If the advance predictions are correct, this year’s Academy Awards looks to be an uneventful affair. There’s near-unanimous agreement among Oscar pundits about who will win most of the major awards, and among the predicted winners, there’s very little worth getting preemptively worked up about. But there’s one Oscar victory I’m already bracing myself for and fuming about, and that’s the victory of Pixar’s Soul over Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers.
Soul isn’t a bad movie, exactly. It’s inventive and charming, despite some underthought racial politics, and the scene set in a Black barbershop will likely stand as a watershed moment in the history of Hollywood animation. But it’s also far from Pixar’s best, and even nominating it—along with the even-less-inspiring Onward—feels more like the product of reflex than careful consideration. By contrast, Wolfwalkers is a dazzling achievement on practically every level, staggering in its visual beauty and thoughtful in its reworking of ancient myth for a contemporary audience. As the culmination of what director Tomm Moore has identified as a trilogy inspired by Irish folklore, it’s even more impressive, and rewarding it would be a way of acknowledging what Moore and his partners at Cartoon Saloon, Paul Young and Nora Twomey, have built: an independent animation studio, located in a midsize city in Ireland, that has over the course of less than two decades established itself as an artistic powerhouse, worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Aardman Animations and even Studio Ghibli.
Wolfwalkers is the fourth of Cartoon Saloon’s four features to be nominated, and, if Soul wins, it would also be the fourth to lose. (The previous three nominees were 2010’s The Secret of Kells, 2014’s Song of the Sea, and 2017’s The Breadwinner.) Meanwhile, a win for Soul would be Pixar’s 11th in the 20-year history of the Best Animated Feature award, a record not even Disney comes close to equaling. For predictive purposes, even more important than Pixar’s wins is its much shorter history of losses: The Oscar has gone to a non-Pixar studio only nine times, but in six of those years, Pixar wasn’t even nominated—which is to say that when they’ve had the chance to vote Pixar, Oscar voters have done so almost 80 percent of the time. When Pixar is up for an Oscar, the academy practically needs a reason not to give it to them.
Soul isn’t the worst of the Animated Feature nominees—that distinction goes to the Netflix eyesore Over the Moon—and it’s not even the worst Pixar nominee. But it would be a depressingly rote choice, especially when Wolfwalkers is on the table. The movie, co-directed by Moore and Stewart, is a love letter to classic hand-drawn animation, an element that distributor Apple TV+ has been stressing in the last leg of the movie’s awards campaign. Where the art book for Pixar’s Soul—now a key component of any animated film’s awards strategy—is mostly a glossy collection of production sketches, The Art of Wolfwalkers is an elaborate study by animation historian Charles Solomon, who likens the movie to the work of Disney’s old masters. That’s not to say its style is solely backward-looking. In fact, the animators used sophisticated digital techniques, including building the 17th-century Irish forest in which much of the movie takes place as a computer-generated 3D environment before drawing the frames by hand. But where Moore talked early on about how digital tools allowed them to refine scenes through a near-infinite process of iteration, the focus has shifted to Cartoon Saloon as keepers of the flame, which may prove to be a tactical error.
If you’re a fan of traditional animation, Wolfwalkers is an absolute thrill, a movie that at times is practically flamboyant about its hand-drawn origins. Characters, especially the wolves and wild humans who live outside the walled city of Kilkenny, are drawn with visible pencil marks, so that you can almost see preliminary sketch through the finished product. There are moments inspired by centuries-old woodcuts where all pretense of a third dimension drops away, boldly graphic images that can make your breath catch in your throat. But the Oscars aren’t just about artistic achievement. They’re awards the movie industry gives to itself, and as such, they’re deeply informed by how that industry sees itself, both now and in the future. They can be aspirational, rewarding movies like Moonlight or Parasite, but a win for something like Argo or Green Book feels like the industry’s way of holding out a certain kind of movie—crowd-pleasing, with enough awareness of social issues to seem vaguely enlightening but lacking the sharp political edge that might cause viewers to actually interrogate their own beliefs—and saying, “This is what we do.”
When it comes to animation, that kind of self-congratulatory calculation combines with a more material one: jobs. The academy’s animation branch has a pronounced protectionist bent, favoring movies from established studios in favor of those from upstart outsiders—in some cases even rewriting the rules to exclude them. Despite being recognized by many critics’ groups as the best animated movie of the year, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life was excluded from the inaugural crop of Animated Film nominees over concerns that the movie’s technique, which involved drawing over live-action footage of the actors, was not “real” animation. (There were only three nominees that year, and one of them was Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.) In 2010, the animation branch added a special rule stating that motion-capture animation, a mainstay of Hollywood filmmaking, both animated and (ostensibly) not, does not, “by itself,” qualify as animation. As more figures drift back and forth between the worlds of animation and live action—Brad Bird going from The Incredibles to the Mission: Impossible series and back again, Roger Deakins advising on the virtual cinematography of Wall-E and How to Train Your Dragon—some anxious boundary-drawing from the medium’s gatekeepers is not surprising. But it’s noteworthy that even as the academy has shown greater fondness for live-action movies produced outside the Hollywood system, it’s remained stubbornly resistant if not outright hostile to nonstudio animation—to say nothing of animated films produced in a languages other than English. With the exception of Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Spirited Away—the former produced with DreamWorks, the latter distributed by Disney—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. It’s as if there were an unspoken rule that the trophy couldn’t travel more than a few hours’ drive.
This year’s Academy Awards will largely be an in-person affair, but part of me wishes it was being done Emmys-style, if only for the site of an academy flunky in full PPE standing outside Cartoon Saloon’s Kilkenny headquarters waiting for the cue to hand them the statue. Even if they didn’t win, an Oscar would have made the journey to Ireland, and that would be a big step in the direction of acknowledging that the future of animation isn’t only in Hollywood.