Almost immediately after it failed to receive an Oscar nomination for best animated feature, the internet was flooded both with shock, or even outrage, from film fans and theories from journalists on exactly why The Lego movie was snubbed by the Academy. The fact that the film came out too early in the year, that it made no apologies for its commercial origins (one reviewer pejoratively called it the “greatest commercial ever made”), and that its sweeping popularity may have played against it are the front-running explanations, as is the Academy’s generally stayed and conservative bent, summed up by one Academy voter quoted in a Hollywood Reporter feature on the nominations: “They [the members of the animation branch] are old f—s and many are Europeans and they hate seeing traditional animation slip away.”
The Lego Movie was certainly the popular choice. It was wildly successful (the 9th highest grossing film of 2014, out-grossing the highest earning nominee, Big Hero 6, by over $40 million domestically) and quickly earned a place in popular culture after its initial release. To say that its feature song, “Everything is Awesome,” is catchy would be an understatement. Just the mention of it here will ensure it gets stuck in my head for the rest of the week.
To say that almost everyone loved the film would also be an understatement, and the negative reaction after it failed to receive the nomination was equally universal, ranging from disappointment to outrage.
The ensuing backlash against the other nominees online is not surprising, but a little uncalled for. To begin with the two films “no one has heard of,” there is almost always a nominee from a smaller studio (i.e. not Pixar/Disney, DreamWorks, or Universal) and that was not produced in the United States. The nominees since 2009 have featured French titles (The Illusionist in 2010, A Cat in Paris in 2011, and Ernest & Celestine in 2013), Japanese films (Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises in 2013), a movie from Spain (Chico and Rita in 2011), and one from Ireland (The Secret of Kells in 2009).
This year’s Song of the Sea is the second feature directed by Ireland’s Tomm Moore — 2009 nominee The Secret of Kells was his first — whose traditionally animated films and unique visual style probably appealed to the animated feature voting base in the face of the rise of CGI as the preferred method of creating animated features. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (often an Oscar predictor) and has been nominated for seven Annie Awards, the animation industry’s own honours.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is similarly from an Oscar favourite, Studio Ghibli, and the nomination may be a vote of confidence in a studio that is facing an uncertain future after the retirement of its co-founder, the world renowned director Hayao Miyazaki.
The studio that produced The Boxtrolls, Laika, has the benefits of being both an Oscar favourite (it’s 2009 film Coraline and 2012 film ParaNorman were both nominated for best animated feature), and producing traditionally animated films: all three films were made using stop-motion, often cited as the oldest special effect in cinema. Like Coraline and ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls offers richly detailed images, with backgrounds bursting with a remarkable degree of detail, and a story that focuses on finding one’s place in a world that doesn’t make that task particularly easy for anyone who could be labelled “different.”
That Big Hero 6 and How to Train Your Dragon 2 were nominated is not at all surprising. I have yet to see the Disney film, but the fact that it was made by a production company that is generally held to be the most responsible for shaping what animation is in the US is enough for its signalling out to be pretty well expected.
As far as How to Train Your Dragon 2 goes, anyone who knows me will also know that I think that DreamWorks Animation’s latest feature was the best feature of the year. Full stop. I don’t feel the need to say anything else, nor will anything I have to say convince those who didn’t like it. Judgements on what makes a “good” film will always be at least partially subjective, and the qualities I name may very well be meaningless to someone else. Its appeal to the Academy, however, is obvious. It tells a compelling and profoundly moving story that pushes at the boundaries of what animation, particularly animation for children, can do. Every frame is beautifully crafted, particularly in the use of light and shadow. It features some remarkable performances from its voice cast. And its themes include both traditionally favoured ones (finding one’s self, the power of friendship) and daring additions in a children’s film (namely the nature of grief and loss).
I do not deny that The Lego Movie also possesses the qualities I’ve identified in the other nominated films. The film also explores problems of identity, the desire to fit in, as well as weaving together an exploration of childhood creativity and the stifling influence of adulthood on that creativity with a look at how those twin forces affect the relationships between parents and children. It is also beautifully crafted, although in an entirely different vein than Dragon and Big Hero 6, combining an evocation of stop-motion animation (actually poking fun at that laborious process the Academy rewards in Laika’s films) with the utterly frenetic kineticism associated with video game aesthetics.
It is also bonkers. And perhaps that is what led the Academy to dismiss it. Bonkers because it throws together a slew of aesthetic and genre influences represented in the different Lego worlds the characters visit with endless pop culture in-jokes and a seemingly cartoonish (pun intended) storyline. It is only at the end that one realizes that all this craziness is actually incredibly purposeful and profoundly meaningful, but that is the difficulty: this realization happens at the end of the film. While everything that preceded it is absolutely and remarkably entertaining it can also seem silly, and it’s easy to look past something that could be considered silly.
That the film came out early in the year shouldn’t have affected it – The Grand Budapest Hotel was also released early in 2014 and it leads this year’s nominations. That the film was snubbed because it is CGI is hard to fathom in light of Dragon and Big Hero 6. That the film has a popular children’s product in its name may have been a knock against it. That The Lego Movie is bonkers, wonderfully, purposefully, and entertainingly bonkers, and also wonderfully, purposeful, and entertainingly silly, however, is why it was overlooked.