The 76th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 2003.  The nominations were announced on 27 January 2004 and the awards were held on February 29, 2004.

Best Animated Film:  Finding Nemo

  • The Triplets of Belleville
  • Brother Bear

Most Surprising Omission: Tokyo Godfathers

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Tokyo Godfathers

Rank (out of 16) Among Best Animated Film Years:  #3

Oscar Score:  91.9

Alternate Oscar Score:  73.3

non-nominated Oscar-Eligible Films (alphabetical):

  • Jester Till
  • The Jungle Book 2
  • Looney Tunes: Back in Action
  • Millennium Actress  *
  • Piglet’s Big Movie
  • Pokemon Heroes
  • Rugrats Go Wild!
  • Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas
  • Tokyo Godfathers

note:  Academy rules don’t allow a film to be eligible if it was first released in its home country prior to January 1 of the year before.  So, Millennium Actress, being a 2001 film, shouldn’t be eligible, except that the 2001 release only applies to it playing at a film festival and it wasn’t actually released in Japan until September of 2002.  I don’t know why it took so long before it was released in Japan but it apparently was and that must be why it was Oscar eligible.

The Complete List of Animated Films I Have Seen from 2003 (ranked, with stars, director, studio):

  1. Finding Nemo  (****, Stanton, Disney (Pixar))
  2. The Triplets of Belleville  (****, Chomet, Sony Pictures Classics)
  3. Tokyo Godfathers  (****, Kon, Samuel Goldwyn Films)
  4. Millennium Actress  (***.5, Kon, DreamWorks SKG)
  5. The Cat Returns  (***, Morita, Disney (Ghibli))
  6. Looney Tunes: Back in Action  (***, Dante, Warner Bros)
  7. Brother Bear  (***, Blaise / Walker, Disney)
  8. Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas  (***, Johnson / Gilmore, DreamWorks SKG)
  9. Sakura Wars: The Movie  (***, Hongo, Pioneer Entertainment)
  10. The Jungle Book 2  (**.5, Trenbirth, Disney)
  11. Patlabor WXIII: The Movie  (**.5, Takayama, Genson Entertainment)
  12. Rugrats Go Wild!  (**.5, Eng / Virgien, Paramount (Nickelodeon))
  13. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie  (**.5, Watanabe, Samuel Goldwyn Films)
  14. Piglet’s Big Movie  (**.5, Glebas, Disney)
  15. The Golden Laws  (**.5, Ishiyama, IRH Press Co Ltd)
  16. Pokemon Heroes  (**, Yuyama, Miramax)
  17. Jester Till  (**, Junkersdorf, Capella Films Inc)
  18. Interstella 5555  (*, Takenouchi, Cornstock)

Consensus Awards:

  1. Finding Nemo  (144 pts – Oscar, Annie, BFCA, NBR)
  2. The Triplets of Belleville  (136 pts  –  Oscar, Annie, BFCA, NYFC, LAFC)
  3. Brother Bear  (56 pts  –  Oscar, Annie, BFCA)
  4. Looney Tunes: Back in Action  (20 pts  –  Annie)
  5. Millennium Actress  (20 pts  –  Annie)

The Race:  Academy voters seemed to be a little more at ease when it seemed like there weren’t going to be enough animated films to trigger the threshold for five nominees.  It was easy enough for the voters to know what to vote for: Finding Nemo was not only the biggest Pixar film to date, with the best reviews, it was the second biggest film of the year and had actually beaten The Lion King‘s record for an animated film.  But what about those other two slots?

Well, no other animated film had even broken $100 million (in fact, Finding Nemo had made more than all the other films combined).  The only other one that was even over $50 million was the Disney film, Brother Bear, and if the reviews weren’t great (and they weren’t), at least it hadn’t been a huge box office disaster like DreamWorks’ Sinbad.  There were a couple of sequels from Disney’s kid studio, Disneytoons, but it didn’t look like the Academy would take them seriously.  There was a Nickelodeon film and there was a Looney Tunes film but neither seemed to be serious contenders and there was even the question that, while declared eligible, would Academy voters go for a film in this category in which most of the action took place in live action?

Then there was the new film from France, The Triplets of Belleville.  Well, not really France, as it was a co-production from Canada, France and America.  It wasn’t a big box office hit, but it was making enough on the art film circuit and it had won two critics awards (one more than Finding Nemo) and the critics were loving it.  The other competition were two films from Japanese animated master, Satoshi Kon, Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers, both well received, but if the box office was a factor for Triplets, it was deadly for the Kon films, as Triplets made in one weekend almost as much as Tokyo Godfathers in its entire run and three times as much as Millennium Actress in its run.  It looked like it would be Triplets that would join Finding Nemo and probably Brother Bear in the race.

The Results:  Which was exactly what happened.  No one was much surprised, though serious film fans were disappointed by the inclusion of the weak Disney effort over the Japanese films.  In the end, not a single person was surprised when Nemo managed to win the Oscar, the first Pixar Oscar but far from the last.

Pixar wins its first Oscar. Get used to that.

Finding Nemo

  • Director:  Andrew Stanton
  • Writer:  Andrew Stanton  /  Bob Peterson  /  David Reynolds
  • Producer:  John Lassetter
  • Animation Studio:  Pixar
  • Distribution Studio:  Buena Vista
  • Stars:  Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, Willem DaFoe
  • Oscar Nominations:  Animated Film, Original Screenplay, Original Score, Sound Editing
  • Oscar Points:  125
  • Length:  100 min
  • Genre:  Kids
  • MPAA Rating:  G
  • Box Office Gross:  $339.71 mil  (#2  –  2003)
  • Release Date:  30 May 2003
  • Metacritic Score:  90
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #7  (year)  /  #7  (nominees)  /  #7  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Animated Film, Original Screenplay, Original Score, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  145

The Film:  In 2001, Pixar released Monsters Inc. and some of the animation in it was just breath-taking, especially the way Sully’s hair moves in the wind and snow when he is trapped in the Himalayas.  But that was just a warm-up to the opening moments of Finding Nemo.  Two clown fish are taking a look at the ocean view from the anemone that they call home.  They take a look back at the life on The Great Barrier Reef, where they live.  The ocean is alive with color and vibrant life.  It is not like anything we have ever seen on screen before.  The Little Mermaid had brought a kingdom under the water to life but even its glorious animation was nothing compared to this.

Of course, all of that color and magnificent sea life wouldn’t have been enough if there hadn’t been a wonderful film at the heart of it all.  Toy Story had broken the barrier for an animated film to be considered at the Oscars for its writing and Shrek had likewise earned a nomination.  But Finding Nemo was the real trend-setter, earning an Original Screenplay and leading the way for five more Pixar films in the next seven years to earn writing nominations.  And Finding Nemo absolutely deserves its writing nomination.  It is at once, unbelievably funny (sharks that are having an AA type meeting so they can become vegetarians, the very fact that one of the sharks is named Bruce), incredibly charming (every line between Crush and Squirt) and incredibly heart-warming (who doesn’t root for a father who faces up to his fears and crosses the ocean to find his son).  There’s a reason that it shattered the box office marks set by the first four Pixar films and reached heights that no other Pixar film would reach for seven more years.

And yet, Finding Nemo does this by going against the standard that was being set by such films as Ice Age and Shrek and even by the earlier Pixar films.  It didn’t make use of really big name stars.  It found the right actors for the roles.  It took Albert Brooks, who was a name absolutely guaranteed not to sell tickets and Ellen DeGeneres, whose sitcom had ended five years earlier and whose talk show wouldn’t start until months after the film was released and made comedy gold.  It took important roles and filled them with the director (Crush), one of the writers (Mr. Ray) and the son of another Pixar director (Squirt).  It knew that the right performance was the key to the film and every single of them is, from the inevitable hilarious John Ratzenberger cameo (complete with impressions) to the seagulls (“Mine!  Mine!  Mine!”) to the crab who is outmaneuvered by Dory but manages to stand off against the seagulls and get away.

This film is a classic adventure story.  Someone has to go on a quest and this time it’s a poor little clownfish who is desperately not funny (a nice twist on Brooks’ actual persona who is funny without really being funny) and the regal blue tang with short-term memory loss (it reminded me of the old Tom Hanks skit on SNL, “Mr. Short-Term Memory Loss”).  They have to find the clownfish’s son, who is having his own problems stuck in a dentist’s fish tank (the portrayal of the dentist will probably play into the fear of anyone who doesn’t like the dentist, but it’s just another hilarious part of the film).  They have perils along the way (if the jellyfish don’t scare the hell out of you then they should), fun adventures (god, I love sea turtles) and some real excitement.  But, most of all, this film is the Pixar film, that, at least until Inside Out, probably best marries the concept of entertaining with heart-warming.  It’s just the perfect film to watch with your kid by your side.

Only one of the most original movies ever made.

The Triplets of Belleville  (Les triplettes de Belleville)

  • Director:  Sylvain Chomet
  • Writer:  Sylvain Chomet
  • Producer:  Didier Brunner  /  Viviane Vanfleteren
  • Animation Studio:  France 3 Cinema
  • Distribution Studio:  Sony Pictures Classics
  • Stars:  Beatrice Bonifassi
  • Oscar Nominations:  Animated Film, Original Song
  • Oscar Points:  30
  • Length:  80 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $7.00 mil  (#146  –  2003)
  • Release Date:  26 November 2003
  • Metacritic Score:  91
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #16  (year)  /  #18  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Animated Film, Foreign Film
  • Nighthawk Points:  40

The Film:  I have often described Kevin Smith and Tim Burton as directorial opposites (which is why I thought Burton directing a Smith script for Superman Lives would have been perfect).  Burton is all style and directorial flourishes while Smith is all substance with no directorial vision.  But, watching The Triplets of Belleville again, for the first time since it first came out on DVD, I was thinking that this, in fact, was the opposite of a Kevin Smith film.  Kevin Smith’s films aren’t so much directed as placed upon the screen with the camera trying to focus in on the various people talking.  They are funny and interesting because of the dialogue and where it takes us.  Outside of the dialogue, there isn’t much to them.  This film is the opposite of that.  It is a film filled with bizarre and fascinating images.  It creates characters that we never really get to know, but get to know in interesting ways.  It creates a fascinating world and we get a complete story without almost any dialogue at all.  It is not a silent film (indeed, it earned a nomination for Best Song and the music is great) but dialogue is incidental to this film.

This film is a mix-mash of a lot of things.  It is a character study of an old woman whose grandson is a Tour de France champion and the love and devotion she and her dog bear for him.  It is a gangster film because a group of criminals kidnap the champ for a bizarre plot (which reminds me of the SportsCenter commercial where it turned out the building was being powered by Lance Armstrong).  It is musical, as the grandmother runs into a trio of old song and dance women who travel along with her in her quest to get him back.  It is a Comedy that takes us to bizarre places.  It is an animated film that creates the city of Belleville, a bizarre, fascinating place that combines aspects of New York, Montreal and Quebec City.  Indeed, that is appropriate as the film is a mix of Canadian, American and French talent.  There is little enough dialogue that it barely qualifies as a Foreign film but the main driving creative force behind it is Sylvain Chomet, the French director who clearly loves old movies (his next film, The Illusionist, would also earn a Best Animated Film nomination and would be heavily influenced by the films of Jacques Tati) and uses it to populate his world.

There is not a whole lot of plot to this film.  There is almost no dialogue.  Yet, it creates a vivid and interesting world with what it does on the screen.  It is a film that was good enough that it managed to win two critics awards in a year with Finding Nemo, a creative and commercial success the likes of which had almost never been seen in an animated film.  It keeps us riveted to our seats in amazement and curiosity, wondering, not only where it will go next, but what bizarre sights will come our way.

Really, Academy voters? This was better than both Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers? Are you serious?

Brother Bear

  • Director:  Aaron Blaise  /  Robert Walker
  • Writer:  25 credited writers
  • Producer:  Chuck Williams
  • Animation Studio:  Walt Disney Animation
  • Distribution Studio:  Buena Vista
  • Stars:  Joaquin Pheonix, Jeremy Suarez, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas
  • Oscar Nominations:  Animated Film
  • Oscar Points:  20
  • Length:  85 min
  • Genre:  Kids
  • MPAA Rating:  G
  • Box Office Gross:  $85.33 mil  (#34  –  2003)
  • Release Date:  24 October 2003
  • Metacritic Score:  48
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #102  (year)  /  #54  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Points:  n/a

The Film:  When I ranked this on my Disney list it came in at #38.  I described it as a decent little film where the supporting characters are more interesting than the main character (in this case, the two moose) but I also mentioned that decent little films don’t deserve Oscar nominations, especially in a year where there are two Satoshi Kon films that are eligible for the award.

The basic plot of the story is the same kind of heart-warming thing that Disney has made such a specialty of: a young Inuit boy manages to provoke a bear attack and when his brother is killed, he decides to hunt the bear down and kill it.  After he does that, the Spirits decide to change him into a bear as penance.  Of course, over the course of the story he’ll learn how to be a bear, have to flee his other brother and be a father figure to a young cub who is lost without his mother.  In the end, if you can’t guess it, things will work out well, though at least they go a little bit in a more daring direction by having him continue being a bear instead of turning back into a human.  It’s not exactly Hamlet.  It’s got lessons to be learned, it’s got respect to be earned, love to be found.  In short, it’s a parable for kids and about how they should respect the world around them, but given in the form of talking animals.  The animation is nothing to laugh at but in the same year as Finding Nemo and its amazing world of color, it wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire either.

So what is it that saves this film?  It certainly isn’t the songs by Phil Collins, songs that I forgot the film even had until I was watching it again and realized that it was Phil singing.  They are a far cry below his songs for Tarzan and even those were a far cry below his songs from No Jacket Required and But Seriously.  No, what keeps the film from sliding down into the **.5 range like Treasure Planet from the year before is precisely what Treasure Planet perhaps could have used: a couple of arguing Canadian moose.  These moose mainly argue with each other and act oblivious to everything around them and if they sound like they were imported directly from Strange Brew, well, that’s because they were.  They’re played by Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis, those two beer drinking McKenzie brothers.  What, you don’t know who they are, eh?  Well, maybe that’s because you were one of the kids this film was aimed towards and those guys were what Disney was trying to keep the parents happy with so they didn’t get so bored.  Go watch their movie.  It’s better than this, hoser.