The Act of Shilling is Film.com's awards season column. It runs every Monday until the week after the Oscars.
The Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars is, historically, one of the easiest to predict. Not that there’s all that much history to go on; this year’s award will only be the thirteenth ever given. Yet if you look back over the previous twelve, more often than not it was a pretty easy race to call. “Rango,” “Toy Story 3,” “Up,” “WALL-E,” “Ratatouille” – none of them a surprise in the least.
That makes this year’s race all the more exciting. It may not be wide open, but there are two very solid contenders that will be duking it out in this last stage of the campaign.
No, it is not “Despicable Me 2” versus “The Croods.” Neither film is good enough, or popular enough, to emerge as a serious contender. “Ernest & Celestine,” meanwhile, is a gorgeously animated and charmingly conceived French triumph that may very well be the best nominee. Unfortunately, not nearly enough people have seen it.
The real fight is this: Studio Ghibli versus Walt Disney. “Frozen” has the upper hand, with its Golden Globes win and its box office gross of well over $800 million. Yet “The Wind Rises” wasn’t actually in the same category at the Globes, and the HFPA aren’t exactly the best bellwether in the first place. The fact that this is Hayao Miyazaki’s last film also helps, and a well-articulated campaign that pushes to send him into retirement with a second Oscar could certainly get some traction.
That’s about as much speculation as makes sense right now. Actually, that might be all the speculation that any of us can do until the night itself. The only remaining significant precursor is the Annie Award ceremony on February 1st, but they’ve only agreed with the Academy eight times in the twelve years that the Oscar category has been around. Just last year the Annie Award for Best Animated Feature went to “Wreck-It Ralph.”
So instead of more guess work, let’s think about how incredibly strange a race between “Frozen” and “The Wind Rises” actually is, when you look closely at the films themselves.
Much of this has to do with the management of expectations. “Frozen” is a Disney princess movie, which implies a very specific set of values. In particular, this means a girl getting swept off her feet by a dashing prince, and a happy conclusion usually involving at least the implication of a wedding. Their track record for well-written, female-driven storytelling isn’t exactly the greatest.
Miyazaki, on the other hand, has time and again featured exceptionally written female characters without much need for a fairy tale marriage. “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke” are masterpieces, in part, because of their refusal to get distracted by boring Disney notions of how boys and girls behave.
The strangest thing about this year’s crop of Best Animated Feature contenders, therefore, is how these expectations were turned completely upside down. “Frozen” is quite deliberately a bait-and-switch. Princess Anna is given the man of her dreams, a prince with great hair and basically no character development designed to sweep her off her feet. He’s basically presented as an inevitability, until suddenly the rug gets ripped out from under us and “Frozen” rejects romance entirely. It becomes quite resolutely a film about the bond between sisters, a creative and frankly wise choice.
Meanwhile, “The Wind Rises” does exactly the opposite. For all of its visual beauty, it falls flat on its face when it comes to its central relationship. As a protagonist, aspiring aircraft engineer Jiro Horikoshi is a beautifully constructed character. His hopes and dreams, his fantasies of Italian airships, his eventual compromises and troubling encounters with the realities of war are all intelligently wrought and compellingly demonstrated. But his love story, which gradually becomes the primary focus of the film? It’s a fatal flaw.
Basically, Naoko is the perfect wife. They meet as kids during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, during which Jiro saves her life. She begins as a reflection of his personality, parroting the second half of a favorite quote of his on the train. They will meet later, at a summer resort after Jiro has begun his rise up the ranks of Japanese aviation. Along the way we learn very little about Naoko, except that she is very affable and that Jiro begins to fall in love with her. When they finally get engaged, she doesn’t get any further character development. She gets tuberculosis.
Upon the arrival of her illness, “The Wind Rises” begins to focus more on Jiro’s marriage than the difficult questions raised by his work. Yet at no point does Naoko become more of a complex figure. She remains the perfect, quietly suffering wife. This conventional, tired tale of the doomed and idealized woman is the biggest obstacle in the way of “The Wind Rises” achieving greatness.
If a year ago you had told me that the Disney princess movie would stylishly subvert the conventions of gender and romance, while Miyazaki succumbed to them, you could have knocked me over with a feather. Yet there we have it. It’s the 21st century and just about anything can happen.
Sure, this won’t have much of an impact on the race. If “Frozen” wins it’ll be due to its popularity and perhaps its status as a box office juggernaut. “The Wind Rises” won’t lose because of its romantic failings, though I would argue that they make it a less compelling movie to watch, whether or not you’re watching with feminist eyes. But the fun thing about the Oscar race is that, while sometimes it seems absurd to compare entirely different works of art, other times it allows for some fascinating juxtapositions. This is one of them.