At the 93rd Academy Awards on Sunday, Soul won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Up against Netflix’s Over the Moon, Aardman Animation’s Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon, Pixar’s Onward, and Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers, Soul snagged the top prize.
Wolfwalkers fans had vocally hoped for more, but still, this was entirely expected.
In the 20 years that Best Animated Feature has been a category at the Academy Awards, Pixar movies have won 10 times — and in years when a Pixar movie was in competition, they’ve rarely lost. There have only been three instances where a non-Pixar film beat a nominated Pixar film, and three cases where eligible Pixar films weren’t nominated at all. Every other time a non-Pixar movie has won, it was in a year where there was no eligible Pixar movie to nominate. The Academy voters are notorious for continuously sidelining the animation category, speaking up in interviews about how they didn’t bother to watch all the movies, and only voting for the most recognizable titles from the biggest companies. Even in years where worthy titles like Loving Vincent, Persepolis, and The Secret of Kells were up for the prize, the win went to Pixar.
For much of the category’s existence, Best Animated Feature nominees were chosen by the Academy’s animation branch. But in 2018, a new rule opened up voting on nominations to anyone who wanted to participate (which is how Boss Baby got a nomination in 2018). This naturally skewed the category toward American movies from big studios, though it’s not as if smaller independent international features were snagging the top prizes anyway. But as one anonymous Oscar voter in The Hollywood Reporter so eloquently put it in 2015:
“For [The Lego Movie] not to be in over these two obscure freakin’ Chinese fuckin’ things that nobody ever freakin’ saw [an apparent reference to Studio Ghibli’s film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which is Japanese, and 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.”
Pixar movies are regarded as some of the best that American animation has to offer, beautifully animated with deeply heartfelt emotional moments tying together storylines that often end with unexpected bittersweetness. But while Pixar movies are very good, there are movies nominated for the animation category that never even really get a chance since the default seems to be big budget American studios. Even so, while Pixar has had a stranglehold on the category since its early days, there have been a few instances where other films managed to snag the prize. Let’s take a look back at the six times Pixar movies lost out at the Oscars.
2001: Somebody Once Told Me
2001 was the first year films were eligible in the category, which means no Disney Renaissance movie ever won Best Animated Feature. (Though 1991’s Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture.) In the award’s inaugural year, three films were nominated: Pixar’s Monsters, Inc., Nickelodeon’s Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, and DreamWorks’ Shrek. It was Shrek that took home the gold — and fundamentally changed the landscape of American animation, but that’s a story for another time.
It’s strange at this point to think about how a movie that spawned a million memes and was created as a big fuck-you to Disney won the first Academy Award for Best Animated Picture. But edgy, cynical Shrek was a novelty in its time, besting the more sincere Monsters Inc for the top prize and setting a standard for CG animation. While many films created via different animation methods have earned nominations, all the Best Animated Picture winners to date except Spirited Away have been computer-animated. (Though Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse certainly leaned on hand-drawn stylizings more than other winners.)
2006: The Fault in Our Cars
No Pixar film was released in 2002, and the award for that year went to Spirited Away. Finding Nemo and The Incredibles brought the Pixar magic in 2003 and 2004 respectively and snagged the top prize, Cars fell short in 2006. Instead, Mad Max director George Miller won that year’s award with the penguin dance comedy Happy Feet. The other contender that year was Columbia Pictures’ kid-aimed horror movie Monster House.
No Pixar film released in 2005, either — and incidentally, 2002 and 2005 were the only two years in the award’s entire history that non-American films won. It should be noted, however, that both Spirited Away and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit had some ties to Hollywood studios, with the former being distributed by Disney and the latter produced by DreamWorks.
As Sam Adams wrote for Slate, aside from those two exceptions, it’s as if “the Best Animated Film Oscar has essentially been passed from one Hollywood studio to the next, not counting the four years in a row it sat in Pixar’s front lobby.”
2011, 2013, 2016: The Lost Sequels
Pixar dominated the category for years after Cars, winning for 2007’s Ratatouille, 2008’s WALL-E, 2009’s Up, 2010’s Toy Story 3, and 2012’s Brave... When Cars 2 came out in 2011 it marked the first year that an eligible Pixar film wasn’t even nominated for Best Animated feature. It also began a pattern, as Pixar repeatedly lost in the category with sequels that didn’t match up to the splendor of the originals. (The Toy Story sequels, as always, being a huge exception.) 2011’s Cars 2, 2013’s Monsters University, and 2016’s Finding Dory all missed the nomination — the winners those years were Paramount Pictures’ Rango and Disney’s Frozen and Zootopia. By this time, Disney owned Pixar — so even when Pixar lost, the prize still went to Disney two times in three. Now that’s what I call corporate synergy!
There were two other Pixar films that did not get nominated (2015’s The Good Dinosaur and 2017’s Cars 3) but those came out in years where another Pixar film (Coco and Inside Out, respectively) did snag the nomination instead and ended up winning.
2018: A New Kind of Superhero
2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse shattered expectations not only about what an animated film could be, but what a superhero film could be. It embraced the medium of animation, shedding photorealism for unapologetic stylization. It’s a love letter to cartoons and comic books.
It’s kinda funny that the Pixar film that it was up against was Incredibles 2, a superhero movie which for all intents and purposes was a pretty solid sequel. But it had a hard act to follow, and in the face of Spider-Verse, it was outclassed and outgunned.
In 2020, even with the Netflix-distributed Klaus and I Lost My Body popping up to challenge the reigning champion,Toy Story 4 took home the top prize. With Soul taking home the trophy this time around, it seems Pixar’s revived focus on original movies is reaping benefits, as it steps out of the slump of sequels the company fell into in the early 2010s. Pixar is back to dominate the category, though really, with its original movies (save for Cars, but we’re not gonna talk about that) it never really went away.