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Oscar Nominees Reviewed: Best Animated Feature Finds Guillermo Del Toro Serving as the Master of Puppets

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It is hard to believe that the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature dates only to this century, but then again it took the Oscars over 60 years to nominate an animated film — Beauty and the Beast — for Best Picture. Since then, Disney/Pixar films have dominated the landscape, with DreamWorks snatching an Oscar here and there.

Indeed, in the only 20+ years of the category’s existence, several men have already won multiple times, including Pete Docter (Soul, Inside Out, Up). Only Hayao Miyazaki‘s masterpiece Spirited Away has broken the mold of what has become a series of predictable albeit deserving winners.

At the forefront of this year’s Oscar race is a fantastical adaptation of the children’s classic Pinocchio from master filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who also happens to be an Academy darling. Most of the nominated features are more traditional animated fare, though A24’s Marcel the Shell With Shoes On surely stands out as well.

Read on for our capsule reviews of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature followed by a quick handicap of their Oscar chances:

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio – After a somewhat disappointing adaptation of Nightmare Alley, the Oscar-winning director is back with an adaptation of the classic Italian novel Pinocchio, in which carpenter Geppetto (David Bradley) loses his real-life son in a bomb explosion during World War I. He creates a puppet named Pinocchio (Gregory Mann), and once the puppet comes to life, Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) guides him through a series of travails featuring characters that either amalgamate or expand upon those in Carlo Collodi‘s original tale.

Naturally, del Toro’s take on the material is darker than most Disney adaptations of this classic story, and it also makes Benito Mussolini the overarching villain as Italy descends into fascism in the 1930s. In keeping with del Toro’s work, the below-the-line elements are strong here, such as Alexandre Desplat‘s beautiful score and the incredibly animated cinematography from Frank Passingham in the renditions of the Italian countryside. The animated sprites provide del Toro with the most obvious outlet for his darker creative energies, and they evoke monsters we’ve seen before in his past work. However, like some of his past films, the weak link here is the predictable story, which takes a backseat to the film’s gorgeous animation.

Pinocchio encounters a series of temptations and bad guys throughout his adventures, but the fascist cartoon villains are far less interesting in this Netflix version than they were in Pan’s Labyrinth, the live-action Spanish tale that really put del Toro on the map. In the end, it’s hard to deny the stunning animation and the creativity of del Toro’s vision, even though this darker spin on the Pinocchio story feels more like an excuse to say, “see, cartoons can be for adults” than the product of a real story that he was itching to tell.

Grade: B+

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On –With director Dean Fleischer-Camp, Jenny Slate adapted her own short stories into a feature film about the beloved anthropomorphic shell who lives with his grandmother, Nana Connie. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On first tugged on audience heartstrings way back during the 2021 Telluride Film Festival, and an A24 release last summer cemented it as a critical darling. The film, which also features 60 Minutes anchor Leslie Stahl and the incredible voice talent of Isabella Rosellini, is a quiet, touching, and even unassuming story about family and loss, as well as kindness and curiosity.

Marcel finds himself left behind in a home whose owners used to fight a lot and has now become an Airbnb rental. Desperate to find his family, he produces a video that becomes a YouTube sensation before 60 Minutes comes calling. Sprinkled in between his search are cute vignettes of the shell ambling about the empty house with his slow-walking grandmother, and interviews where he candidly expresses his views as to why love and family matter most.

Marcel wins points for being different — the animation is mostly stop motion set against live-action backdrops — and being sweet, but it’s not quite an animated breakthrough in the way that other films of this nature have been, or at least aspire to.

Grade: B+

Puss in Boots The Last Wish
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish image via DreamWorks Animation

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish – It’s hard to believe that the Shrek franchise is still alive and kicking with this sequel to the 2011 film Puss in Boots courtesy of director Joel Crawford. In this sequel, the eponymous swashbuckling cat (voiced by Antonio Banderas) finds himself living his ninth and final life while facing off against a band of criminals — Goldilocks and the Three Bears (voiced by an amusing Florence Pugh, Olivia Colman, and Ray Winstone as well as Samson Kayo). At his side once more are Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and Perrito (Harvey Guillen), though this time around, Puss finds himself in a foreign realm where he encounters a mysterious figure who could hold the answer to his “last life” dilemma.

Though the film starts out strong, the tedious middle proves to be a fairly straightforward and even repetitive adventure that fails to justify its existence beyond box office spoils. The story simply draws too much from past entries in the Shrek universe and copies rather than builds upon Spaghetti Westerns, and there are times when its painterly style of animation seems ripped off from rather than merely inspired by Into the Spider-Verse.

Interestingly enough, the film that spanned it all, Shrek, won the first-ever Oscar for Best Animated Feature, but it is hard to understand why this franchise continues 20 years later, or why the Academy felt it had to recognize its latest entry this year, given some of the films that were left off list.

Grade: C+

The Sea Beast – Director Chris Williams (Moana, Big Hero 6) joins Netflix’s animation studio with this Moby Dick-esque story about a sailor and a sassy young girl who find themselves at odds with humankind when they seek to avenge the honor of a series of beasts with whom humans are in a war to the death. Featuring the voice talent of Karl Urban as Jacob Holland and Zaris-Angel Hator as little Maisie Brumble, The Sea Beast tells a story about people fighting to fit in and prove their worth. The animation is beautiful, particularly when it focuses on the large lizard and whale-like creatures that are at the heart of its tale.

Still, this film doesn’t quite measure up to last year’s Netflix nominee The Mitchells vs. the Machines. That film did what most successful animated movies do — it told a compelling story with a solid twist and a strong emotional core. As beautiful as its colorful visuals are, The Sea Beast, by contrast, feels predictable from the get-go, and its socially-conscious message of acceptance often feels forced and insincere. While it is clear that Netflix is still trying to find its sea legs in the high-stakes world of animation, The Sea Beast represents a small but not terribly significant step in the right direction.

Grade: B

Turning Red – Disney’s Pixar offering of the year was a sweet coming-of-age story about Mei, a Chinese-American girl voiced by Rosaline Chiang, who discovers that the women in her family have a mysterious spirit that guides them through certain emotional moments in their lives. But Mei’s strict and overprotective mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), wishes away the spirit as something unadaptable to her own assimilation goals.

Directed by Domee Shi, a Chinese-American director who has worked for years as a storyboard artist on Disney films and makes her feature debut here, Turning Red offers another successful dive into non-traditional cultural norms, which Pixar has become particularly adept at delivering. The film is ultimately both interesting and illuminating to those within and outside the culture at the core of the story, even if the coming-of-age elements give obvious goalposts that it will follow.

A highly entertaining climatic sequence and Ludwig Goransson‘s vibrant score make this film one of the most exciting animated features of the year, and a movie that surely would have done much better had Disney not decided to make it almost exclusively a Disney+ release.

Grade: B+

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio image via Netflix

Oscar Handicap: This race is not a difficult one to handicap ahead of Oscar night. If Barack Obama was the master political campaigner, Guillermo del Toro is a master Oscar one, receiving accolades for even some of his most questionable work like Nightmare Alley last year. The Oscars are, at their core, a popularity contest, and few remain as likable as this member of the “Three Amigos” band of Mexican directors that have for a while taken Hollywood by storm. And the studio that sponsored him, Netflix, took no chances, ensuring that the name of the auteur is right there in the title so that all voters are well aware of who is behind this nomination. Lest there remain any doubt, Pinocchio has taken home all major prizes awarded so far, including the Globes, Critics Choice, and BAFTA for Best Animated Feature film. At the time of this writing, the Producers Guild Awards and Annie Awards were set to seal the deal for the Netflix studio, and only a loss there later tonight could upset the apple cart. Meanwhile, Netflix, which has broken through in other major categories including International Feature Film and Documentary Feature (but not yet Best Picture), looks to complete the trifecta with this prize, even if its own in-house products will have to wait another year to show that they are legitimate contenders in this space.

Sure, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On has been a critical darling since 2021, and yes, Pinocchio did not break through in other categories it could have shown strength in like Original Song and Score. Despite that, there is nothing to indicate that any other film has even a crying chance against the past Oscar winner, who will add a third category to his Oscar collection after receiving Best Director and Best Picture statuettes for The Shape of Water.

Will Win: Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Could Win: Marcel the Shell With Shoes On

Should Have Been Nominated: Wendell & Wild

The 95th Academy Awards will be held on March 12. Click here for a full list of this year’s Oscar nominees.

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