The Best Animated Feature category at the 2016 Oscars is a great reminder that animation is one of the most vibrant art forms out there right now.
Forget the era when the category would be stuffed to the gills with mediocre computer-animated films from big-name studios. Nowadays, with the rise of indie animation distributors like GKIDS, the Best Animated Feature race celebrates a vast range of animated projects, from Pixar-produced behemoths to tiny films from Brazil.
This year's lineup contains five nominees that are all terrific, including one each from the three most consistent animation houses of the past 25 years — Japan's Studio Ghibli, the UK's Aardman, and the US's Pixar.
The one you've probably already seen is going to win — and deservedly so. But the gap in quality is narrow enough to make tracking down the other four worth the effort.
Here are the five animated feature nominees, ranked.
1) Inside Out: the story of a young girl's coming of age — and her emotions running wild
We've written a lot about Inside Out here at Vox. We published a highly positive review of the film when it came out. We drew up a chart of how its various characters (which are mainly based on personifications of human emotions) interact. We even talked to two philosophers about what it gets wrong about the human brain.
But if you somehow missed all of that, you should still know the movie is worth watching. Inside Out's masterstroke is its realization that we all need all of our emotions, and our tendency to try to force our kids into happiness can often do them real damage.
Pixar has had a stranglehold on the Oscars' Best Animated Feature category since its very inception. Of the 14 winners to date, fully seven have been produced by the studio, with four of them winning in consecutive years. Pixar has only had two films that earned a nomination and then lost (Monsters Inc. to Shrek, and Cars to Happy Feet). Inside Out is the odds-on favorite to make Pixar an eight-time winner, and if that comes to pass, the trophy will be well-deserved.
Where to watch: Inside Out is available on DVD as well as for digital download and rental.
2) Shaun the Sheep Movie: a wildly original collection of great gags
It's been a rough decade for Aardman Animations. After the studio won the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2006 for Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, its distribution deal with Dreamworks fell apart. And while its films have been creatively successful — especially 2012's The Pirates — box office success has been harder to come by.
Perhaps Shaun will mark the start of a new era, then, as it's the studio's most profitable film in ages (though its US take was minimal) as well as its most impressively crafted since Were-Rabbit. It's a spinoff of a TV series about, well, a sheep, and its story about farm animals in the big city might initially seem like a bore. But look beneath its stop-motion surface and you'll find a big-hearted film that's full of tremendous gags.
Shaun is the kind of film where a dog will be mistaken for a surgeon, then ushered into an operating theater. But the way this particular comic bit ends up is sure to elicit a huge, unexpected laugh. The film plays around with animal iconography in a way that is perfectly witty but also very clever — the sheep take advantage of the fact that leaping over a fence to be "counted" will put any human to sleep. Shaun's sweetness helps it linger, but its laughs are what you'll remember.
Where to watch: Shaun the Sheep Movie is available on DVD as well as for digital download and rental.
3) When Marnie Was There: a bittersweet tale of a teenage girl finding her place in the world
You'll spend the first half of When Marnie Was There, possibly the final film ever from the hugely influential Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, wondering when the plot is going to kick in. You'll spend the last half-hour or so emotionally devastated.
Ghibli has always produced films where a bunch of plot incidents quietly come together to provoke an emotional response, and Marnie will prove a fine capstone to the studio's output (if it is indeed the studio's last film). Ghibli has also always been interested in the inner lives of young girls; in Marnie, a young girl named Anna leaves her foster parents to spend some time by the seaside after her urban life causes her asthma to act up. There, she meets another young girl named Marnie, who has a mysterious past.
The true nature of that mysterious past will be incredibly obvious from the word go, but what makes Marnie work is the way it sneakily tells a story about what it means to find somewhere to belong. It's one of the best movies about adoption ever made, and it's beautifully told from the adoptee's point of view.
Where to watch: Currently, Marnie is only available on DVD, but its distributor, GKIDS, has a longstanding relationship with Amazon Prime, so it will hopefully turn up there soon.
4) Anomalisa: a man in crisis sees that crisis reflected back at him
Anomalisa is this category's first R-rated nominee. (Chico & Rita, nominated in 2012, was unrated.) It features its fair share of adult language, nudity, and even sex. But those qualities aren't what makes the film "adult"; instead, it's the probing questions about the meaning of life, and the depictions of existential despair, that set Anomalisa apart from the sorts of kids' films we tend to associate with animation.
Indeed, it's hard to imagine what kids would even make of the first 30 minutes of this film, which consists solely of Michael, a motivational speaker voiced by David Thewlis, wandering around a hotel where everyone he encounters appears to have the same face and voice, due to a psychological disorder he suffers from. When he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the one person who doesn't have that face or voice, he begins to see an opportunity for salvation.
Unlike the three films listed above, Anomalisa is the work of a great filmmaker rather than a great studio. It was directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman; the latter also wrote the scripts for such inventive films as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And while Anomalisa is ultimately a more minor work than most Kaufman films (it never quite figures out its point of view on Michael, to its detriment), it's still a staggering work of imagination.
Where to watch: Anomalisa is only in theaters right now, though it will be on DVD and digital download soon.
5) Boy & the World: a wordless wonder from Brazil
Not only does this year's Best Animated Feature race contain two films that were produced in other countries (this one and Marnie), it also contains two films that are free of traditional dialogue (this one and Shaun). The characters might make noise, but it doesn't resemble anything that sounds like words.
Like Shaun, Boy & the World chronicles its protagonist's journey from his rural home to the metropolis. But where Shaun uses that basic premise to set the stage for lots of gags, Boy uses it to examine the wonders that humanity is capable of as well as the horrible things it can do to both the environment and other human beings.
While Boy & the World ranks last among the five nominees in this category, that's not to say it's a poor film — far from it. There's plenty of wisdom on display, especially in its more elegiac closing passages, which reflect on the way things change and how people are inevitably taken from us. It's also a beautiful film, full of imagery you won't soon forget.
Where to watch: This one is still in theaters as well. Like Marnie, it's distributed by GKIDS, which will hopefully land it on streaming eventually.