Why Klaus Should Have Won Best Animated Feature

The film’s approach to themes, use of visuals and general creativity results in an authentically fresh-feeling take on its subject matter …”

Best Animated Feature, or rather “the Pixar Award,” is always a contentious category for me. Indeed, and mostly deservedly, Pixar has won this award ten times over the bracket’s nineteen-year run, with Toy Story 4 the most recent addition to this expanding list. It is easy to say that the company doesn’t need any more of these awards, as illustrated, but it is more significant to consider why Toy Story 4 might not deserve the Oscar, at least in the face of its contenders. It has been widely noted that the sequel was thought unnecessary, but, with many critics and audiences impressed by its quality, the film, once dreaded, has been largely accepted. And, yes, it functions as mostly well-realised, but is ugly and tacked-on in the overall context of the series — the third installment’s ending did not at all need or ask for continuation. It was a thematically perfect conclusion. In Toy Story 4, the destination is more rewarding than the journey; themes-wise, it is intact and well-delivered, but cannot escape a feeling of superfluousness amidst the adventures of the series’ cast. It remains a wasted production slate for Pixar, who could be making projects vastly more innovative than its recent wave of sequels. Rewarding the company for this, after years of Academy praise for original and envelope-pushing material, feels disingenuous, safe and, for me, is generally disappointing after recent wins in the category functioned as smart choices (such as Pixar’s own Coco). Klaus, on the other hand, another 2020 nominee, combines thematic relevance with a natural charm. The film’s approach to themes, use of visuals and general creativity results in an authentically fresh-feeling take on its subject matter despite some already-trodden territory, and deserves to be rewarded for its vision, use of animation and storytelling. Klaus should have taken the win because it is wonderful, sure, but particularly over Toy Story 4, for this would help support more stylistically unhackneyed animation — a large subdivision of the medium that must be exposed to a wider audience for the sake of the craft.

All being told, Klaus is yards more creative, bold and compelling. And, sure, I appreciate the argument that the Academy should be looking to award films based on linearly realised quality rather than contextual factors, and that Toy Story 4 is probably more polished than Klaus is, but it must be acknowledged that the Oscars wield an enormous amount of status as the biggest film award-show on the planet; seeking to recognise a slightly smaller film (though still corporately tied) that is genuinely innovative sets a wonderful precedent. Instead of awarding the production company whose work has netted them sixteen (!) Academy Awards in multiple categories, wouldn’t it be far more fitting to give it to a film whose production has offered a new take on the medium? The industry would follow suit. The more that Pixar receives this award, the more Disney continues to dominate, and the more 3D-modelled, homogenised animated features are produced (see the 2017 nominees). This style is fine, and there are some really great films within it, but I would like to see Pixar win only when they outdo themselves (Wall-E, Ratatouille), rather than when the company opt for, as they did here, a sequel pointless in conception and simply good in practice. Please: let’s reward creativity and interestingness, rather than something tried-and-true. We don’t need to be reminded on this level that the latter works.

Think Spirited Away (won in 2003), or Rango (in 2012), or, in Pixar’s case, Up (in 2010). The first of these brought mainstream legitimacy to Japanese animation, with non-conventional narrative structure, off-the-wall characters and decidedly non-Western execution of themes. Rango championed, by all accounts, a disgusting visual style, with intentionally gross character designs and bland settings, to its advantage; I can’t think of another animated film to which I would pin that same philosophy, nor one that executes it to such great visual and tonal effect. Up was an unforced, beautifully realised piece of entertainment who used interesting settings and creative characters, and who streamlined its emotional backbone in a way that was not excessive nor contrived, still remaining in the minds of audiences to this day. These are the sort of spirited films I would like to see win in this category. Toy Story 4 was the funniest of the series yet, with certain narrative subversions doing wonders to assert the film as worth the audience’s time, but it largely performs as merely a good epilogue to the Toy Story canon, rather than an excellent sequel, or defining series addition. I liked it, but what about it deserves to be placed on the same pantheon as previous Pixar winners like Wall-E? In my mind, not that much.

There are several reasons that Klaus is my favourite nominee. I concede first of all that the film has its problems, particularly when it conforms to narrative stereotypes of popular animation, but this refrains from being a film-breaking issue and does little to get in the way of the feature’s fresh charm (especially considering some equally non-stereotypical choices). For one thing, its animation style is beautiful, with the cold, baroque wasteland of Smeerensburg (I love the production design) transitioning gradually into something far more pleasant, shining and bittersweet with grace and effectiveness. The eloquence of the characters’ movements and the film’s settings that come with it also make for some effective comedic gags around the feature’s over-expressive approach to action sequences or scenes of dramatic tension and release. I love it when an animation style helps define some of the movie’s narrative and emotional beats in this way — it helps cement animation as a medium, not a genre, as indeed it should be seen, and I believe Klaus to do just this; its being animated is not an excuse to tell the story, but is instead intrinsic to the way that it is told. Crucially, though, Klaus gets to the heart of Christmas like no other film I’ve seen. In part by showing the holiday’s supposed beginnings and leaning heavily into the emotional weight of the Klaus character, the feature really convinced me why Christmas can be important in the first place. The ideas of the holiday’s necessary spreading of goodwill and joy — something we see in most every Christmas movie — rang especially true in this case, because the film aims to and succeeds in showing us precisely why this is important. Being good and spreading goodness only brings good, says Klaus. It is explored and exercised more lovingly than any holiday movie of recent memory.

When the Academy sets a progressive example, trends will follow. Animation has been confined to simple children’s entertainment, and to formula, for years, and I wish for this mould to be broken. We are on our way, admittedly — the batch of nominees for the category this year was especially great, and last year’s Into the Spider-Verse win was a great victory for creative animation. The Academy should award films when it is creatively deserved rather than when they offer the bankable, corporate choice, else the loop of animated mediocrity will be aided in its continuation (the rise of Netflix is especially appealing, but seeing different styles of animated films do big box-office numbers would be brilliant). Maybe nothing will change; who knows? The films that are financially popular are indeed popular for a reason. But seeing a committee of experienced officials and voters prop-up less conventional works, and help give these films greater commercial opportunity, would be excellent for broadening the creative state of animated cinema. Laika have been a fairly successful studio with a distinct style, particularly seen with the recent Kubo, and Wes Anderson’s unrelated 2018 Isle of Dogs was met with acclaim and buzz. However, these films only just earnt back their budgets ($60-70 million) and features like 2018’s The Grinch and 2019’s The Addams Family continue to dominate with a $500-million pull and a still-rising $200 million respectively. Industries will always have these staple easy-access products, I suppose, but the bottom line that more daring projects must be rewarded still stands amidst this. When the Oscars treat animation as a medium in the same way as they did live-action in 2020, by rewarding innovation and freshly explored ideas, it will go at least a little way towards changing attitudes. The conceptual and visual quality of Klaus ought to speak for itself against Toy Story 4. I hope that next year we can see an equally good selection of films for the category — and that a more adventurous choice can be voted as its winner.

Header image: Netflix
Article images: The Academy, Disney Pixar, Netflix

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