The Irish animated film “Song of the Sea” opened on December 19 to strong reviews – as of this writing, 77 on MetaCritic and 95% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes. Can it surprise in the Oscar race for Best Animated Feature despite flying under the radar? It wouldn’t be the first time director Tomm Moore ambushed the Oscars.
“Song” is reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki films like “Ponyo” and the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away” in its child’s-eye-view of a fearsome and visually resplendent fantasy world, in this case drawn from real Celtic myths. And like the most recent animated Oscar champs, “Frozen” (2013) and “Brave” (2012), it has the strong emotional hook of a story of familial love: a young boy, grieving the loss of his mother, must find his way home with his enchanted sister. So the film already follows in some impressive Oscar footsteps.
Few saw it coming when Moore pulled off a surprise nomination for Best Animated Feature for “The Secret of Kells” in 2009. Not only was it Moore’s first feature film, it was also a relatively obscure, traditionally animated film from upstart distributor GKIDS at a time when the field was usually dominated by computer-animated films by heavyweights Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks.
Movie animation is still dominated by those giants, but it’s no longer a surprise when GKIDS makes the cut for Best Animated Feature. In fact, they’ve been making a habit of it. In 2011, a pair of GKIDS releases – “Chico and Rita” and “A Cat in Paris” – beat out the much higher profile films “The Adventures of Tintin” (Paramount) and “Cars 2” (Pixar) for nominations. And in 2013, the company’s “Ernest and Celestine” earned a nomination, knocking out another blockbuster Pixar sequel, “Monsters University.”
This year, there is no Pixar film in the running, but the field is nevertheless crowded with contenders, and “Song of the Sea” has struggled for recognition during awards season. It was left out at the Critics’ Choice Awards and Golden Globes, which both selected the same lineup of nominees: “Big Hero 6,” “The Book of Life,” “The Boxtrolls,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” and “The Lego Movie.”
However, “Song of the Sea” is one of eight films nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Annie Awards, which are bestowed by the International Animated Film Society. It’s also nominated in six other categories, including Best Writing and Best Directing.
“Song” contends at the Annie Awards, and potentially at the Oscars, against another GKIDS release, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” which scored 89 on MetaCritic and 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and has the added benefit of being produced by Studio Ghibli, which has established itself at the Oscars thanks to the films of the aforementioned Miyazaki, who won Best Animated Feature for “Spirited Away” in 2002 and received an honorary Oscar this past November. “Kaguya” is directed by Isao Takahata, who co-founded Ghibli with Miyazaki.
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