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All 5 nominees for the Animated Feature Oscar are worth seeing. One stands above the rest.

From Spider-Man to Mr. Incredible, this is a category full of winning, imaginative movies.

animated feature
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Mirai, and Incredibles 2 are three of the terrific nominees for Best Animated Feature.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars might as well be called the “Pixar Award.” The trophy has been handed out just 18 times, since the 2002 Oscars ceremony (which honored the films of 2001), when Shrek — yes, Shrek — won. At nine of those 18 ceremonies, Pixar took home the prize, including winning four years in a row, from 2008 to 2011 (for Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3). Pixar is also the most recent winner in this category, with Coco as the reigning champion.

But there’s a challenger on the horizon. Going into the 2019 Oscars, Sony Pictures Animation’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has won every major precursor award, including a clean sweep of the animation industry’s Annie Awards.

Boasting critical plaudits and a long, successful run at the box office, Spider-Verse swooped into the race in December and stole the thunder of Pixar’s Incredibles 2, which also boasted great reviews and an even better box office take, but came out in June and feels a little like old news. (That two superhero movies are squaring off in this category feels like a thing that will never happen in, say, Best Foreign Language Film.)

Then, just to complicate things, the Cinema Audio Society’s award for animated sound mixing — which, as awards expert Ben Zauzmer points out, has gone to the winner of the Best Animated Feature Oscar for five out of the last six years, including predicting upset wins for Brave in 2013 and Big Hero 6 in 2015 — went to another movie entirely: Wes Anderson’s stop-motion Isle of Dogs. (That the two awards have lined up like this in the past few years is probably just a coincidence, as the voting bodies for CAS and the Oscars are very different, but hey, anything to make the race more exciting!)

Really, all five nominees in 2019’s Best Animated Feature race would make worthy winners, though (to me) Spider-verse stands head and shoulders above the rest. The others are still movies worth watching. Here’s a quick look at each one.

Incredibles 2

It took almost 15 years for writer-director Brad Bird to follow up his marvelously thrilling The Incredibles (which won Best Animated Feature at the 2005 Oscars) with the sequel it all but demanded. As with so many projects launched after their creators had years and years to think about them, Incredibles 2 feels like it has thousands of ideas in its head. Not all of them land, but enough of them do. And the ones that don’t still contribute to a complicated examination of just why our culture is so gaga for superheroes.

This sequel reverses the structure of the first film, leaving Mr. Incredible at home with the kids, while Elastigirl goes out to battle evil and further the good name of superheroes (who are still outlawed in the Incredibles universe). The two also meet eerie mirrors of themselves in a brother and sister duo who have ideas about how to create a new world brimming with superheroes.

Overstuffed with action sequences, comedic bits, and great character moments, Incredibles 2 somehow brings its seemingly dozen plotlines together into a rousing climax. If it’s not quite at the level of the first film, well, the first film is maybe the best movie Pixar ever made, so ... that’s not really a problem.

In short: Watch Incredibles 2 if you love superhero deconstructions, family comedy, or Pixar at its best.

Where to watch: Incredibles 2 is available to own and rent in both physical and digital formats. It’s also streaming on Netflix.

Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson’s occasionally delightful, occasionally cumbersome, always eyebrow furrow-inducing Isle of Dogs stands as the aesthetically precise director’s second stop-motion animation film (after 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, which lost at the Oscars to Pixar’s Up). It’s also his tribute to Japanese cinema, it’s set in Japan, and it makes the very odd choice to have the titular dogs (who have been banned from futuristic Japanese society) speak English while the human characters largely speak untranslated, unsubtitled Japanese. If that doesn’t sound like at least a recipe for thinkpieces to you, I don’t know what internet you think this is.

Isle of Dogs was the subject of the best film writing of 2018, much of it from Asian-American critics grappling with the movie’s obvious craft but also finding themselves put off by how it unintentionally turned Asian characters into alien outsiders. (See: Mashable’s Angie Han; the Los Angeles Times’s Justin Chang; Karen Han at the Daily Beast.) Anderson’s obvious love of the films of Akira Kurosawa, Hayao Miyazaki, and many, many, many other famous Japanese directors is impossible to ignore. But it’s also hard to ignore what Karen Han dubbed his “cultural tourism.”

Even with its weird cultural appropriation aside, the movie is less tightly constructed than many of Anderson’s earlier films (particularly Fantastic Mr. Fox, which plays in similar thematic territory, obviously). But it boasts strong voice work from a massive cast that features everybody from Bryan Cranston to Yoko Ono and — as always with Anderson — a visual design worth getting lost in. So you should definitely check it out. Just be prepared to wrestle with it a bit.

In short: Watch Isle of Dogs if you love Wes Anderson or want to check out one of the year’s more fascinating cinematic controversies.

Where to watch: Isle of Dogs is available to own and rent in both physical and digital formats. It’s also streaming on HBO.


If you are, for some reason, watching the Animated Feature nominees in alphabetical order, then Mirai will serve as a fascinating counterpoint to both Incredibles 2 and Isle of Dogs. Most obviously, this film can be compared to Isle of Dogs. While Mirai is also set in Japan and while it also features a dog as a character (granted, a supporting one), it was actually made by a Japanese filmmaker: Mamoru Hosoda, well known to anime fans for movies like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and The Boy and the Beast. (This is his first Oscar nomination, despite how frequently films from Japan are nominated in this category.)

But comparing Mirai to Incredibles 2 is also instructive, because where Incredibles 2 does a dozen things pretty well, Mirai does just one thing very well. It follows a young boy named Kun in the emotionally fraught months after his new baby sister, Mirai, enters his life, as his parents try to juggle the demands of two children, their jobs, and their attention-starved dog. Kun begins to have imaginary-or-are-they visits from figures from his family’s past and future, which help him learn to better understand his own emotional outbursts.

There are times when Mirai feels a little samey, even at a short running time of barely 90 minutes. But that’s Hosoda’s design, ultimately. The last 15 minutes of Mirai are so dazzling, on both a technical and a narrative level, that they will make you realize why the rest of the movie fell so readily into the rhythms of a child’s day-to-day life. This is a movie for patient viewers, but trust that you will be richly rewarded.

In short: Watch Mirai if you love Calvin & Hobbes (this is high, high praise!).

Where to watch: Mirai is still in theaters, though only a handful at any given time. See when it comes to your city here.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

It’s indicative of the quality of this category that this terrific sequel to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph is probably going to struggle to scrounge up votes when Academy voters turn in their ballots. Just 10 to 15 years ago, when the Best Animated Feature category frequently found itself filled with the likes of Shark Tale and Surf’s Up (though the surfing penguin movie is a little underrated — gets dragged offstage by a hook), Ralph would have been an easy winner or strong second. Now, it’s an also-ran.

But hopefully you registered the part where I said the movie is “terrific,” because it is. The sequel sends Ralph, the video game villain who learned in the first film that acceptance of yourself and others is its own kind of heroism, and his best pal Vanellope, a girl who delights in doody humor and driving cars really fast, out of the arcade and onto the internet to find a rare part that will fix Vanellope’s broken arcade console.

For a while, the movie seems like it might just be a series of jokes about famous memes, but be patient. The second half of the film proves a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on online toxicity, the ways friendships can turn bad, and how hard it can be to let the people you love grow and change. It’s a triumph in the way that it couches a bunch of moments that will make you bawl your eyes out in what initially seem like silly jokes.

In short: Watch Ralph Breaks the Internet if you want to laugh and cry about the state of the internet now.

Where to watch: Ralph Breaks the Internet is still in a handful of theaters, but your best bet is to buy it digitally. The physical release arrives February 26 — two days after the Oscars.

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse

The best movie in the category in 2019 is also the one most likely to win. Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse is an energetic swing through decades of comic book lore, somehow pitched simultaneously at those who know everything about Spider-man and those who know absolutely nothing. It’s funny, moving, thrilling, and genuinely groundbreaking from a technical standpoint.

It’s also built atop a terrific screenplay, one that so effortlessly pays off every single setup it raises that it makes so many other movies feel like they’re straining just a bit. Miles Morales is just a normal kid, growing up in Queens. Then he meets a radioactive spider, gets bitten, etc., etc., etc. But what makes this story so unique is the way it incorporates other versions of Spider-man — not just Peter Parker, but Spider-Gwen (a spider-powered version of one of Peter’s girlfriends), a Spider-Man from a film noir-inspired universe, and a cartoon pig named Peter Porker (a.k.a. Spider-Ham).

And then it starts messing around with the multiverse, which is not the sort of thing that’s easy to do in a movie that’s already juggling so many other ideas. It also tries to give major character arcs not just to all of its heroes, but to all of their family members and all of the villains. That Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse not only pulls all of this off, but ties itself up in a neat little bow is one of the storytelling achievements of the year, making it easy to see why it’s became the frontrunner for this year’s prize.

In short: Watch Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse if you want to see one of the best movies of 2018.

Where to watch: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse is still playing in theaters. It will be released for purchase, both digitally and physically, in March.

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