“I was hiding under your porch because I love you.” My favorite film dog of all-time.

The 82nd Academy Awards for the film year of 2009.  The nomination were announced on 2 February 2010 and the awards were held on 7 March 2010.

Best Animated Film:  Up

  • Coraline
  • The Fantastic Mr. Fox
  • The Secret of Kells
  • The Princess and the Frog

Most Surprising Omission:  Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Ponyo

Rank (out of 16) Among Best Animated Film Years:  #8

Oscar Score:  87.5

Alternate Oscar Score:  97.2

non-nominated Oscar-Eligible Films (alphabetical):

  • Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel
  • Astro Boy
  • Battle for Terra
  • Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
  • A Christmas Carol
  • The Dolphin – Story of a Dreamer
  • Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
  • Mary and Max
  • The Missing Lynx
  • Monsters vs. Aliens
  • 9
  • Planet 51
  • Ponyo
  • Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure
  • A Town Called Panic

The Complete List of Animated Films I Have Seen from 2009 (ranked, with stars, director, studio):

  1. Up  (****, Docter, Disney (Pixar))
  2. Coraline  (****, Zelick, Focus Features (Laika))
  3. Fantastic Mr. Fox  (***.5, Anderson, 20th Century-Fox)
  4. Ponyo  (***.5, Miyazaki, Disney (Ghibli))
  5. A Town Called Panic  (***, Aubier / Patar, Zeitgeist Films)
  6. The Secret of Kells  (***, Moore, GKIDS)
  7. The Princess and the Frog  (***, Clements / Butler, Disney)
  8. A Christmas Carol  (***, Zemeckis, Disney)
  9. Astro Boy  (***, Bowers, Summit Entertainment)
  10. Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure  (***, Hall, Disney)
  11. Evangelion 1.0  (***, Anno, Eleven Arts)
  12. Mary and Max  (***, Elliot, IFC Films)
  13. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs  (**.5, Lord / Miller, Sony)
  14. 9  (**.5, Acker, Focus Features)
  15. Planet 51  (**.5, Blanco, Sony)
  16. Monsters vs. Aliens  (**.5, Letterman / Vernon, Paramount (DreamWorks))
  17. Battle for Terra  (**, Tsiribis, Roadside Attractions)
  18. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs  (**, Saldanha, 20th Century-Fox (Blue Sky))
  19. The Missing Lynx  (**, Sicilia, Aurum)
  20. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel  (**, Thomas, 20th Century-Fox)
  21. The Dolphin – Story of a Dreamer  (*.5, Schuldt, 20th Century-Fox)

Consensus Awards:

  1. Up  (324 pts – Oscar, Annie, PGA, Globe, BAFTA, BFCA, NBR, BSFC, CFC)
  2. Fantastic Mr. Fox  (192 pts  –  Oscar, Annie, PGA, Globe, BAFTA, BFCA, NYFC, LAFC)
  3. Coraline  (112 pts  –  Oscar, Annie, PGA, Globe, BAFTA, BFCA)
  4. Princess and the Frog  (92 pts  –  Oscar, Annie, PGA, Globe, BFCA)
  5. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs  (52 pts  –  Oscar, Globe, BFCA)
  6. The Secret of Kells  (40 pts  –  Oscar, Annie)
  7. 9  (20 pts  –  PGA)

note:  Coraline becomes the first film to ever go 0 for 6, earning nominations from every awards group but winning no awards.

The Race:  The race begins in February when the new animation company, Laika, releases (through Focus Features) their first feature film: an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s wonderful children’s novel Coraline.  The critics are strongly behind it and the box office is solid, though it is soon eclipsed at the box office by DreamWorks’ Monsters vs. Aliens which lacks Coraline‘s critical acclaim.  But, the race ends just a couple of months after that with the release of Up.  Not only is it the clear critical winner of the year, it makes almost $100 million more than any other animated film in the year and as the Oscars announce their new expanded Best Picture plans it becomes clear that it’s a very likely nominee for Best Picture.

Just like with Wall-E, everything else seems like an anti-climax.  Yes, Blue Sky (the new Ice Age), Sony Animation (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) and Disney (Robert Zemeckis making his third-go at rotoscoping with A Christmas Carol) are all solid box office hits but none of them have much critical acclaim.  That’s saved for Wes Anderson’s stop-motion version of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox which comes out just before Thanksgiving and makes less in its entire theatrical run than any of the former three make in their opening weekends.

With an announced list of 20 eligible films, it means the Academy, for just the second time will actually have a slate of five nominees.  Three of the spots are clearly locked up with Up (which takes three of the four critics groups and earns nomination from all six awards groups), Fox (the other two critics awards, all six award nominations) and Coraline (all six groups as well).  The fourth slot is almost certainly going to Princess and the Frog, Disney’s return to hand-drawn animation which earns solid reviews and box office and earns five nominations (missing out on the BAFTAs which only nominate three films).

That leaves one final spot.  The contenders are Cloudy (Annie, Globe, BFCA noms, by far the best box office of the contenders), Shane Acker’s bizarre 9 (mixed reviews but the fifth PGA nominee) and The Secret of Kells, an Irish-Belgian co-production that had earned the final Annie nomination and was just the second film from GKIDS, a new American distribution company focusing on critically acclaimed international films (but wouldn’t actually get a domestic release until March of 2010, after the Oscars themselves).

The Results:  There was never really any question about this.  Up was the clear winner, long before the nominations were even announced and it was absolutely no surprise that it won the Oscar.  Indeed, with the new expanded Best Picture lineup, it became just the second Animated Film to earn a Best Picture nomination, earning five nominations in all, including Best Original Screenplay (just like three of the previous four Pixar films) and even winning Best Original Score.  The other nominees weren’t so surprising either, with Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Princess and the Frog reaping their expected bids and The Secret of Kells overcoming the more successful Cloudy.

The Films:  It’s only the second year that there were five nominees in the category and it’s the wrong year.  I say that because there are only four films worthy of nomination in my opinion while the next year will have five but will only have three available slots.
Focus Features releases its first two animated films.  One of them, 9, is actually a Focus production and its the exception, as every other animated film Focus has released up through 2017 has been a Laika production like Coraline.  Fox releases four films, twice as many as any previous year, but setting the stage for a more prolific decade ahead.  For the first time since 1995, Warner Bros does not release a feature length animated film.  Disney, on the other hand, releases five, tied with 2003 for its most ever (later again tied in 2012).

Pixar makes it into the Best Picture race.

Up

  • Director:  Pete Docter
  • Writer:  Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, Tom McCarthy
  • Producer:  Jonas Rivera
  • Animation Studio:  Pixar
  • Distribution Studio:  Disney
  • Stars:  Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, Bob Peterson
  • Oscar Nominations:  Animated Film, Picture, Original Screenplay, Original Score, Sound Editing
  • Oscar Points:  200
  • Length:  96 min
  • Genre:  Kids
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $293.00 mil  (#5  –  2009)
  • Release Date:  29 May 2009
  • Metacritic Score:  88
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #4  (nominees)  /  #4  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Animated Film, Picture, Original Screenplay, Editing, Original Score
  • Nighthawk Points:  205

The Film:  My initial plan had been to write another review of the film.  After all, I had already reviewed it once as a Best Picture nominee of 2009.  I knew I had written about how touching that opening 10 minute sequence is, almost a short film in and of itself, a beautiful love story that encompasses all of the things that happen in love, from mystery to passion to hope to heartbreak to an emptiness that can not be filled once it is gone.  You may find other things, like what happens to poor Carl Frederickson when he discovers a measure of parenthood long after he thought he had given up on it, but it does not replace what you have lost.  But I not only wrote about that, but about the other things in the film, from the masterful use of color throughout the film to one of Pixar’s greatest creations, Dug.

But there is one thing that I didn’t discuss in my first review at that is the music.  This is, as I mentioned in that review, the 10th film from Pixar.  It would be the seventh of their films to earn a nomination for its score (the first two coming in the short-lived Comedy Score category).  It would be the first to win.  It might not be my #1 Pixar score (that crown is contended by, surprisingly not any of the great Newman family scores but by two other Michael Giacchino scores: Ratatouille and Inside Out) but in this year, there’s no question to me that it is the winner.  What the music does, just in that opening 10 minute sequence is part of what brings those tears so quickly to your eyes.  Giacchino has emerged in the last decade as one of the best composers working today and he’s got a lot of awards ahead of him.  It’s nice that the Academy recognized his work here.

Well, hello there Laika. Glad to meet you and your wonderful films.

Coraline

  • Director:  Henry Selick
  • Writer:  Henry Selick
  • Producer:  Henry Selick, Claire Jennings, Bill Mechanic, Mary Sandell
  • Animation Studio:  Laika
  • Distribution Studio:  Focus Features
  • Stars:  Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman, Ian McShane
  • Oscar Nominations:  Animated Film
  • Oscar Points:  20
  • Length:  100 min
  • Genre:  Kids
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $75.28 mil  (#43  –  2009)
  • Release Date:  6 February 2009
  • Metacritic Score:  80
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #14  (year)  /  #21  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Animated Film, Original Song (“The Other Father Song”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  30

The Film:  Veronica and I met at the Barnes & Noble at Tanasbourne just off 185th Ave in Beaverton.  It’s a few blocks away from Laika (which didn’t exist then), the company that would take a book we both loved from an author we absolutely adore (with music from a band that we have seen multiple times) and turn it into a wonderful feature film.  Perhaps it was somehow meant to be made for us.  It’s a book that we each read when it was first released and that Veronica would later read to Thomas.  It proved that Gaiman was viable on-screen (I am a fan of the film version of Stardust but it didn’t prove that to most people) and that Laika was a studio that was going to be producing some very interesting work.

Coraline is a girl stuck, like Dorothy or Lucy, in a dreary world that she has just moved to.  Her parents ignore her or ask her to go away while they toil on their gardening writing while never daring to set foot outside in the mud.  She is being stalked, for want of a better word (and it’s the word she insists upon) by her new neighbor, a gangly red-headed boy who talks entirely too much.  She’s living in a building that also has two retired women who can’t get her name right and a bizarre Russian who seems to be training mice in a circus.  But, also like Dorothy, or more precisely, much more like Lucy, Coraline discovers a gateway to another world, a world in which things are similar but not quite the same.

In that world is her Other Mother and Other Father.  They don’t ignore her.  They lavish her with attention and feed her succulent meals.  They even provide her with a simulacrum neighbor who doesn’t have the ability to talk.  She feels so wonderful and loved there, she’s not sure she wants to go back to the real world.  At least, until she discovers that to stay in the other world she needs to have buttons sewn onto her eyes.

Gaiman, even in his books aimed towards children, doesn’t skimp on the terror that life can bring.  In The Graveyard Book, which is possibly an even better book than Coraline, we begin with the cold blooded murder of an entire family.  Here, there is the sheer terror of those button eyes.  All of this is brought to life by Henry Selick, who isn’t well known outside of the film world but whose stop-motion work had already brought to life the amazing Nightmare Before Christmas (he was the actual director of the film while Tim Burton was the creator and producer).  Like so many worlds behind a door, this one is filled with amazing color (with an incredible garden) and other treats, like the wonderful “Other Father Song”, where, if you have a sharp ear and know the voices, you can listen as John Hodgman suddenly gets supplanted by John Linnell.

Coraline is not only a great film, not only a wonderful adventure, not only a visual treat for the eyes, but was also the first offering from a studio that has continued to delight.  Laika has made four feature films so far and each one has managed an Oscar nomination.  Not even Pixar can claim that level of success.

It’s cussing good.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

  • Director:  Wes Anderson
  • Writer:  Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach
  • Producer:  Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Allison Abbate, Jeremy Dawson
  • Animation Studio:  20th Century-Fox Animation
  • Distribution Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Michael Gambon
  • Oscar Nominations:  Animated Film, Original Score
  • Oscar Points:  45
  • Length:  87 min
  • Genre:  Kids
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $21.00 mil  (#107  –  2009)
  • Release Date:  13 November 2009
  • Metacritic Score:  83
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #18  (year)  /  #30  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Animated Film, Original Song (“Petey’s Song”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  30

The Film:  My first Wes Anderson film was Rushmore, a film I waited for months to come out in Portland and I loved it.  Then came The Royal Tenanbaums which I loved even more.  By 2009,  I had caught up with Bottle Rocket (solid) seen Life Aquatic (liked a lot more than most) and The Darjeeling Limited (loved it).  So, when Fantastic Mr. Fox was coming out and it seemed that Anderson was expanding his horizons a bit, moving into stop-motion animation, I was ready for it, especially since I have all the Dahl books.  Because this was 2009, a year when I changed jobs and we changed apartments, I had to wait until it was available on video and I was, I must admit, kind of under-whelmed.

Yes, it had a very nice score (#7 at the Nighthawk Awards and earning an Oscar nomination) and it had George Clooney, who, after years of working with the Coens, seemed well-suited to transition over to Anderson’s style of whimsy.  But there seemed to be something missing.  It all seemed too easy and too slight.  So I gave it a high *** and let it go at that.  But, before moving on to my 2009 Nighthawk Awards, I decided it was a film that I needed to revisit, so I got it from the library and watched it again.  This time it won me over much more and it made the leap up into a high ***.5 which made it eligible for my Best Animated Film award at the Nighthawks.  Watching it yet again, this time with Veronica and Thomas so that I could write this review, it won me over even more.  So I wonder if this review had come later, after yet another viewing, if the film would move even closer to ****.  I suspect not.  I think I have got the film where it belongs, as a high ***.5, a bit of sustained whimsy that works for a variety of reasons but can’t quite make the leap into the realm of being a great film.

If the film feels slight that’s because it’s actually expanded from the original Dahl novel which is even slighter.  It’s a good book and a nice one for kids but it’s not one of his best books, not the kind of complete story like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach or Danny Champion of the World (I know there’s a television version but someone really needs to make a feature film of this book).  But, in the story of a sly fox who manages to keep tricking the mean local farmers (even though they manage to blow his tail off), we get a lot of fun and it’s perfectly suited, not just for animation, but specifically for stop-motion animation.  Look at the way the fur on the animals move every time we see them.  That’s the result of the animators having touched the clay but it works perfectly for animals outdoors.  If the quality of animation can have a huge effect on a film (see the reviews below), than the work on this film is part of its charm (along with the music, of course and I’m not just talking about the score but the way that Anderson brings in pre-existing music, which he does better than any director outside of Martin Scorsese).

That this film works, is partially because of the fun aspects of the original Dahl story (the fox who steals from the farmers), the way that Clooney brings the character to life (a rather perfect character for Clooney), the great work from the other voice actors (my favorite is Wally Wolodarsky as Kylie the opossum) and the feel of the characters.  This film is one you can keep going back to and still finding something new.  It’s one cuss of a film.

If you can make your way through the animation you might find something interesting.

The Secret of Kells

  • Director:  Tomm Moore  /  Nora Twomey
  • Writer:  Fabrice Ziolkowski, Tomm Moore
  • Producer:  Paul Young, Dider Brunner, Vivian Van Fleteren
  • Animation Studio:  Cartoon Saloon
  • Distribution Studio:  GKIDS
  • Stars:  Evan McGuire, Brendan Gleeson
  • Oscar Nominations:  Animated Film
  • Oscar Points:  20
  • Length:  75 min
  • Genre:  Kids
  • MPAA Rating:  Unrated
  • Box Office Gross:  $.67 mil  (#209  –  2010)
  • Release Date:  5 March 2010
  • Metacritic Score:  81
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #61  (year)  /  #51  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Points:  none

The Film:  For me, in many ways, The Secret of Kells is the opposite of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, another film that would earn an Oscar nomination a few years later.  Kaguya has a story that is really light and that you forget about quickly enough but has animation so incredible and beautiful that it makes you gasp.  The Secret of Kells has a fascinating (if confusing) story that involves Celtic mythology and it does a fascinating job in telling the story but it has animation that turns me off so successfully that I find it hard to even concentrate on the story because of what I’m seeing on screen.  Both films cut to the heart of the question of how the quality (or your taste) of the animation factors into how good the film is.  It reminds me of the differences I have long pointed out between Kevin Smith films (with a shoddy look to them but full of unsuspected depths) and Tim Burton films (often shallow and not much below the surface, but what a surface) except that in animation it becomes more of a focus and can be more of a problem.  As a comic book reader of more than 30 years, this question has come up before because I’m more likely to read the drivel Frank Miller puts in All-Star Batman and Robin simply because of Jim Lee’s art rather than anything, no matter the writer, if it has art by Jae Lee.

The Secret of Kells has some amazing music and a fascinating story about a young boy named Brendan and The Book of Kells which must be protected.  Maybe.  I could give you a full description but there is so much plot that I would have to write a lot to fill you in and I would have to look it up because I find myself having such a hard time watching the film.  I will not lie here.  I am ill-suited to review this film.  I watched it when it first came out on video (it, after all, was from 2009, the year where I only managed to see three films in the theater) and found it kind of fascinating but got bogged down in everything that was going on at the same time that I was trying to ignore what I was seeing on the screen.  I saw it again about a week ago and I’m still trying to process in my mind what was going on because it really is so dense.

The best I can come up with is this.  There is a fascinating story in this film which can make for a good adventure story for kids and it has some very good music.  If you are okay with the style of animation in the film, then you might really discover a hidden gem (yes, hidden, in spite of the Oscar nomination).  But, if you’re like me, you’ll settle for putting it at a high *** and leave it at that, a little too low to be in the running for Best Animated Film.

The not-quite Disney magic that earns a nomination that the Disney magic of the next year won’t.

The Princess and the Frog

  • Director:  Ron Clements  /  John Musker
  • Writer:  7 credited writers with two different sources
  • Producer:  Peter Del Vecho, John Lasseter
  • Animation Studio:  Disney
  • Distribution Studio:  Disney
  • Stars:  Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Michael Leon-Wooley, Keith David
  • Oscar Nominations:  Animated Film, Original Song (“Almost There”), Original Song (“Down in New Orleans”)
  • Oscar Points:  40
  • Length:  95 min
  • Genre:  Kids
  • MPAA Rating:  G
  • Box Office Gross:  $104.40 mil  (#32  –  2009)
  • Release Date:  25 November 2009
  • Metacritic Score:  73
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #63  (year)  /  #52  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Points:  none

The Film:  What is magic?  How does it happen?  How can we define it?  This is not a bridge to discussing the plot of The Princess and the Frog which does involve magic, as a sorcerer transforms a a European prince into a frog and then, when a beautiful young woman from New Orleans gives him the kiss to free him of the enchantment, she is similarly transformed.  What it is, is a way to approach this film which, with traditional animation, a slough of new Randy Newman songs and an engaging character as a star (not technically a princess) should have been Disney’s return to the days of the Disney Renaissance but somehow never quite manages to rise above high ***.  It’s because, in spite of the animation, the characters, the music, the magic never really quite strikes in this film.  It’s a charming film and a good one and certainly a far cry over most of what Disney had produced in this lackluster decade (with the notable exception of Lilo & Stitch) but it’s nowhere near a classic.

Is the problem with the story?  It would seem the most obvious place to start.  We start with two young girls, one blonde (Charlotte), one dark-skinned (Tiana), who grow up together as good friends, with Charlotte being rich and Tianae becoming a fantastic chef who just wants to own her own restaurant.  Thanks to complicated plot shenanigans, a young European prince arrives, hoping to marry the blonde, but gets turned into a frog, kisses Tiana when he mistakes her for a princess (because she’s at Charlotte’s costumed ball), but that turns Tiana into a frog herself and then the voodoo sorcerer is after both of them while also trying to get the prince’s valet, who looks like the prince, to marry Charlotte so the sorcerer, you know what, it’s a complicated plot and if you haven’t seen the film, then maybe you should just read the plot description on Wikipedia.  The point is that this film actually has too much plot (unlike Frozen, which had too little plot and actually needed a couple of more songs at the end of the film) and I haven’t even mentioned the animal sidekick that almost steals the show.  He’s an alligator, named Louis, after Louis Armstrong, because he wants to be human and play in a jazz band.

That can bring me back to the music.  There are several songs in this film and they’re all written by Randy Newman, who had basically been the Pixar house composer for over a decade by this point and finally got to write a whole lot of songs for a film (whereas Pixar films rarely have more than one or two).  The problem is that the songs, while good, aren’t great.  The Oscars nominated two of them but none of them land at higher than seventh on my own list.  They’re kind of a metaphor for the film as a whole.  It’s good and if it comes on, there’s no reason to change the channel (especially since the animation is glorious to look at, a nice change from The Secret of Kells) but there’s nothing about it that would make me want to specifically seek it out.

Disney had been wandering in the wilderness for a while at this point.  This was the fifth film produced in-house (as opposed to the Pixar films) to earn an Oscar nomination and they had yet to win one (and three of them had not remotely deserved their nominations while this one wasn’t a bad choice, just not one I would have made).  But, this was a return to the glorious animation (and better songs) that they had made in the older days and it was, thankfully, a sign of things to come.  It would be another three years (because of the unfortunate situation in 2010) before Disney would receive another nomination, but that would start a stretch of five nominations and three Oscars in five years.  This might not reach the heights of later films like Tangled, Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia or Moana but this is definitely where the upswing begins.