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Affirmative Action for Ogres

On Sunday the first Oscar for Best Animated Film will be awarded. Will it jumpstart the next generation of animation, or create a cartoon ghetto?

10:00 AM, Mar 22, 2002 • By BETH HENARY
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THE ANIMATORS who make green ogres and one-eyed bugs come to life on the big screen should be jumping up and down this Sunday. At 8:00 p.m. EST the Academy Awards commence, and for the first time in the awards' 74-year history, the Academy will recognize the feature-length, animated film with its own Best Picture award. Pre-ceremony, the reviews of the new category--the first since 1981 (makeup)--are mixed, but the new award may help catapult animation past the stereotype that Shreks are for kids.

Three films are up for Best Animated Film this year: "Shrek," "Monsters, Inc.," and Nickelodeon's "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius." The trio were clearly audience favorites in 2001, grossing over $600 million combined, but animated films can seldom compete critically with the made-for-adult dramas that typically capture Oscar gold. "Shrek" made respectable efforts to please adults, using clever pop culture references, an adult-oriented soundtrack, and higher-minded humor than animated movies usually boast. The motion picture academy's decision to set aside a special category for Best Animated Film comes just as these movies are making headway in the traditional categories. Will the move relegate cartoons and computer-generated worlds to second-class status for good?

Admittedly, Uncle Oscar pays his respects to groundbreaking advances in animation with special awards. In 1938 Walt Disney received a regular-sized statue and seven small ones for creating "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the first feature-length cartoon film. And besides its 1995 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, "Toy Story" collected a special achievement Oscar for its animation innovation. There is already a category for the year's best animated short film. And some cartoons have fared well against grown-up competition. The "Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast" garnered awards for their musical scores in the early '90s, and "Beauty and the Beast" was nominated for Best Picture (it lost to "Silence of the Lambs" in 1991).

Some critics of the new category take the position that animated movies have characters, scripts, and scores just like other movies and should therefore be treated no differently. Simon Wells, director of "The Prince of Egypt," believes that animation is not a genre, but a technique. "I think it's peculiar that a technique is singled out as a separate sort of movie," he told the Toronto Star.

Equally reserved about the new award was American Animation Institute president Steven Hulett, who told the Agence France-Presse that animation should be recognized, but "as the mainstream entertainment it always has been." According to Hulett, the award is a "double-edged sword" that puts animation in the spotlight but that may "ghettoize" animated films.

Those who are the giddiest over the Best Animated Film category seem to be the animators themselves, specifically those who make the software and oversee the technical aspects of animating films.

The award "legitimizes the work of thousands of people and puts them in the position to be recognized with the industry's highest achievement," Mark Sylvester, co-founder of software maker Alias/Wavefront, told the Toronto Star.

Boosters of the newly minted Oscar will serve as a catalyst for the next step in popular animation: widespread seriousness. Right now, because animated movies are so expensive to make ("Shrek" reportedly cost $110 million to produce), studios take few risks with them. Hi-tech flicks have to appeal to adults just to break even, and appealing to adults with what's thought to be kids' stuff is a tricky thing. Embracing this reality, the authors of the rules for the new Oscar stipulated that there must be eight films that use substantial animation in order for the award to be given in any particular year.

In the short run, giving animation its own high prize should be good for the industry. Studios will be more willing to take risks producing the computer-generated animation adults prefer, and as the technology spreads, the costs of production should fall somewhat. And it is hoped that there won't be a proliferation of genre-based awards for, say, best western, best musical, or best comedy, because, as Simon Wells might say, animation is being singled out because of its advancing technology, not its genre.

The long-run consequences aren't quite as sunny. As it becomes cheaper and easier to make computer-animated films, the overall quality of the genre is sure to plummet because as the financial risk decreases, production and development--particularly as it applies to the script--will become shoddier. The same pattern happened with traditional animation: When it was expensive we got "Snow White" and "Cinderella." When it was cheap we got "An American Tail" and "The Aristocats."

Beth Henary is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.