To the surprise of many, Frozen 2, Walt Disney Animation’s 2019 theatrical holiday tentpole — and the highest-grossing animated film ever — is not up for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
A nomination seemed like a given; Disney, supported by the powerhouse that is Pixar, has won 10 out of 18 Best Animated Features since the category was introduced in 2001. But unlike this year’s Golden Globes, where Disney dominated the category with three films (yes, the “live-action” Lion King included), the Oscar nomination list only contains one movie under the Disney banner: Toy Story 4.
Instead, while one of the remaining spots goes to the other major animation studio in the United States, DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon 3, the category’s rounded out by Laika’s stop-motion Golden Globe winner Missing Link; the surreal French film I Lost My Body; and lushly animated Santa-origin story Klaus. The latter two are notable, not just because they were absent from the Globes list, but because they come from Netflix.
Netflix has been slowly but surely beefing up its independent animation, starting with television series and moving confidently into feature films. While the streaming platform only acquired worldwide distribution for Xilam Animation’s I Lost My Body, which premiered in France, Klaus — created by Sergio Pablos Animation Studios — was exclusive to Netflix and touted as the platform’s first full-length animated film. Both would be relatively unknown to the majority of the American audience, and maybe not exist in the case of the 2D-animated Klaus, were it not for Netflix.
An animated feature category rounded out by international and independent pics is not unprecedented, but usually occurs in a year bereft of big, box office grabs (hello, 2011, where Disney’s only entry Cars 2 was snubbed in nominations, allowing Rango to snag the gold). This is the first time, however, that an Netflix-distributed film — let alone two of them — have made the cut.
There have been years where one Disney or Pixar film was absent from the nominations (all the years of the Cars sequels, for instance), but most of the time, Disney films clinch the nominations. It’s not uncommon for two Disney titles — be they Walt Disney Animation or Pixar — to go head-to-head. Four years ago, Moana took on Zootopia, while 2012 saw Brave and Wreck-It Ralph vying for the top spot.
Disney’s stranglehold is beginning to loosen. While 2019 saw both Incredibles 2 and Ralph Breaks the Internet in the running, the Academy swung towards Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. A product of Sony Pictures Animation, Spider-Verse is by no means from a smaller, international studio — but with the legacies of Incredibles 2 and Ralph Breaks the Internet gunning for them, it was still an upset in the Disney-Pixar monopoly.
Up until 2018, the nominees for Best Animated Feature were chosen by the Academy’s animation branch. A rule change, however, opened up voting on nominations to anyone who wished to participate — which is how Boss Baby ended up with a nomination in 2018. While the nominations still are primarily chosen by the animation branch, the whole Academy votes for the winners.
This inevitably leads to a heavy bias towards American, big budget, CGI movies. In fact, the snub of super popular Lego Movie in favor of indie films may’ve contributed to the change in rules. In 2015, an anonymous Oscar voter complained to The Hollywood Reporter about the Lego Movie’s snub.
“For that movie [The Lego Movie] not to be in over these two obscure freakin’ Chinese fuckin’ things that nobody ever freakin’ saw [an apparent reference to the Japanese film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, as well as the Irish film Song of the Sea]? That is my biggest bitch. Most people didn’t even know what they were! How does that happen? That, to me, is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.”
Herein lies the difference this year: while Klaus and I Lost My Body only got limited theatrical runs (just enough to qualify for a nomination), both films are readily and widely available for United States audience on Netflix. International animation has a wider audience than ever before, and in turn, a greater chance at unseating Disney in a category it’s never had a problem locking up.
Klaus director Sergio Pablos spoke to Polygon last year about Netflix’s impact on the industry, citing the fact that he himself continues to discover animated gems he’s never heard of on the platform.
“Streaming service have definitely helped [bring attention to international animated features],” Pablos said. “They will continue to do so because it’s not only about bringing existing content to audiences across the globe, they actually create new content that wouldn’t exist otherwise.”
There is still another hurdle to overcome: many still think of animation as a family-friendly genre and not a medium for different kinds of storytelling. Anonymous Oscar voters often say they’re swayed by what their children like — or sometimes abstain from voting all together. Could Netflix actually best Disney in 2020? Worthy films that pushed the medium, but told more adult stories— Anomalisa, Persepolis, and Loving Vincent, for instance — were looked over in favor of Pixar. That could count out I Lost My Body.
On the other hand, save for three exceptions (2006, 2011, and 2014), the Golden Globe winner has predicted the Academy Award and this year, despite three Disney films up for the award, Laika’s Missing Link snagged the prize. Coupled with that surprise win, Netflix’s two nominations have already broken the the barrier this year for an underdog to take home the Animated Feature gold.