If, as widely expected, Frozen wins the Oscar for best animated feature this Sunday it will, believe it not, be the first time a Disney film wins the award.
I’m referring specifically to Walt Disney Animation Studios, the in-house animation factory of Walt Disney Pictures. In its partnership with Pixar, the studio and distributor Walt Disney Pictures can claim a piece of Pixar’s seven best animated feature Oscars. But Walt Disney Animation Studios, the storied animation house that goes all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, has yet to win an Oscar.
That probably will change Sunday night. Frozen is the overwhelming favorite to win the category. But you never can tell with the Oscars. Last year I thought Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph was the likely winner, but academy voters punched the Pixar ticket and gave the Oscar to Brave. Once again, Disney animators couldn’t escape the shadow of their in-house rival.
This year that particular obstacle has been removed. Frozen is not up against a Pixar movie because the academy declined to nominate Monsters University. This must be interpreted as a snub reflecting Pixar’s fall from critical grace. It cannot be read as a bias against sequels, because Despicable Me 2 was nominated. This year Pixar isn’t standing in Disney’s way, so absent a sudden Miyazaki nostalgia wave, Frozen should be a lock. (In truth, Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises is easily the best film in the category and deserves to win. Frozen is a superior Disney film, but The Wind Rises is a masterpiece. However, an animated biography of the man who designed the Zero, a plane best remembered for its role in the Pearl Harbor attack, should be a hard-sell for academy voters.)
With Disney poised to win its first Oscar for best animated feature, it is strange to contemplate that the studio synonymous with animation has not won one before. After 1991’s Beauty and the Beast became the first animated feature to be nominated for best film, there was talk of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences creating a best animated feature category. But this was the period when Disney’s animated movies were scooping up one best original song Oscar after another, and rival studios didn’t want to create another category that would be an automatic win for Disney.
Considering that the creation of this category was delayed for fear of a Disney dominance, why did it take more than a decade before Disney had a real chance to win the prize? The simple answer is “Pixar,” and the more complicated answer is “bad timing.” The nomination rules peculiar to this category also come into play.
The best animated feature category was created in 2000, with the first Oscar to be awarded in 2001. This was five years after Pixar stormed into America’s consciousness with Toy Story. Led by former Disney animator John Lasseter, the computer-animation house revolutionized the industry. Computer animation was the shiny new thing that dazzled audiences, but Lasseter followed lessons he learned at Disney and adhered to the maxim attributed to Walt himself: “Get the story right first.” Those early Pixar movies weren’t just visual novelties, they were narrative marvels.
Meanwhile, Pixar’s counterparts at Disney Animation Studios were experiencing turmoil. The Disney animation renaissance that started with 1989’s The Little Mermaid and peaked with 1994’s The Lion King was slowly losing steam. The animators knew they couldn’t continue to churn out old tales with Broadway-style scores and were struggling to find a new direction. They focused on adventure stories to attract young male audiences, but only 1999’s Tarzan was a hit. Treasure Planet was a disappointment, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire was a costly dud. With every new computer-animated blockbuster from Pixar, Disney’s traditional hand-drawn animation seemed increasingly passé. Disney’s animators were reluctant to abandon traditional animation, but finally gave up following the abysmal performance of the barnyard comedy Home on the Range.
The best animated feature, then, was created at a moment in film history when Pixar was in its ascendancy and Disney Animation Studios was floundering. Pixar was in prime position to dominate the category, and it has. But not right away. To its shame, the academy gave the first animated feature Oscar not to the worthy Monsters Inc. but to the sloppily animated Shrek, a darling at the time because it poked fun at the Disney empire. Shrek’s reputation has since suffered thanks to a run of terrible sequels, but Oscars can’t be revoked, unfortunately.
The standard number of nominees in most Oscar categories is five. When academy members created the best animated feature prize, they worried there might not be enough animated features each year to support a field of that number. It was stipulated that five animated films would be nominated only in years when 16 or more films are submitted to the category. Otherwise, only three films will be nominated. In the category’s first decade, it yielded a full complement of five nominees only twice. All those years with only three nominees worked against Disney. One of the studio’s best recent films, Tangled, failed to get a nomination in a three-picture year. (The original Despicable Me was passed over that same year.)
In the early years of the category, Disney animators had a decent showing. In the category’s second year, the studio landed two nominees: Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet. They lost to Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which deserved its victory but probably would not have won had it not been distributed in America by Disney and championed by Disney and Pixar animators led by Lasseter.
The following year, 2003, Disney’s hand-drawn Brother Bear received a nomination, but the studio would be shut out of the category for the next five years. The 2003 winner was Pixar’s Finding Nemo. This was Pixar’s first victory in the category, and the studio would go on to win six more times over the next nine years. The only Pixar movie to get a nomination but not an Oscar is Cars. The only two Pixar movies to fail to get nominations are Cars 2 and last year’s Monsters University.
The development that would put Frozen on a path toward Oscar was Disney’s purchase of Pixar in April 2006. As part of the deal, Lasseter was appointed chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios while retaining that title at Pixar.
With Lasseter in charge Disney’s animated films steadily improved, starting with Bolt, which returned Disney to the list of nominees in 2008. It was Lasseter who insisted Disney revive hand-drawn animation with The Princess and the Frog, nominated the following year.
Many animation fans complain that the quality of Pixar films has suffered since the Disney acquisition, but the decline has been overstated. Yes, there has been a dip, and it didn’t start with Cars 2. Neither Up nor Toy Story 3 is in the same league as Ratatouille or WALL-E. Today Pixar is competing with its own formidable history, and when it makes another great film – and it will – people will come to realize Monsters University was pretty good after all.
With Lasseter in charge of both Pixar and Disney animation, a leveling off was inevitable. If Pixar dipped, Disney surged. The more confident animators poured their creativity and joy into Tangled (which I prefer to Toy Story 3) and Wreck-It Ralph. Both were big hits, but their success didn’t prepare anyone for the blockbuster that would be Frozen.
Frozen has become a phenomenon. It opened strong with $67 million and maintained steady business in an era when even the biggest hits fade quickly. Three months after its release, it remains in the top 10. Frozen had a bump over the Christmas holidays when millions of children were out of school and dragged their willing parents to see it again. Little girls are crazy about Elsa and Anna. Little boys giggle over Olaf the snowman. YouTube is filled with videos of everyone including your orthodontist’s cat singing “Let it Go,” which should score an Oscar for best original song.
Frozen is now the highest grossing Disney Animated Studios film and could well break the $1 billion worldwide box-office barrier before its theatrical run ends. Globally, the only animated film ahead of it is Toy Story 3 (domestically, both films lag behind Shrek 2, a statistic that baffles me).
After roughly 15 years of groping for a new identity, Disney animation is enjoying another streak. It will need a few more hits to certify this as a third golden age, but at the moment, Disney is as strong as it has ever been. Twenty-five years after The Little Mermaid rescued Disney animation, another Hans Christian Andersen adaptation with a Broadway-worthy score has put the House of Mouse back on top. And this time, the studio that made animated feature films an economic reality will finally win an Oscar for one.