Pop Culture Happy Hour
2023 Oscars Guide: Animated Feature
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STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
This year's Oscar nominees for best animated feature don't have a lot in common besides animation.
GLEN WELDON, HOST:
You've got a dark vision of "Pinocchio," a red panda from Pixar, a swashbuckling sea adventure, the latest entry in the "Shrek" franchise and a tiny shell. I'm Glen Weldon.
THOMPSON: And I'm Stephen Thompson. Today, we are bringing you a guide to this year's Oscar-nominated animated features on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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THOMPSON: It's just the two of us today. As we said at the top, this year's best animated feature nominees are all over the map. Let's kick it off with "Puss In Boots: The Last Wish." That's the first movie in 11 years from the "Shrek" franchise. In it, the swashbuckling cat, played by Antonio Banderas, embarks on a quest to restore his nine lives. It's available to rent or buy on demand and will be streaming on Peacock starting March 10. Glen, what did you think of "Puss In Boots"?
WELDON: I mean, I liked this more than I think I have any right to. You know, at the end of the day, Stephen, this wasn't loaded down with lore, with a lot of narrative baggage the way so many of these movies are. They're so fussy. They're always overcomplicated. Here, it's a simple quest story. There's a thing in the woods. Let's go get the thing in the woods.
THOMPSON: Yeah (laughter).
WELDON: I'm down for that. And yeah, I know the cuteness overload thing felt forced, where, you know, they just kind of stare at each other and get big eyes. We've seen it before. In fact, I understand, intellectually, that all of these jokes, which I liked, are the product of a writers room of comedians doing punch-up. This is punch-up the movie. I get that. But at the end of the day, the notion of Goldilocks and the three bears as a crime family - I'm in. I like Jack Horner as a villain. The thing I had most fun in this movie was the whole dynamic between Jack Horner and the conscience bug.
WELDON: And if you haven't seen it, the conscience bug is a riff on Jiminy Cricket. He's this insect who believes that even the evil Jack Horner could not possibly be a bad person.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PUSS IN BOOTS: THE LAST WISH")
KEVIN MCCANN: (As the Ethical Bug) You know, I'm starting to think you don't appreciate the value of a life.
JOHN MULANEY: (As Jack Horner) What? No. I mean, I love these guys. Flex the glutes. I need a solid surface.
MCCANN: (As the Ethical Bug) There's good in all people. There's good in all people.
WELDON: If you need a lesson to teach kids that there are horrible, horrible people in the world and they are not deserving of your trust, I mean, say that, movie. Preach. I get it. I dug it. I really dug it.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) Yeah. You know, I've talked many times on this show about my deep and abiding love of the "Kung Fu Panda" trilogy.
THOMPSON: And this is the same studio. These are both DreamWorks. There's a lot of similar DNA here - the clashing and contrasting animation styles that make this movie so fun and dynamic to look at. The script, as you say, it's punched-up to the heavens, and it is punched-up very, very effectively. I found it very funny. It's a fun quest. Everybody's making a meal of this movie. You have not mentioned the other villain, which is the Wolf.
THOMPSON: If you are watching this movie with very little kids, this wolf is a very scary villain.
WELDON: I think I had blocked him 'cause he is terrifying.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) And I think that makes this movie that much more effective. You have villains who are silly, and you have a villain who is actually very scary. Also, speaking as someone who occasionally has panic attacks, I think this film does a pretty great job of capturing - for people who have experienced a panic disorder, to kind of see that depicted on a screen in an accurate and effective and thought-provoking way, I was not expecting from a movie that has silly Goldilocks and her crime syndicate and all these very silly components. There is a little bit of an undercurrent of seriousness to this film that also worked very, very well for me. Also, that little dog is adorable.
THOMPSON: Harvey Guillen from "What We Do In The Shadows," who's - he's so great on "What We Do In The Shadows," and he is so great as this cute little dog who - again, he's undercutting something. He's part of the pH balance of this movie that works so well. I really - I loved this movie.
WELDON: Yeah. And Harvey Guillen is out-Josh Gadding (ph) Josh Gad. And I'm here for that. Love that.
WELDON: You mentioned the animation styles. I think there are moments of action in this movie where it moves from 3D animation to old-school 2D animation. And it's still CGI, but that choice to kick it into something kind of old-school, more Looney Tunes, to heighten the action at specific moments, I mean, I wasn't expecting it. Is this a DreamWorks thing? Because, I mean, when I think DreamWorks, I think (impersonating Sylvester Stallone) you the ant and Smash Mouth.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) Oh, you got to move past that.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) I mean, for one thing, it really is very reminiscent of, particularly, the second and third "Kung Fu Panda" movie.
THOMPSON: Both of those films do some of that same thing where the action often takes place with a different animation style. Certainly, you can see some influence from "Into The Spider-Verse"...
THOMPSON: ...In the way some of these different styles clash. For me, it's enormously effective...
THOMPSON: ...And, again, makes this movie feel really dynamic. You're not just seeing one thing.
WELDON: All right. We're corporate shills, but let us be corporate shills.
THOMPSON: Hey, man, good movie's a good movie.
THOMPSON: I highly recommend "Puss In Boots: The Last Wish." It is available to rent or buy on demand and will be streaming on Peacock starting this Friday, March 10. Next up, we've got "The Sea Beast" from Netflix. That's a swashbuckling adventure of a different sort, complete with a team of monster hunters, an orphaned girl and a huge, red, "How To Train Your Dragon"-like creature who isn't all she seems. Glen, what did you think of "The Sea Beast"?
WELDON: I mean, I don't know. This is the one of these five that kind of slid off me as soon as it was over, which surprised me because I am a man who very recently embraced my inner dad-ness by just enjoying the hell out of "Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World."
WELDON: But this didn't hook me. I mean, I like the message. I like teaching kids to question authority and reject the monarchy. That's good. We get kaiju action. I love me some kaiju action. But I just felt like this film was checking boxes, that it was made by committee. And I know that all films are made by committee, and I know especially animation films are made by committee, but I could just feel the imprint of all these different hands that worked on it. I felt like the design of the sea beast was maybe too "How To Train Your Dragon" for - to capture anything it needed to. And the presence of the orphan girl seemed like a studio note. I should not be sitting there thinking that was probably a studio note, but I was. Maybe it started from a place of deep, idiosyncratic love of adventure on the high seas, but in execution, it ended up into this all-things-for-all-people kind of thing. Maybe it started off as "Cabin Boy," but it ended up as "Pirates Of The Caribbean 6."
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KARL URBAN: (As Jacob Holland) We come all this way for a proper fight.
JARED HARRIS: (As Captain Crow) And we'll get it, me boy. It's been 30 years since that thing took me deadlight. Now I'll have my revenge.
URBAN: (As Jacob Holland) Aye.
WELDON: I wanted to love this, but I just felt it was going through the motions, and I was losing all my drive.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I had a very, very similar reaction. I was surprised at how familiar some of these beats felt, how much in particular it is just drawing, seemingly, just straight from "How To Train Your Dragon," right up to and including the design of the sea beast...
THOMPSON: ...Which really tips the movie's hand in terms of where it's going. For a long time in this film, you're really supposed to, I think, be questioning which side we're supposed to be on. And to me, the design of that beast just really tips the movie's hand. It just seems to be stitched together from a lot of familiar pieces. There is some gorgeous animation in it. It is engrossing enough. It's certainly a movie that I didn't sit there, like, checking my watch during. And it's - you know, it's streaming on Netflix, so it's not like I'm paying $50 to take my family to the movies to see it. Like you said, it kind of washed over me and was pretty quickly forgettable other than, as you say, the notes of smashing the monarchy, which - you know, we fought a war for a reason.
THOMPSON: So that's "The Sea Beast" streaming now on Netflix. It's fine. Next up we've got "Turning Red," I think a movie we have stronger feelings about. That's Pixar's story of a girl whose friendships and her relationship with her mother gets strained when she discovers that intense emotions cause her to transform into a fluffy red panda. It's directed by Domee Shi. She won an Oscar for directing the animated short "Bao." "Turning Red" is Pixar's first film directed solely by a woman, the first Pixar film with all-female creative leads and only the second Pixar feature from an Asian director. It's streaming now on Disney+. Glen, give me your thoughts on "Turning Red."
WELDON: I mean, I really dug this. And this is the one I'm pulling for, frankly, not just because of what it represents, capital R, but I feel like it's a story that draws on these cultural touchstones without co-opting them - right? - without sanding them down. It's getting energy and storytelling momentum that feels like it's coming from a very specific place. And specificity matters. Specificity resonates, even if it's not familiar. So, you know, we - you and I, Stephen - belong to a community that I would call egregiously white. We might not be familiar with these particular cultural touchstones, but this film does not come off as generic, and it feels real. I can only - from the outside, I can only trust that it's getting the cultural stuff right because I sure as hell know that it is getting the teenage crush stuff right.
THOMPSON: Boy, it is.
WELDON: And so I - based on that - transitive property - I can tell. And what I also love is that there is a symbolic component to it, how the red panda works with the bonds of the friends and the conflicts within the family. But if you took the symbolic stuff away, you would still have, at the heart of this, a really good story. It drafts on the allegory. It gets heightened by the allegory. But it doesn't entirely depend on it, you know? What it's doing with the symbolism is it's adding layers, but it's not providing the entire infrastructure. There's still a really good story at the heart of this.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I was on the episode of this show where we talked about this movie when it originally came out, and I loved it so much. And almost immediately after taping that episode, I went back and watched it again and loved it even more. This is my favorite of this crop. This is the movie that I hope wins. It is just a gorgeous little film. And you talked, Glen, about the specificity. I think that's so key to it. As you say, you and I do not share a lot of the experiences that this film reflects, but the ones I do, I know it gets right.
WELDON: (Laughter) Yep.
THOMPSON: And you mentioned teenage crushes, and that's accurate, but also, the way this film captures early-aughts boy bands...
WELDON: Yep, yep.
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4 TOWN: (Singing) You're never not on my mind. Oh my. Oh my. I'm never not by your side, your side, your side.
THOMPSON: Man, if those songs are not effective boy band pastiches, this movie can fall flat in a lot of places, and it completely doesn't. Give credit to Finneas and Billie Eilish for writing these songs that so perfectly evoke the sounds of boy bands from 20 years ago. Even the fact that it's set in Toronto, you can feel that specificity, even though I've never spent any real time in that city. There's such a lovely fuel mixture going on here between universal experiences and specific experiences. And at the same time, it's very funny. It's very warm. This is such a lovely film. I'm so glad it's being honored here. I would love to see it win. It is my favorite of this crop.
THOMPSON: And that's "Turning Red." It is streaming now on Disney+. I highly recommend you check it out if you have not already. "Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio" is next up. That's streaming on Netflix. Made with stop-motion animation, it's a dark but sentimental retelling of the classic Italian children's story, complete with a new batch of original songs. Glen, what did you think of this one?
WELDON: I love it. I mean, it's weird. It's funky. This is the one that has stuck with me the most after seeing it because it is weird and funky in the way that all the best del Toro stuff is. You don't go to him for precise, linear storytelling. You go to him for something kind of funky and organic, and there's a shagginess there. Everything doesn't quite come together at right angles - kind of comes together at oblique angles. And it has to be meticulously constructed 'cause it is stop-motion animation, and it has to be precise and rigorous. But because it's del Toro, none of it feels precise and rigorous and stiff in execution. I like what it's adding to the story with this stuff about faith and fascism. That said, I'm personally glad that, come Oscar night, none of us have to sit through "Ciao Papa," the - one of the songs because that song sets my teeth on edge.
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GREGORY MANN: (As Pinocchio, singing) Ciao, Papa. Mio papa. Time has come to say farewell.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I was expecting that one to get nominated.
WELDON: Me too.
THOMPSON: I liked this film but didn't love it - maybe experiencing a little bit of "Pinocchio" fatigue.
THOMPSON: I found some of the sentimentality a little bit cloying in this film. It is beautiful to look at. It is very, very, very rigorously made. You can see the work up on the screen. But I didn't necessarily have, like, a deep connection to this film I think maybe because I maybe longed for a little more humor. I think maybe, in animation, I appreciate a little bit more humor than is on display here. This is a pretty serious retelling. But I certainly admire the incredible craft that...
THOMPSON: ...Went into this film. And I think when we talk about should win versus will win, I suspect this film will win. It does appear to be the front-runner in this category. If you're checking a box on your Oscar pool, this is where I would check it. I'm not going to be furious or deeply disappointed if and when that happens. I think it is a gorgeous piece of filmmaking. It just didn't resonate for me as much as I kind of wish it had.
WELDON: Yeah. I agree. This is the one to check your Oscar pool to, and I think some of that is because the texture of the film is literally on screen. There's a narrative texture, but there's a visual texture here, too, because everything has the look of carved wood, which gets pretty meta because it's about a wooden puppet who wants to be real. So if everybody looks like they're made out of wood, what's real anyway? I just love what it's - how it's playing with that visually.
THOMPSON: Yeah. Well, that's "Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio." I think it's our front-runner. It's streaming on Netflix now. Finally, "Marcel The Shell With Shoes On" tells the tale of a tiny shell who searches for his lost family with the aid of a human documentarian. It's based on characters created by Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer Camp, whose YouTube short went viral in 2010. It's the first mix of stop-motion animation and live action ever to be nominated in this category. "Marcel The Shell With Shoes On" is currently on Showtime and available to rent or buy on demand. Glen, what did you think?
WELDON: Well, this is a very quiet movie. And if it wins for animation, I can make a case for it, even though the stop-motion in it is kind of stiff, deliberately stiff, using real-world objects. I think that's kind of the point, though, and I think that works from a story level and from a character level because it has to seem like Marcel, the shell with shoes on, is this tiny guy overmatched by the world. We have to see that it's an effort for him to make it through a day. So what we end up with is this kind of mumble-core animation.
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DEAN FLEISCHER CAMP: (As Dean) Rolling - give me some levels.
JENNY SLATE: (As Marcel) Give you some levels? Like...
FLEISCHER CAMP: (As Dean) Just, like, talk a little bit.
SLATE: (As Marcel) Like, oh, hello. My name is - darn. It's not the first time I've done that. My name is Marcel, and I'm partially a shell.
WELDON: I definitely think people should check it out, and I definitely think it could win. And ultimately, you know, there are those who call it cute and twee and cloying. And I would say, what saves it, for me, from being that is that there is a sadness, a melancholy in here that feels earned, that keeps it from being sweet because you sense something - and maybe I'm reading too much into this. But Slate and the director you mentioned, Dean Fleischer Camp, they created Marcel together. They were married. They are no longer married. And I think if you go into that knowing that, you can kind of feel that. It's speaking to a loss. It's about grief, but it's speaking to loss in a different way. And I came away thinking, yeah, I get it. I get what this movie's trying to do.
THOMPSON: Yeah. There's something really going on with this film where, on the surface, it feels, by design, very small, very modest. When it got nominated in this category, I even kind of had the reaction of, like, really? There's - first of all, there's so much live action. There's so much - it's just...
THOMPSON: They're just moving a little shell around. What are you talking about? And the more, A, I read about it and the more they talked about, like, man, we worked really hard for you to not see any of the seams of how actually difficult this film was to make - and I get that. My first reaction when it was nominated is, boy, if we're going to nominate mixes of live action and animation, "Chip 'N Dale: Rescue Rangers" was right there.
THOMPSON: And to me, that is my - probably my favorite movie with animation in it in 2022, maybe. You know, I love "Turning Red," love "Puss In Boots." But the more I kind of read about it and the more I kind of studied, like, how much - the more they turned live action into animation in ways that you couldn't necessarily see, the more I thought about it kind of the way you're talking about the way the plot has more going on than it might seem. This is a movie that works on multiple levels. It can kind of skim by and just be very kind of sweet, and then you forget about it. But as you say, there are notes of melancholy and bits about grief and divorce that are powerful and thought-provoking. I think this is a sweet film, and I'm ultimately glad it's nominated, even though - justice for "Chip 'N Dale: Rescue Rangers."
WELDON: It's a tiny torch you're carrying, but it's a torch, and it's all yours.
THOMPSON: So that's "Marcel The Shell With Shoes On." It is on Showtime and now available to rent or buy on demand.
WELDON: So we're thinking - yes, I think we're agreed - should win, "Turning Red" - will win, "Pinocchio." Yeah?
THOMPSON: I think that's right.
THOMPSON: I think you and I have come down more or less the same on the should and the will. In general, though, I didn't think there was a dud in this bunch. I don't think you can really go wrong just putting any of these on if they happen to be streaming.
WELDON: Yeah. I agree. None of these are dud-adjacent.
THOMPSON: Awesome. Well, we want to know what you think about this year's Oscar-nominated animated films. Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Glen, thanks so much for being here.
WELDON: Thank you, pal.
THOMPSON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. I'm Stephen Thompson, and we will see you all tomorrow.
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