As the Oscar-speaking world delves deeper into the Avatar/Hurt Locker debate - which has to be one of the more exciting awards dramas in recent memory - I've begun to wonder, with the ballot deadline fast approaching, if any of the Academy's 5,777 voting members has begun to think seriously about talking animals.
I bring this up because this year, with Up, Coraline, and Fantastic Mr. Fox all in the running for Best Animated Feature, it's beginning to look like we might have something of a photo-finish race on our hands.
If the Oscar race has been less compelling in the past, it's because Pixar, the Freed Unit of cartoons, has dominated so clearly, and indeed so beautifully, that no one could dream of getting close to them. Of the six Pixar features released since 2001 - the first year Animated Features were given their own Oscar category - each one of them was nominated, and among the nominees, four took home the Academy Award. (Did I say Freed Unit? Make that Edith Head.)
This time though, things are different. For one, the competition is stronger. Unlike most of Pixar's competitors in years past, Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox have the advantage of being user-friendly, basically mainstream releases with a great deal of critical support behind them. To Academy voters itching to look beyond Pixar - and they're out there - these facts alone could spell the beginning of the end for Up.
Should that be the case, the question then becomes which way will they go? Coraline or Fantastic Mr. Fox?
I liked Coraline, but I sure hope it's Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Unfortunately, there appears to be roadblocks ahead. We can only wonder what the name Wes Anderson means to the Academy's 5,777, mostly senior, voting members. It has been almost ten years since he received a Best Screenplay nomination for The Royal Tenenbaums, and in the interim, his popular appeal has only begun to fray. Whatever one's reaction to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited, they were too mannered to register on the Academy's taste radar, and caused many voters to wonder if Anderson could ever renew the promise of his first more approachable features. Oscar, after all, loves classical with a twist; films like Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker, which take a well-worn formula and subvert it, slightly, tend to win the day. And yet, no matter how conservative its voting record, or traditional its predilections, the sensibility of nearly six thousand people can't be reduced to a single epithet.
Into this tenuous atmosphere comes Fantastic Mr. Fox, and it's a wonderful movie, Anderson's best since Rushmore. Watching it, I couldn't help but think that stop motion was the ideal venue for a director so attuned (sometimes distractingly so), to the strange dollhouse quality that all people, being strange people, come to adopt. Far from hindering him, it seems the painstaking one-frame-at-time technique - slow, expensive, deliberate - might have forced Anderson out of his world of decadence, and ushered him toward a more economical, barebones approach to story. At least that's what I hope, because as a one-time fan frustrated by his recent work, I'd love to see Wes Anderson repeat the kind of discipline he has recovered here, in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Perhaps then that old promise - the promise of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore - will be fulfilled.