What do an ogre, a clownfish, a rat and a robot have in common? They’ve all been the stars of Academy Award-winning films for Best Animated Feature.
Film animation has come a long way since pioneering films such as Walt Disney‘s “Steamboat Willie” (1928) captured the hearts and imagination of a loyal public, making characters like Mickey Mouse a permanent and beloved part of our pop culture. But these films have had a harder time gaining recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 1939, at the 11th awards ceremony, Disney received special recognition for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the first ever feature-length animated film, and was bestowed one full-size statuette and seven miniature ones. Two years later, Disney would receive the first competitive Oscars given for an animated film, with “Pinocchio” winning Best Original Score and Best Original Song for “When You Wish Upon a Star.” In 1941, “Dumbo” would also win for Best Original Score. But it would be almost 50 more years before another fully animated film would take home any competitive Oscar.
In 1989, Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” revived their struggling animation division, and the film went on to win for Best Original Score and Best Original Song (“Under the Sea”). Two years later, “Beauty and the Beast” became the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture, and the only one to achieve this feat under the five-film rule. As the first feature-length computer-animated film, Pixar’s “Toy Story” received a Special Achievement Award in 1996. Soon after these successes, more studios began releasing animated films and the Academy was forced to reconsider its stance on these productions, many of which were receiving wide-spread recognition and critical acclaim.
By the late 1990s, Disney Animation faced fierce competition in this genre. Studios such as Pixar and DreamWorks were also creating new and imaginative worlds enjoyed by young and old alike. Many of these films mix subtle adult humor and childish gags to appeal to all audiences, while also confronting very real issues such as prejudice, death, environmental concerns and acceptance. With more and more of these films achieving huge commercial success and recognition, the Academy finally added the award for Best Animated Feature in 2002 at the 74th ceremony. After years of Disney Animation dominating, it was DreamWorks who won the inaugural award, for “Shrek.”
In the two decades since, Pixar has dominated the category with 11 wins from 16 nominations, two of which — “Up” and “Toy Story 3” — also received Best Picture nods. Disney has won 4 out of 13 nominations, and DreamWorks has won two out of 13. Several other production companies, such as Sony Pictures Animation and Nickelodeon, have received nominations, five of which have each received one win.
We’re featuring each of the 20 winners for Best Animated Feature (in order by most recent ceremony year) below along with their Oscar acceptance speeches.
“Encanto” (2022): A young girl in Columbia is upset that she is the only family member without magical powers. However, when outside forces threaten the Madrigals, she might be the only person who can help. With one of the most popular songs of recent years (“We Need to Talk About Bruno,” which sadly was not submitted for Oscar voters), the film did receive nominations for Best Original Score (Germaine Franco) and Best Original Song (“Dos Oruguitas” by Lin-Manuel Miranda).
“Soul” (2021): Hopeful and inspiring, “Soul” captures the beauty and poignancy of life and death, with Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey infusing humor into the dark topic. Finished and released during the COVID-19 pandemic, the movie was a timely reminder to appreciate the smaller things in life. With much of the film told through music and Joe’s love for jazz, it’s fitting that it also won for Best Original Score.
“Toy Story 4” (2020): It seemed as though Woody, Buzz and the gang had had all the adventures possible for a group of toys, but almost a decade after “Toy Story 3,” the friends find themselves in yet another fix. Parents who had been kids when the first “Toy Story” was released delighted in introducing their own children to these stories, and were just as eager to see the latest installment as the younger generation. A film franchise that connects generations? They’ve got friends in us, and we’ll never let them throw themselves away.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2019): Combining traditional animation techniques with CGI, almost 200 animators came together to draw audiences into the comic book world in a new and refreshing way. Spider-Man is one of the most beloved superheroes of all time, and the multi-verse offered a fresh take on an origin story, with both audiences and critics praising the “coolness” of this unique film. This was Sony Pictures Animation third nomination in this category, and first win.
“Coco” (2018): Inspired by the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, “Coco” details the journey of a youth’s efforts to follow his dreams while remaining true to his heritage. Miguel’s accidental journey into the Land of the Dead is told in an imaginative and visually spectacular way, with the equally memorable and touching “Remember Me” winning Best Original Song. Colorful skeletons, family secrets worthy of any Spanish telenovela and an incredible bridge that connects the two worlds ensure that this film will never fade away.
“Zootopia” (2017): Timely and timeless, the power of inclusion and the dangers of prejudice tackled in “Zootopia” are sure to resonate for generations to come. However, the unlikely buddy-cop pairing of Judy Hopps and Nicke Wilde adds humor and depth to these heavy themes, and children and adults enjoy escaping into this imaginary world of anthropomorphic animals. As Shakira‘s gazelle suggests, we all should be willing to “try everything.”
“Inside Out” (2016): Only in animation can emotions come alive in colorful characters who battle for control in a young girl’s mind, but then learn to work together. Funny, thoughtful and introspective, “Inside Out” teaches young and old alike that it’s okay to be sad or angry – Joy can’t always be in control. It was the seventh animated feature, and the last to date, also to receive a Best Original Screenplay nod.
“Big Hero 6” (2015): A big inflatable robot doesn’t seem a likely choice for a superhero, but Baymax proves that being a superhero isn’t just about fancy maneuvers, but, more importantly, about having a caring heart. People love an underdog adventure story, and they root for the awkward Baymax and his five nerdy friends, including the super-smart Hiro, who’s reeling from his brother’s tragic death. This was Disney Animation’s second consecutive win this category, having won its first ever for “Frozen.”
“Frozen” (2014): The story of Anna’s devotion to her sister Elsa, inspired by “The Snow Queen,” is one of the most successful films ever made, and is currently the third-highest-grossing animated film of all time. Besides being the first Disney Animation production ever to win Best Animated Feature, it also won Best Original song for a tune called . . . what WAS the name of that song? Oh well, as proven by the enormous success of the franchise, and much to the dismay of many parents, it’s clear that this is one film that people just won’t “let it go.”
“Brave” (2013): With her fiery red hair and determination to live her life outside of the traditional box, Merida is a heroine for all girls who set their sights on goals other than marriage. “Brave” also offered many firsts: Merida is the first Pixar film starring a female protagonist as well as the first Disney princess created by the studio. In addition, Brenda Chapman became Pixar’s first female director, and with the Best Animated Feature win, became the first woman to win an Oscar in that category.
“Rango” (2012): Cinephiles love the references to classic Westerns, while Johnny Depp‘s Don Knotts-esque bumbling chameleon appeals to an even broader audience. Shot in 2D at a time when most animated films were utilizing 3D, “Rango” depended on imaginative storytelling, colorful characters and an adventure that was more slapstick than in-your-face CGI. The wisecracking chameleon brought Nickelodeon its second nomination in this category, and its first, and to date only, win for Best Animated Feature.
“Toy Story 3” (2011): As part of one of the most successful movie franchises of all time, it wasn’t surprising that Buzz and Woody’s third installment not only won Best Animated Feature, but also became only the third animated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture. It received a total of five nominations, with Randy Newman also winning Best Original Song for “We Belong Together,” and is the first animated film to gross over $1 billion in ticket sales worldwide. Tissue sales may have gone up as well, as the bittersweet nostalgic tale had even grown men in tears.
“Up” (2010): Bittersweet, funny and visually delightful, the high-flying adventure of curmudgeonly Carl and his loyal sidekicks Russell and Dug won the hearts of millions, as well as the praise of critics everywhere. Not only did “Up” walk away with Best Animated Feature, it became the second animated film in history to receive a Best Picture nod. The film received a total of five nominations, with Michael Giacchino also winning for Best Original Score. And balloons have taken on a whole new meaning since.
“WALL-E” (2009): A film about a lonely aging robot collecting trash on a deserted Earth, and then meeting and falling in love with a sleek new robot, doesn’t seem like the makings of a blockbuster film. Despite its dystopian themes and limited dialogue, audiences fell in love with the big-eyed robot, and critics praised it as one of the best films of the year, with many claiming it deserved a Best Picture nom. Although that didn’t happen, “WALL-E” tied with “Beauty and the Beast” with the most overall Oscar nominations ever for an animated feature, with a total of six; however, its only win was Best Animated Feature.
“Ratatouille” (2008): The thought of a rat preparing my soup isn’t exactly appetizing, but little Remy’s determination to become a chef despite his ratty beginnings makes the thought that “anyone can cook” a little easier to swallow. The outrageous concept of a rat becoming a chef, aided by a lush Paris background and a quirky love story between two human chefs, was yet another Pixar success, earning an outstanding five overall Oscar nominations, though its only win was for Animated Feature.
“Happy Feet” (2007): If a male emperor penguin is born without the ability to sing, how can he find his female mate? Why, through dancing of course! Despite ridicule, Mumble the penguin overcomes being ostracized by his colony and turns his disability into a positive by doing things “his way.” With a “Boogie Wonderland” of old favorites to “Jump N’ Move” to, the Academy felt this group of penguins was “Somebody to Love,” and made it one of only six animated features not made by Disney or Pixar to win this honor.
“Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2006): The British cheese-loving inventor Wallace and his loyal canine companion Gromit were already loved by audiences and critics, with two of their previous tales having already won Oscars for Best Animated Short. In their first feature-length adventure, poor Wallace runs into a series of mishaps with one of his inventions designed to protect the townspeople’s giant vegetables, which are in competition for the Golden Carrot, from rabbits. It was DreamWork’s second, and to date last, winner in this category, and is the only stop-animation film to win.
“The Incredibles” (2005): It’s the film that had husbands everywhere asking “honey, where did you put my supersuit?” Because adults love this movie about middle-aged superheroes in hiding just as much as their youngsters do, and it’s not surprising that so much of this film has landed in our pop culture. Besides its win for Best Animated Feature, “The Incredibles” earned a total of four nominations, and is the only animated film to win for Best Sound Editing.
“Finding Nemo” (2004): An overprotective parent with a rebellious child who runs away is hardly an unusual concept for a film. But make them clownfish and a whole new world of colorful sea creatures and adventures opens up. It’s the film that made us laugh, made us cry and taught us to “keep on swimming.” The big movie about a little fish received a total of four Oscar nominations, and won Pixar its first of 11 Best Animated Feature statues.
“Spirited Away” (2003): Often cited as one of the greatest animated films of all time, this Japanese fantasy film follows ten-year-old Chihiro’s adventure as she gets lost in the world of spirits. With its captivating imagery and magical story, it became the highest-grossing film in Japanese history, a record it held for 19 years, and received universal acclaim. It is the first, and to date only, hand-drawn and non-English-language animated film to win Best Animated Feature.
“Shrek” (2002): Who would have thought that a film about a grumpy green ogre would not only win the very first Oscar for Best Animated Feature, but also be the first animated film to receive a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay? Beloved by both adults and children, this hilarious take on traditional fairy tales proved DreamWorks a major competitor in this category, winning the inaugural award over Pixar’s “Monster’s Inc,” and spawning a franchise that has made Shrek himself an “All Star.”
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