The Best Animated Feature Oscar Just Grew Up a Little

On Sunday March 10th, 2024, Mayao Miyazaki's "The Boy and the Heron" won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. In what turned out to be a nail-biting race between the more widely seen (and just as equally acclaimed) "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse," Miyazaki's (potentially) final film triumphed in the end. Neither he nor producer Toshio Suzuki was there to collect the award, and the average viewer may have just shrugged at a movie they likely have not heard of. For those who have been critical of the Best Animated Feature award for years, this win was not only historic, it was also a step in the category growing up.

"Flowers and Trees" was the first winner of the award that would come to be known as Best Animated Short Film. Available to view on Disney+.

To understand why, we need to take a history lesson. At the 5th Annual Academy Awards, an award titled 'Short Subjects, Cartoon' was introduced in the lineup, to honor the achievements of animated short films. While it was a great addition to the ceremony, the voting members of the branch were all animators who worked for their respective studios. As a result, the entire 30s of this award's existence went to one man: Walt Disney. What's more, Walt Disney would be competing with Walt Disney all these years (at the 11th Annual Academy Awards, Disney was given four of the five nomination slots).

Walt Disney with a few of his many accolades.

The following decade wouldn't be much better, with several years of Tom & Jerry shorts winning the award (when Disney didn't). In fact, for the next couple of decades, the award would go to Mr. Magoo, Looney Tunes cartoons, and the occasional Walt Disney production.  While many of these shorts are considered animated classics by today's standards, you have to understand that there was a portion of the public who didn't like these shorts very much. You can debate whether this is a rational thought process or not. Still, much like there are a portion of people who simply don't like superhero movies, musicals, or westerns, there are people who don't like the Disney or Merry Melodies style of humor.

The fact that the shorts were all universally suitable for family viewing when the live-action short films were tackling more adult themes did not help the category with having the reputation of being "The Kids Category" (history would retroactively claim these shorts were made for kids when they started airing them on Saturday morning cartoon blocks in the mid-sixties). In 1959 at the 32nd Academy Awards, something strange happened: the studios were passed over for the award, and it was given to an independently produced short film for the first time. The short in question was called "Moonbird" and was directed by John Hubly, who also produced the short with his wife Faith Hubly.

"Moonbird," winner of the Academy Award for Best Short Subjects (Cartoon)

The short was produced after the husband and wife realized that their sons went on imaginary adventures to help themselves fall asleep at night. They secretly recorded one of these adventures and then went about putting animation to the recordings. While it was up against a classic Speedy Gonzales cartoon and one of Walt Disney's rare forays into stop motion animation ("Noah's Arc"), "Moonbird" caught the Academy voter's attention, and thus gave the award to a short film that was neither funded by big studio money nor was it something made for family viewing. While kids could watch it in theory, the abstract images were far more likely to appeal to older viewers who appreciated abstract art and paintings.

It was the first step to Best Animated Short Film "growing up," and being seen as a category that could reward daring and adult fare as well as family-friendly films. What followed was a whole decade of more interesting fare being given the Oscar as opposed to studio shorts. Granted, many studios started getting out of the shorts business around this time (something that is VERY unlikely to happen with feature films), but there were still enough of them out there to show that the Academy had realized that the game had been upped and that a more mature form of storytelling could be told in animation.

Now, let's fast forward to 1991, when Disney turned around their animation division, and not only started receiving nominations in the Best Animated Short category again, they managed to produce the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture: "Beauty & the Beast." What should have been the start of animation being taken seriously by the Academy fell by the wayside, as many critically acclaimed animated films - "The Lion King," "Toy Story," "The Iron Giant, and "The Prince of Egypt" - were routinely ignored in the top categories by the Academy despite the critical praise and box office success. When Aardman's wildly successful "Chicken Run" was snubbed by the Academy for Best Picture, it was decided that there was enough high-quality animation to create a new category: Best Animated Feature.

The History of Animation at the Oscars

The first winner of this award was DreamWorks "Shrek," a fitting beginning as it was a film that was more adult in nature than most other animated features, but it still had a fun quality that kids could enjoy as well. The following year Studio Ghibli's "Spirited Away" (directed by animation legend Hayao Miyazaki) won the award, and the category was doing its job to award artful animated features that could continue to be enjoyed by adults. Then, Pixar had a winning streak. "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles," "Up," "Toy Story 3," "Ratatouille," and "WALL-E" all won within the next decade (with a break for "Happy Feet" and "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" to win in there). Not only were Disney and Pixar dominating the animation award like they did with Best Animated Short Film in the first decade of that award, but all of these movies were family-friendly.

Yes, you could argue that movies like "WALL-E" and "Up" were adult films that kids could enjoy, but Pixar's dominance (along with other family-friendly fare) was creating the same problem that Best Animated Short Film had in its first two decades. After Nickelodeon won for the surprisingly mature  "Rango," Disney and Pixar went back on their winning streak with "Brave," "Frozen,"  "Big Hero 6," "Inside Out," "Zootopia," "Coco," "Soul," "Toy Story 4," and "Encanto." While a couple of these were deserved winners, Best Animated Feature started to gain a reputation as being a kid's award, and the Academy did not help matters when they put on a disastrous stint where actresses who played live-action versions of Disney princesses belittled animated films as "something kids enjoy and adults tolerate."

Filmmakers like Phil Lord and Guillermo del Toro were highly critical of this presentation for Best Animated Feature Film.

Though the award's reputation had been sinking for years, it was this moment that shed light on a problem: Disney practically owned this category and the Academy knew it. They knew it so much that they put on this horrible presentation that was a middle finger to the animation community and still gave the award to a Disney film! It's not like there weren't better non-Disney films to award: "Song of the Sea," "The Wind Rises," "How to Train Your Dragon," "Persopolis," and Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" were all nominated (not mention quality animated films that were snubbed like "The Polar Express" and "Your Name"). Some were starting to wonder if the category should just be discontinued altogether. With Disney having an iron grip on it and most Academy members admitting they let their kids check off the boxes, what was the point of it anymore?

"Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio" wins Best Animated Feature Film.

Then, last year, a glimmer of hope emerged: "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio" from Netflix won. The movie was a huge critical hit and was even rumored that it could receive a nomination for Best Picture. Spoiler alert: it didn't. However, this mostly adult adaptation of a book that has largely been mistaken as a kid's book (thanks largely to Disney's classic adaptation) won the Academy over and was given the prize. When taking the stage, del Tor stressed that animation was not a genre, it was cinema, and that his movie was a movie that was "for adults...but kids could watch it too." If "Encanto" (which must be pointed out is a good movie) was the lowest point of the award being taken seriously, then "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio" was the biggest course correction the category had seen (as well as from the Academy, who's presentation of the award was much more respectful this year).

It was this year, however, that the Academy may have taken its first real step in having this category grow up a bit. The nominations for Best Animated Feature this year were diverse and a clear winner was not obvious. Pixar and Disney were back in the race with "Elemental," a personal immigration story from Peter Sohn, that was considered a return to form for Pixar. "Robot Dreams," a 2D silent film that was animated on a low budget. "Nimona," an LGBTQ+ film that was saved by Netflix. "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse," the sequel to the Oscar-winning "Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse." Then you had "The Boy and the Heron," Hayao Miyazaki's final film where he meditates on life, death, and legacy.

Common sense would have led many to believe that "Elemental" would be going home with the award, given Disney and Pixar's stranglehold on the category and family friendly way it tackled potentially serious subject material. However, the film that was poised to be the favorite to win was "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse." Critically acclaimed and a sequel to one of the few movies that prevented Disney from winning Best Animated Feature just a few years ago, it seemed to be a logical prediction. Still, the presence of Hayao Miyazaki and his (likely) final film was something to keep an eye on. Did "The Boy and the Heron" have a real chance of winning though? With an Academy that largely seemed disinterested in animation to the point where many members admitted to asking their kids to vote for them?

Unlike the other PG-rated family fare that was nominated, "The Boy and the Heron" was a deeply philosophical, visually daring PG-13-rated film that was made for adults. This isn't a movie that your average kid was going to sit down and appreciate. Heck, the movie was a challenge for many adults, and the idea that the Academy would pick this over something more digestible - with a category that had yet to award one truly adult film an Oscar in this category - was a difficult one to fathom. When "The Boy and the Heron's" name was called there was mild applause while the presenters announced that Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki were unable to attend, and thus their awards would be accepted on the Academy's behalf.

It was such a brief moment the importance of it seemed to pass everyone by. Disney - who won 14 of the last 17 awards in this category - didn't win. The acclaimed Spider-Man movie had been passed over. A movie that was not made for kids nor could really be appreciated by them had just won. After last year's adult-skewing Pinocchio movie had won, this felt like another milestone for the category. And we must make it clear that we are not saying family movies can't be appreciated by adults. We're not saying Pixar and Disney did not deserve some of those wins. What we are saying is that by awarding mostly average family films in the last decade and the Academy's attitude towards animation has made the award feel pointless.

If all the award is doing is giving out statues to movies that everyone has seen and follows a certain studio formula, then what is the point in pretending that this category exists to highlight the artistic achievements in animation? By giving "The Boy and the Heron" Best Animated Feature film the category has grown up a little. The door has been opened for more challenging fare to win in this category. This is also the first time Disney has lost the category two years in a row since 2003. If they lose again next year, it signals a shift that the voters are taking the Best Animated Feature category more seriously, and that more unconventional wins could be coming up in the near future. Whatever happens from this point on, "The Boy and the Heron" is likely to be viewed as a pivotal moment in Oscar history.

My video review of "The Boy and the Heron."