It makes sense that the first film to win an Oscar for Best Animated Feature was DreamWorks’ “Shrek,” a 2001 shredding of the typical old-school Disney house-brand fairy tale of yore. It subverted the very idea of blandly handsome princes and beautiful princesses on its head by turning them into warty overweight ogres who nonetheless lived happily ever after in three sequels, several shorts and a spin-off with “Puss in Boots.”
But for all its daring doodling, however, the central relationship is between two males, foul-tempered Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) and upbeat, chatty Donkey (Eddie Murphy). By the time the cheery beast crooned a bouncy rendition of “I’m a Believer,” Cameron Diaz as Princess Fiona didn’t have a chance against the jive-talking ass of a sidekick.
The winning ‘toons last decade followed “Shrek’s” lead and were primarily driven by male lead characters, ranging from 2003’s “Finding Nemo,” which killed off the fishy title character’s mom early on while his neurotic father searched for his missing son, to 2010’s “Toy Story 3,” with Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear driving the story with Lotso, a male pink teddy bear, as the villain. The lone animated film that featured a female in the lead was a Japanese import, 2002’s “Spirited Away,” which revolved around a moody 10-year-old schoolgirl trapped in an alternate universe.
In 2011, the champ was “Rango,” a Western comedy that featured the voice of Johnny Depp as a scaredy-cat pet chameleon who falls out of his owner’s car in the Mojave Desert and becomes an unlikely sheriff. But in 2012, a milestone was achieved when Pixar released “Brave,” its first animated feature with a female director, Brenda Chapman, whose script about a head-strong teen archer (see above) was inspired by her own red-haired teen daughter. It was also the pioneering computed-animated studio’s first feature with a girl protagonist and its first fairy tale.
Alas, the road to change proved rocky when the studio’s chief, John Lasseter, clashed with Chapman over creative differences and replaced her in the director’s seat with Mark Andrews — a step backward for womankind. But Chapman stood up for herself, making sure she got a co-director credit and that she was at the Oscar ceremony to receive her honor .
Disney proper, however, went a step further when it came to gender issues with 2013’s “Frozen,” which eschewed romance and instead focused on the love shared by two royal sisters, Elsa and Anna, whose bond is broken when the elder decides to isolate herself because of her magical ice-making gifts. Co-director Jennifer Lee, who like Chapman wrote a script that was inspired by her daughter, became the first female director of a Walt Disney Animation Studios feature film as well as the first to gross more than $1 million at the box office.
As for the 2014 winner, the boys were back in Toon Town with Disney’s “Big Hero 6,” based on a Marvel comic book about a team of superhero teen geeks who are joined by a huggable robot who just wants to help people. There were three featured female characters, but the voice cast was primarily male. Progress, however, was made when the main character, 14-year-old Hiro, is allowed to be evolved enough to express his grief after his older brother dies in a fire — before he and his pals go after the villain responsible.
Serious emotions were suddenly in vogue in animated entertainment, no more so than the 2015 winner, Pixar’s “Inside Out,” where actual moods like Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust are on-screen characters as we take a journey into an 11-year-old girl’s mind complete with control panel. The larger message of the rather sophisticated, though still-fun story is that in order to feel happy you have to be able to feel sad as well. Director Pete Docter was inspired by his own youth as well as his pre-teen daughter, who tended to be shy and withdrawn.
Disney rose to the occasion again in 2016 with “Zootopia,” which takes place in a world populated by human-like mammals. The main character is rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) who fulfills her dream of being a police officer after graduating from the academy as a valedictorian. After being delegating to parking duty, she then gets an assignment to find an otter’s missing husband when the town’s assistant female sheep mayor decides Judy should take on the case. But it turns out the ambitious Judy is being used as a pawn in a smear campaign to frame predators. In this case, just being a highly capable woman doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes.
“Coco,” a 2017 Pixar feature inspired by the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, is about Miguel, 12-year-old boy who dreams of being a musician. By a twist of fate, the boy finds a guitar in a mausoleum that makes him invisible in the real world, but allows him to interact with his deceased relatives and learn some truths about family. That Miguel is closest to his great-grandmother Mama Coco is quite moving.
Then there is fan-boy bait in the form of Sony’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” The feature is notable for its depiction of an African-American adolescent Spidey who learns the arachnid ropes from Peter Parker, a web-slinger from another dimension, while Spider-Woman aka Gwen Stacy also shows up.
Judging by the current front-runners in the race, gender parity is catching on at least in the animated world. Right now, nearly 5,000 users predict that “Toy Story 4” is the one to beat at the Oscars next year with 82/25 odds. While Woody and Buzz are both back and a new character, Forky, is male, the story also finds room for the return of a pants-wearing Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who has turned into a rogue rescuer of “lost” toys along with her three sheep. But the most memorable and haunting character is Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a rather creepy unloved antique doll who has her predatory sights on Woody’s voice box.
The film’s main competition with 4/1 odds is “Frozen II,” whose makers have upgraded their male characters, especially Anna’s beau Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), who gets his own ’80s hair-band love ballad with “Lost in the Woods” while he continually fails in his efforts to ask for his true love’s hand. Also added is a virile military man (Sterling K. Brown) who is trapped in an enchanted forest. Oh, and like Bo Peep, the sisters also don slacks instead of gowns this time.
Be sure to make your Oscar nominee predictions today so that Hollywood insiders can see how their films and performers are faring in our odds. You can keep changing your predictions as often as you like until just before nominees are announced on January 13. And join in the fun debate over the 2020 Academy Awards taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our film forums. Read more Gold Derby entertainment news.