Oscars 2013: Richard Corliss’ Picks – Best Animated Feature

TIME's film critic makes his 'Brave' choice. What animated feature do you think will win?

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Disney / Pixar

Brave, directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Frankenweenie, Tim Burton
ParaNorman, Chris Butler and Sam Fell
The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Peter Lord
Wreck-It Ralph, Rich Moore

A civil war — Northern vs. Southern California, with a pedigreed clan battling their upstart cousins — reaches its climax Sunday night. For the Pixars of the Bay Area: the stately, strange mother-daughter drama Brave. Representing the Disney babies of Burbank: the raucous multigenerational video-game comedy Wreck-It Ralph.

In its 12 years as an Oscar category, beginning with a win by DreamWorks’ Shrek in 2002, Animated Feature has contained a full slate of five nominees only four times, including this year. (The other eight years, the paucity of available longform cartoons restricted the list of nominees to three.) In the first six years, the Oscar went to three foreign-made films — Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away from Japan in 2003, the Brit Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit from Nick Park and the Aardman Studio in 2006, and George Miller’s Australian Happy Feet a year later — interspersed with Pixar’s Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. Since then, the winners have been all-American. Pixar, the class act of the crowd, took four consecutive statuettes, with its amazing run of Ratatouille, WALL·E, Up and Toy Story 3, before Paramount’s Rango broke the streak a year ago. For the first time, a Pixar feature entry, Cars 2, failed to receive a nomination.

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Three of the five current nominees —the Burton-Disney Frankenweenie, Laika’s ParaNorman and Aardman’s The Pirates! Band of Misfits — employ stop-motion animation, a maddening process that requires its devoted artisans to place puppets in elaborate doll-house sets and move them a scintilla for every exposed frame of film. All praise to the obsessives toiling in this antiquated medium, but the odds on a stop-motion film’s winning the Academy’s Animated Feature award are only one in 11: Aardman’s Were-Rabbit. If any of this year’s trio has a shot, it would be Frankenweenie, a stop-motion remake of a short live-action film the young Burton made in 1984 during an uncomfortable apprenticeship at Disney. The new film’s blithe approach to a difficult subject (the death of a boy’s pet dog) won critics’ hearts but will not win here.

That leaves the two full CGI movies, both with Pixar-Disney ani-maven John Lasseter as executive producer. Brave marks Pixar’s first movie with a heroine — either the Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) or her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) — though its full claim to feminism got scuttled when the picture’s original writer-director, Brenda Chapman, was ousted midway through the project and replaced by Mark Andrews, a guy. Brave reveals its genre dichotomy through the early burly scenes of Scots machismo, which eventually give way to subtler, more feminine interplay involving Merida and the family bear.

Wreck-It Ralph, solely directed by Simpsons veteran Rich Moore, also has a schizophrenic construction. The initial half-hour, when lumbering video villain Ralph (John C. Reilly) evicts himself from the Fix-It Felix arcade game and ventures into the wild unknown, seems first as pokey as Pac-Man, then goes frantic in the manner of Robert Clampett’s Dadaesque 1938 cartoon short Porky in Wackyland. Only when Ralph meets the scrumptious-cute Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) does the movie’s tone find a visual and emotional cohesion and turn into the most effervescent animated feature of the year. If Ralph takes this category, it would be the first pure Disney feature (excluding the Miyazaki and Pixar movies, which the studio distributed) ever to win a competitive Oscar.

Fine by me if that happens — my own rankings of the Disney-sponsored nominees would be RalphFrank ‘n Brave — but Moore’s movie is up against the mighty Pixar brand, which has earned six of the previous 11 Animated Feature Oscars. In awards given this season by movie-industry professionals, Brave has won three citations (from the American Cinema Editors, the Cinema Audio Society and the Visual Effects Society) to Ralph’s two (the Producers Guild and the Motion Picture Sound Editors). The wider Academy membership may be more touched by the parent-daughter dynamic of Brave than the workplace camaraderie of Ralph and Vanellope. Finally, Ralph’s pinwheeling showmanship, its wild color palette, its lightning speed and high volume — the very elements that distinguish it — could play to Oscar voters, especially the elderly, as too loud and chaotic.

I root for Ralph but bet on Brave.