Since 1937, animated films have made millions of dollars and charmed an equal number of moviegoers. Eleven of the top 100 box office grosses of all time belong to animated films and the genre has exploded since the late 1980s. Only now has the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seen it fit to hand out Oscars for "Best Animated Feature Film." This begs the question: What took so long? One would think that after Beauty and the Beast nearly humbled Hannibal Lechter in 1992 the Academy would have put a few guidelines in the storyboard stage, but the process took nearly a decade. When one looks at the defining rules -- 70 minutes running time, a significant number of the major characters to be animated, and animation evident for at least 75% of the film's running time -- it is difficult to fathom why they weren't developed earlier. Ah well, better late than never. What film will take that seminal Oscar home? On whose mantelpiece shall the cel-ebratory statuette stand? What title shall follow the stark pause after the catchphrase "And the winner is..." sets countless silicone-enhanced breasts heaving with anticipation on Oscar night? Don't ask me, people. I'm the brilliant prognosticator who told you that Shrek would peter out before it made $30 million. I can't even walk into a bakery without being heckled by pans of gingerbread men.
Still, what if...what if the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film had been awarded since 1937? What a rich tradition animated films would have had! Well, wonder no longer, my long-suffering readers; this month we will go back in time to take a look at the drama, the triumph, the tragedy, and the cupidity that is...the Oscars. Cue the tape, dim the lights, and -- get those gingerbread men out of here! Why must they taunt me so?
The first Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film goes to Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In order to create an actual competition, Paul Terry was allowed to edit thirteen Farmer Al Falfa cartoons into a 90-minute film. It was not much of a contest.
When Disney's Dumbo was nominated for an Oscar against the Fleischer's Mr. Bug Goes to Town, the latter studio attempted to disqualify their rival by pointing out that Dumbo ran only 64 minutes. Disney countered by having Howard Swift and some assistants add an extra seven minutes to the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence. The new sequence, entitled "Nude Pink Elephants A Go-Go," was a tremendous hit with the screening committee, who awarded the film the Oscar. The sequence was then cut before general release and hidden away where Charles Solomon and John Grant would never, ever find it.
Disney's The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad beats out The Magic Horse, an entry from the USSR. A rabble-rousing young senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy demands to know how a Russian film was nominated in the first place, a comment that draws the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee. At last it can be told; the secret origin of the infamous Hollywood blacklist.
The Oscar comes down to a contest between Halas and Batchelor's Animal Farm and Disney's Lady and the Tramp. When the Disney film is awarded the Oscar, the losers storm the stage and attempt the overthrow of all human presenters. Order is restored, but not before a deeply embedded horseshoe is removed from the posterior of presenter Robert Mitchum.
The first anime Oscar winner goes to Toei Production's The Adventures of Sinbad, which outpoints UPA's Gay Purr-ee. Chuck Jones, who wrote the screenplay for the runner-up, is given a consolation prize; Contents: One Acme Do- It-Yourself Oscar Kit.
The Oscar screening committee desperately tries to find prints of the three obscure nominees: The Man From Button Willow, Willy McBean and His Magic Machine and Pinocchio in Outer Space. They find Button Willow first, playing at a Saturday matinee in Terre Haute, Indiana. The Oscar is awarded on the spot.
1969: Mad Monster Party is the first stop-motion winner of the Oscar.
What do you know? That Acme kit really worked! Chuck Jones takes home an Oscar for The Phantom Tollbooth on his way to collecting every honor that animation can bestow.
And the winner is...Fritz the Cat! Runner-up Bill Melendez (Snoopy Come Home) vows that his next animated Peanuts opus will feature a lap dance.
Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin is this year's winner. A record is set for the Longest Disclaimer Prior to the Presentation of an Oscar in the history of the prestigious awards. Mr. Bakshi -- and his golden statuette -- are discreetly escorted through a rear exit by security forces as the disclaimer drones on.
A storm of protest arises when the Oscar goes to The Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Movie. Runners-up Rankin-Bass (Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July) charge that the Warner movie is made up of previously used animation, and that the characters...uhhh...hmmm.
1981: Heavy Metal is the surprise winner over Disney's The Fox and the Hound. Disney Executive Director Ron Miller tells the press: "This is like, so totally bogus, dudes!"
No Oscar is awarded this year. The committee, forced to screen Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer and Here Come the Littles, become comatose and cannot be revived in time to declare a winner. It is rumored that one poor member is today a ruined woman, doomed to a lifetime on anti-psychotic medication.
John and Faith Hubley finally gain their due with The Cosmic Eye.
Up for consideration are four product-based films: Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation; My Little Pony: The Movie; Go-Bots: Legend of the Rock Lord; and Transformers: The Movie. Oscar proves that he is no slave to commercialism when he falls into the arms of Don Bluth for An American Tail. An excited Bluth immediately announces the launching of a Bluth store, a Fievel's Follies water park and a chain of restaurants called Mrs. Brisby's Burgers.
Don Bluth's hopes for a second Oscar are shattered when The Land Before Time comes up short against the Disney/Amblin masterpiece Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Bluth, taking this one hard, places a curse on the committee: they will live to see a hundred musical sequels to his film.
1989: The Little Mermaid defeats Lensman and Twilight of the Cockroaches, but...
1990: ...Akira takes the Oscar this year, and the American-Japanese animation rivalry kicks into gear.
The plot thickens, and it's time to take anime seriously: My Neighbor Totoro edges The Nightmare Before Christmas for the Oscar, and screaming factions of animation fans become the highlight of every Academy Awards show: "U-S-A!" "A-ni-ME!"
1995: Toy Story becomes the first all-CGI film to take an Oscar home, winning out over On The Wings Of Honneamise. "U-S-A!"
1996: Ghost in the Shell rings Quasimodo's bell. Oscar goes back to Japan. "A-ni-ME!"
Warner's Cats Don't Dance is everybody's dark horse, and in some of the rumor mills the cat is out of the bag that Oscar is in the bag. However, Warner neglects to send the screening committee any promotional goodies, PR materials or even a print of the film. The screening committee frantically runs out to local theaters to view Cats Don't Dance, but the lack of publicity for the film has already killed it. Warner officials issue a statement that Cats Don't Dance actually does exist, but it's too late. Weeping with frustration, the committee hands the Oscar to Disney's Hercules.
DreamWorks SKG sends Antz up against A Bug's Life, and the antz go marching to defeat. Jeffrey Katzenberg swears to the press that in the near future he'll wrest that Oscar from his former employer: "I can get as mean as an ogre and as stubborn as a mule! Saaay...that gives me an idea...!"
Warner's The Iron Giant is everybody's dark horse, and in some of the rumor mills...um...haven't we been here before? Tarzan is a controversial winner over Princess Mononoke, but an animated Eric Cartman steals the show when he touts South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut as "Way f***** better than any of these s***-ass movies! Suck my ****, Oscar!," when the film's nomination is announced.
Sixty-four years have passed without this much fun, but there is no doubt that from now on the entertainment world can look forward to a lively tussle whenever the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film is at stake. Although my account of Oscars past is a facetious one, the rivalries between Disney and DreamWorks, between studios and independents, and the race for box office supremacy between anime and American animation should guarantee excitement for years to come. As animation evolves through CGI, motion-capture, VR and holography, the stakes can only be raised. I for one am looking forward to cheering on my favorites every year. Perhaps one day, if my wildest dreams come true, I'll even get to be a presenter. Standing there in my tux, the fateful envelope in hand, I look out over an eager audience. Sitting there in the first few rows are the Hopefuls, each one convinced that their animated film is one of the best ever made. I glance at the TelePrompTer, and then back the crowd, who have suddenly, inexplicably turned into a horde of sneering gingerbread men...will they ever let me live this down?
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.