotion or any kind of heart in the story, but when comparing the two, you know, like for Oscar contention, it doesn’t stand a chance. Tragically, this film opened up to confused audiences and critics, and was given a theatrical run, with the former Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Chapek clearly trying to bank on the success of existing I.P., to no avail.
More likely to get an Oscar Nom for Best Animated Feature than Lightyear, but still would not be surprising if it were left behind is Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Strange World.
Strange World, another sci-fi entry channeling the pulp stories of another era, sees a family of explorers (and farmers!) as they venture into worlds unknown to save their main energy source. The story, where Turning Red is multi-generational pressure from the mom and daughter’s perspective, does similar work from a father and son perspective, across three generations. Not only that, the film is extraordinarily inclusive, with multi-racial relationships and LGBTQ+ characters. The film also has a message that is revealed later in the film that I won’t spoil here because…well, frankly, nobody has seen it yet, even though it’s been out since Thanksgiving.
In fact, I think that’s why Strange World is a long shot, but still possible. The Walt Disney Company has tragically relegated its animated fare from their studios to very rapid or immediate releases on Disney+. When I discuss the film with others 10 times out of 10 I hear “Oh I’ll watch it on Disney+.” The movie tanked at the box office on its theatrical debut, but the majority of critics gave positive reviews. The film is set for a Disney+ debut on December 23rd, and perhaps more people will get to see the film, and more buzz will come of it ahead of Oscar voting in January. So, don’t count Strange World out just yet, but again….don’t go all-in on it either.
In any other year, these three films together might stand a chance to all be nominated, however 2022 has been a strong year in the field of animation. Back when the category debuted, you could count the contending studios on a single hand. Now, Animation has boomed in popularity, with independent studios and major players all vying for the same Oscar gold.
This year alone is already slated for an extremely heated race, with top contenders including Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio, and a surprisingly well-received and highly anticipated film, Dreamworks’ Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, which hasn’t even been released theatrically yet, set to debut on December 21st. Other titles to check out that have great potential in the race include Jenny Slate’s Marcel the Shell with the Shoes On from A24, and Wendell & Wild from Henry Selick, director of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline, which fans and critics alike point to as something that is long overdue for the animation legend.
All of this is leading up to the 95th Academy Awards, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel live on ABC on Sunday, March 12th, 2023. You can watch Turning Red, Lightyear, and (soon!) Strange World on Disney+.