How to make your charming animated film even better? Just add some Robin Williams.

The 79th annual Academy Awards for the film year 2006.  The nominations were announced on January 23, 2007 and the awards were held on February 25, 2007.

Best Animated Film:  Happy Feet

  • Monster House
  • Cars

Most Surprising Omission:  Flushed Away

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Flushed Away

Rank (out of 16) Among Best Animated Film Years:  #15

Oscar Score:  71.4

Alternate Oscar Score:  97.2

non-nominated Oscar-Eligible Films (alphabetical):

  • The Ant Bully
  • Barnyard
  • Curious George
  • Everyone’s Hero
  • Flushed Away
  • Ice Age: The Meltdown
  • Open Season
  • Over the Hedge
  • Paprika
  • Renaissance
  • A Scanner Darkly
  • The Wild

note:  Doogal was eligible for the Oscars but was not on the animated list.  Arthur and the Invisibles was likewise on the Academy reminder list but not on the animated list, perhaps because not enough of it was animated, though that will be tested by other films both before and after that had as little animation yet were eligible; the old Academy website (oscars.org) did list it as an animated film.

The Complete List of Animated Films I Have Seen from 2006 (ranked, with stars, director, studio):

  1. Flushed Away  (***.5, Bowers / Fell, Paramount (Aardman))
  2. Happy Feet  (***.5, Miller, Warner Bros)
  3. Monster House  (***.5, Kenan, Columbia)
  4. Cars  (***.5, Lassetter, Disney (Pixar))
  5. Paprika  (***.5, Kon, Sony Pictures Classics)
  6. Over the Hedge  (***, Johnson / Kirkpatrick, Paramount (DreamWorks))
  7. Curious George  (***, O’Callaghan, Universal)
  8. Ice Age: The Meltdown  (***, Saldanha, Fox (Blue Sky))
  9. Trinity Blood  (**.5, Hirata, Funimation Entertainment)
  10. Fullmetal Alchemist  (**.5, Mizushima, Funimation Entertainment)
  11. Open Season  (**.5, Allers / Culton, Columbia)
  12. Lunacy  (**.5, Svankmajer, Zeitgeist Films)
  13. The Ant Bully  (**.5, Davis, Warner Bros)
  14. Arthur and the Invisibles  (**.5, Besson, Weinstein Company)
  15. Everyone’s Hero  (**, Reeve, Fox)
  16. Dragonball Z: Fusion Reborn  (**, Yamauchi, Funimation Entertainment)
  17. Strawberry Shortcake: The Sweet Dreams Movie  (**, Hyden, Kidtoon Films)
  18. Renaissance  (**, Volckman, Miramax)
  19. Pinocchio 3000  (*.5, Robichaud, Kidtoon Films)
  20. The Wild  (*.5, Williams, Disney)
  21. A Scanner Darkly  (*, Linklater, Warner Bros)
  22. Barnyard  (*, Oedekerk, Paramount (Nickelodeon))
  23. Romeo and Juliet: Sealed with a Kiss  (.5, Nibbelink, Indican Pictures)
  24. Doogal  (.5, Passingham, Weinstein Company)

Note:  This is the only year in film history where I rank two animated films at .5.  Doogal is the worst animated film I have ever seen (more on that in the Nighthawk Awards).
This year is ironic because, while it’s only the second year with a full 5 nominee slate at the Nighthawk Awards (joining 1999), it’s also the only year after 1998 without a **** film.  It’s also the first year where the Nighthawk winner isn’t nominated at the Oscars (it won’t happen again until 2011).
Curious George is the first animated film from Universal since 1995.  Paramount takes over the DreamWorks distribution, so they have three films just a year after having zero.  Disney only has two films for the first time since 1998; that’s because this is the first year since 2001 that there are no DisneyToon films.

Consensus Awards:

  1. Happy Feet  (232 pts – Oscar, Annie, PGA, Globe, BAFTA, BFCA, NYFC, LAFC)
  2. Cars  (216 pts  –  Oscar, Annie, PGA, Globe, BAFTA, BFCA, NBR)
  3. Monster House  (92 pts  –  Oscar, Annie, PGA, Globe, BFCA)
  4. Flushed Away  (56 pts  –  PGA, BAFTA, BFCA)
  5. Over the Hedge  (36 pts  –  Annie, BFCA)
  6. Open Season  (20 pts  –  Annie)
  7. Ice Age: The Meltdown  (20 pts  –  PGA)

Note:  With the Globes and the BAFTAs adding in their own awards this year, we finally have all the major awards groups giving out awards.  However, because there are two guilds (the Annies and the PGA), there are six awards groups rather than the five like in most categories.  While Monster House goes 0 for 5, we won’t have a film go 0 for 6 until 2009.  Happy Feet and Cars actually tie with their raw total, but Happy Feet prevails with its weighted total.  Though Happy Feet has the most points to-date, that’s only because of the additional awards; there won’t be a winner this low or a race this competitive again until 2012.

The Race:  None of the early films seemed like big Oscar contenders.  Curious George was cute and did decent box office.  Ice Age: The Meltdown showed the franchise had commercial legs but not critical ones.  Over the Hedge did very solid business and did okay with critics but was a decade late in happening (my copy of the third collection of the comic strip describes the movie as forthcoming and that book was published in 1997).

Then came Cars.  It was the second biggest movie of the summer, behind only the massive box office of the Pirates sequel, even if it did less business than any of the previous four Pixar films.  It had solid critical reviews.  And it was Pixar, who had won two of the three previous Oscars in this category.  If nothing else, it was a surefire nominee.

The rest of the year brought some possible contenders, including Monster House (decent box office, decent reviews), Flushed Away (from Aardman, who had won the Oscar the year before but was hurt by DreamWorks pessimistic view of its box office).

But the real contender to Cars came with the release of Happy Feet, with solid reviews and box office that made it the second biggest animated film of the year.

The Annies were the first out of the gate and they nominated Happy Feet, Cars, Monster House, Over the Hedge and Open Season, which had middling box office and reviews and wasn’t considered a serious Oscar contender.  Then came the Globes, finally adding Best Animated Film to their awards and nominating Happy Feet, Cars and Monster House.  The BFCA and PGA also gave love to Happy Feet, Cars and Monster House, as well as bringing Flushed Away some awards attention.  The final PGA nominee would be Ice Age while Over the Hedge would earn the final BFCA nom.  The BAFTAs would also finally add an award, completing all the awards groups, but with their award coming after the Oscars, they wouldn’t offer any help for Flushed Away, which could use some.  Meanwhile, the existing critics awards would split, with the NYFC and LAFC going with Happy Feet and the NBR going with Cars.  Headed into the Oscar nominations, Cars and Happy Feet were solid nominees and neck and neck for the win with Monster House a strong possibility for the third nominee and smaller chances for Flushed Away and Over the Hedge.

The Results:  Indeed, Cars, Happy Feet and Monster House would contend for the Oscar.  Before the awards night, the awards would seem to take a turn towards Cars, with it winning the Annie, PGA, Globe and the BFCA while Happy Feet would be resting on its two early critics wins.

But on Oscar night, things would turn again, and in spite of the Disney marketing machine, Happy Feet would win the Oscar (and would eventually, weeks later, win the BAFTA).  Indeed, it would be another six years before there would be anywhere close to this much of a question on Oscar night as to what would win the Oscar.

The Films:  Just one year after the best group of nominees, we have one of the weakest.  This is the weakest of the years with only three nominees.  That may seem strange given that all three nominees make my own list of nominees, but it really hurts that there are no **** films.  The only other year without a Top 30 film is 2014 which is very similar in that none of the nominees are **** but all of them are ***.5.

Dance of the Penguins

Happy Feet

  • Director:  George Miller
  • Writer:  George Miller  /  John Collee
  • Producer:  George Miller  /  Dana Goldberg
  • Animation Studio:  Animal Logic
  • Distribution Studio:  Warner Bros
  • Stars:  Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Brittany Murphy
  • Oscar Nominations:  Animated Film
  • Oscar Points:  40
  • Length:  108 min
  • Genre:  Kids
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $198.00 mil  (#7  –  2006)
  • Release Date:  2006
  • Metacritic Score:  77
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #29  (year)  /  #35  (nominees)  /  #16  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Animated Film
  • Nighthawk Points:  20

The Film:  The Academy has a long history of getting it right and wrong at the same time.  By that, I mean they gave the Oscar to the best nominee but didn’t give it to the most deserving film because they hadn’t bothered to nominate that film.  It hasn’t been too common in the Best Animated Film category (three times in 16 years) but it has certainly happened and this would be the first time.  Getting it completely right would have meant awarding the Oscar to Flushed Away, but since they didn’t bother to nominate it, giving to Happy Feet was the next best thing.  At the end of the day, there wasn’t a lot of difference between the levels of quality of the two films (they are both high ***.5) and even if Flushed Away had won, it would have been the weakest winner to-date and one of the weakest winners in the history of the category just as Happy Feet is the weakest winner (through 2016 at least).

Happy Feet is some good entertainment but is it pretty light entertainment at that.  It’s the story of Mumbo, a young emperor penguin who lacks the ability to sing the heartsong that every penguin must sing because he was dropped as an egg by his father.  Instead, what he can do, is dance, in what is one of the most obvious metaphors in the history of film (what it’s a metaphor for can be just about anything that ever sets a child apart from his parents, whether it be talent, temperament, sexuality or anything else you can imagine).  In spite of winning the affection of Gloria, the young penguin he is attracted to, Mumble is exiled from the clan for his refusal to stop his dancing.  This leads to him hooking up with a group of Adelie penguins which has the benefit of giving Robin Williams an excuse to be in a movie that is mostly populated by non-American stars like Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman (though Elijah Wood is the lead).  Williams is Ramon, one of the Adelies and Lovelace, the rockhopper penguin that imparts some important (and incorrect) knowledge to them as well as being the narrator because, let’s face it, if you could get Robin Williams to be one of the voices in your animated movie, your goal was to use him as much as possible because he’s Robin Williams.

In the end Mumble will find happiness and the film will be a lot of goofy fun (with a whole lot of added running time padded out by a lot of different songs – I imagine the license for all those songs must have cost almost as much as the rest of the film) and you can predict all of that in the first few minutes of watching it.  It’s an animated Kids film about talking, singing and dancing penguins; did we really expect it to have a downer of an ending?  The joy is in getting there.  It’s not a great film but in this, by far the weakest of the years with only three nominees, there’s not much more that we could have expected.

Did your neighborhood not have a creepy house?

Monster House

  • Director:  Gil Kenan
  • Writer:  Dan Harmon  /  Rob Schrab  /  Pamela Pettler
  • Producer:  Jack Rapke  /  Steve Starkey
  • Animation Studio:  ImageMovers
  • Distribution Studio:  Columbia (Sony)
  • Stars:  Mitchel Musso, Sam Lerner, Spencer Locke
  • Oscar Nominations:  Animated Film
  • Oscar Points:  20
  • Length:  91 min
  • Genre:  Kids
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $73.66 mil  (#32  –  2006)
  • Release Date:  2006
  • Metacritic Score:  68
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #39  (year)  /  #45  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Animated Film
  • Nighthawk Points:  20

The Film:  Was there a creepy house in your neighborhood when you were growing up?  I don’t remember about Albany but in Orange there was.  It was this creepy house where everything out front looked overgrown and there was never any activity going in or out.  Given the quiet suburb we lived in, it was probably a house that somebody had moved out of and looking at it now on Google Maps, it clearly has owners who live there, though it is apparently the only house on the block that doesn’t have a lawn.  There wasn’t a cantankerous neighbor to deal with (the whole point was that it seemed deserted) although there were enough of those around and I steered away from it although my imagination filled it with all sorts of potentials (what my imagination brought to mind is best left unpublished).  It’s easy to see why it’s such a trope for people to deal with.  So why not make an animated film about a house that is literally haunted, in which the spirit of the woman who lived and died there has turned it into the kind of house that literally eats people?  It allows you to create some interesting images and it allows you to put kids at the heart of the film.

Kudos go to ImageMovers for not feeling like they needed to fill this film in with a bunch of big name actors in voice roles (the kind of thing that I criticize film series like Madagascar and Ice Age for).  They found three talented kids who could do the voices they needed and then filled in a couple of other roles with solid actors like Steve Buscemi, who is certainly one of the most appropriate voice castings of all-time as the grouchy old neighbor who just wants everyone to keep their damn things off his lawn.  After all, I can’t count how many times I had to leap a wall to get back a frisbee or soccer ball or whiffle ball or god knows what else.  I can understand how everyone gets tired of the neighborhood kids not being to keep their stuff off his lawn.  But I feel for the kids as well, who are just trying to play and have some fun, because they’re just kids after all.

Things take a dark turn when Buscemi has a heart attack (and apparently dies, though he’s not actually dead and he’ll be back for the conclusion, which is good because he needs to provide the explanation for what’s going on) and the house actually starts eating people.  Poor DJ and Chowder, two good friends, are rightfully afraid of the house, but the first actual victim is Bones, the obnoxious boyfriend of DJ’s babysitter (having DJ, who lives across the street, have parents who are out of town conveniently gets the parents who won’t believe what’s going on anyway out of the way).  When the boys really start to care is when the cute redheaded pigtailed girl from the private school who is selling candy ignores their warnings and is almost eaten by the house.  Now the three of them team up to fight the house.  That provides a lot of humor as Chowder will go in an instant from explaining all the reasons to walk away from the house to want to tackling the problem just because Jenny, the cute girl wants to.

Monster House isn’t a great film and if it had been released in 2005 it wouldn’t have stood a chance of making the top three.  But it’s a very good film, a low ***.5 and in a weak year, it’s an easy #2 in this category.  It’s got some really fun and clever animation (like how, what they think is the heart of the house turns out to be the uvula, prompting poor Chowder to say “Oh, so it’s a girl house”, which is true but not because of that).  It’s got some genuine chills and it is smart enough to let the kids be the heroes.  It gives some good lessons (like about how to treat your neighbors and that there might be reasons why the mean old man across the street is so mean) and it is definitely entertaining.

Pixar fills the coffers.

Cars

  • Director:  John Lassetter
  • Writer:  John Lassetter  /  Dan Fogelman  /  Joe Ranft  /  Kiel Murray  /  Phil Lorin  /  Jorgen Klubien
  • Producer:  Darla K. Anderson
  • Animation Studio:  Pixar
  • Distribution Studio:  Buena Vista (Disney)
  • Stars:  Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Larry the Cable Guy, Bonnie Hunt
  • Oscar Nominations:  Animated Film
  • Oscar Points:  20
  • Length:  116 min
  • Genre:  Kids
  • MPAA Rating:  G
  • Box Office Gross:  $244.08 mil  (#3  –  2006)
  • Release Date:  9 June 2006
  • Metacritic Score:  73
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #41  (year)  /  #46  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Animated Film
  • Nighthawk Points:  20

The Film:  In the latest issue of Atlantic there was an article about how Pixar was supposedly going artistically bankrupt.  The article focused on the high occurrence of sequels, used Finding Dory as an example (in spite of its huge critical success) and basically tried to write off Inside Out as an aberration.  It was a pretty poor article that didn’t support its thesis very well – the kind of thing that gets written when a writer has an agenda and then writes the article to justify it.  The article had a better point when they were talking about the new Cars film which, by the time this article posts, will have been released (and almost certainly prompted the article).  Now, I am not a particular fan of the original Cars, thought the second Cars was far and away the worst thing Pixar has ever done and don’t have high hopes for the third Cars film.  But I understand why the movies exist and here is why.  Think of Steven Soderbergh.  Think of how, in between making films like the Ocean’s films he would make films like Solaris or Full Frontal, films that weren’t going to make much money and might lose quite a bit of money.  The commercial ventures allowed for the more artistic ones.  Now, you might try to point out that the Cars movies are among the least successful Pixar films at the box office, but that’s where knowing someone at Pixar makes the difference in this argument.  My friend, Jay, who used to work at Pixar told me that the licensing from Cars has brought in more money to the company than anything else they’ve ever done.  Yes, they did the first film because Lassetter loves cars and really wanted to make a movie about talking cars.  But it was so wildly successful in forms other than box office totals that multiple sequels were almost guaranteed.  I would prefer Pixar to only make films that are amazing on an artistic level but I also understand that, when it comes down to it, that movies are in fact a business and sometimes you have to make choices that are best for the business.  So they bite the bullet and they make these films because it rakes in the dough.  Then they can turn around and continue to invest that money back into the company and make the better films.

Now, none of that is to say that the Cars films are great art.  This first Cars film just barely squeaks in with a 78, only a couple of points higher than the minimum required to make my list for the Nighthawk Awards.  It is a very good film, but just barely.  The reason for that you can probably guess though you might have been hard-pressed to guess it before the film came out and if you’ve never seen the film but only know who the voice actors are, you probably still wouldn’t be able to guess it.  That’s because Larry the Cable Guy is an annoying personality, a comedian whose schtick runs thin really fast.  He’s not particularly funny and as an actor he’s pretty much a waste.  But that’s not the case in Cars.

Larry, of course, plays Mater, the tow truck in the little town of Radiator Springs, the cutest little town in Carburetor County.  Mater is a simple guy, the kind of guy who thinks the cute Porsche in town is in love with him, who lets the prisoner loose without hooking him up to the trailer first, who goes out scaring tractors so that they tip over and then fleeing the second Frank, the terrifying thresher shows up.  But Mater is also the heart of the film, the guy who really believes in the town, who loves who he is, who is comfortable in his own body.  As is said at the end, when the main characters show up at the big race to help Lightning McQueen, the race car that has come to Radiator Springs to learn those big life lessons that are so often a part of Kids films (though usually Pixar is too good a studio to beat you over the head with them like in this one), it’s because Mater didn’t get to say goodbye (“Goodbye!” he yells in the middle of the race, “Okay, I’m good” and he is).

There are other good things about the film of course, from one of Paul Newman’s last film appearances as the voice of the classic Hudson Hornet to the way some real life sports personalities lend the proper authenticity to their roles (like Bob Costas) to the way this little town is lovingly crafted by the creators at Pixar.  Sadly, that is counter-balanced by some of the other things, like a script that beats you over the head, a lead performance from Owen Wilson that is guaranteed to annoy because that’s what he does and a central concept that falls apart the second you actually think about it (yes, Lassetter wanted a movie about talking cars buts how are they made? – the metaphysics of the film are just ridiculous beyond belief).  But it works because there is Mater, that lovable tow-truck who was so popular that he get own his series of short spin-offs.

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