Animation Grows Up: Breaking Down the 2016 Oscar Nominees

Splash-insideout - H 2015
Courtesy of Disney-Pixar

Splash-insideout - H 2015

From 'Inside Out' to 'Anomalisa,' the animated films competing at this year's Academy Awards appeal to adults.

In a year that gave moviegoers a stop-motion silent film, a puppet love scene and a plot that let Pixar artfully explore the emotion of sadness, it's safe to say that 2016's animated films aren't only for kids.

The Oscar nominees in the animated film category show depth and diversity in style and storytelling, a reflection on cinema as a whole this year. From Jurassic World to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the use of CGI, live action and visual effects in movies has shined — case in point, the second-most talked about character in the best-picture frontrunner The Revenant is the animated grizzly bear.

On Oscar night, Sunday, Feb. 28, the five features vying for best animated film honors are Inside Out, Anomalisa, Boy and the World, Shaun the Sheep Movie and When Marnie Was There.

Each couldn't be more different: One uses CGI, two are hand-drawn films and the other two are stop-motion, while the majority are foreign-made. The film budget for Disney/Pixar's Inside Out was $175 million, whereas both When Marnie Was There and Boy and the World come from an indie distributor and cost far less.

Yet no matter where they came from or how they were made, all five tell complex stories. Below, see how the nominees ventured into untold storytelling territory to earn their place on the 2016 Oscar must-see list.


In his THR review, Todd McCarthy said Inside Out — the popular film about the emotions Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust and Sadness inside the head of a young girl named Riley — "has to be one the most conceptually trippy films ever made as a PG-rated popcorn picture for the general public."

Diving inside the mind of a child to explore her realm of feelings and thoughts, Pixar took a risk by telling a $175 million story that could have gone over the heads of its target audience. But the abstract plot attracted grown-ups and paid off well. After earning stellar reviews, moviegoers worldwide contributed to the film becoming the third-highest Pixar grosser ever at the box office.

Inside Out went on to clean up during awards season — winning 10 Annie Awards and best animated picture at the Golden Globes — and now heads into Oscar night as the category's frontrunner. (The pic also is nominated in the best original screenplay category, but will have to beat Spotlight to take home that prize.)


In Anomalisa, the characters look like puppets, but the dialogue coming out of their mouths makes up this R-rated love story. The adult-themed stop-motion film, co-directed by Oscar-winner Charlie Kaufman, centers on a depressed middle-aged man who sees everyone in his world as the same until he meets a woman during a business trip. There's cursing and even nudity, during in a very intimate sex scene that took six months to bring to life.

"The quality we went for is a realistic, nuanced but dreamlike and somewhat surreal world,” Kaufman said about using 3D printing to create the human-like characters in the dark comedy.

Anomalisa began as a one-act radio play before a Kickstarter campaign raised over $400,000, sending it into production. After premiering at the 2015 Venice Film Festival, it was bought by Paramount and has solidified itself as a best animated picture contender this awards season, earning nominations at the Annie Awards, Golden Globes, Independent Spirit Awards and upcoming Oscars.


Directed by Brazilian artist Ale Abreu, the sketch-story Boy and the World is, at its core, about a boy in search of his father. But instead of using dialogue, the film tells the story with music and pictures. The hand-drawn visuals transform from stick figure-like to immersive and vibrant as the boy travels further away from his home and along his journey.

The fable (from independent distributor GKIDS, which also released When Marnie Was There), is told from the point of view of the child but tackles universal struggles. "This boy could be any poor child — in rich or poor countries — excluded from the globalized world," Abreu said about the protagonist, who communicates with his eyes since he doesn't have a mouth or eyebrows. "It allows for the audience to participate by 'imagining' the character's expressions."

This year's Annie Awards added a new category for best indie feature, which Boy and the World took home.


The stop-motion Shaun the Sheep Movie is a spinoff of Aardman Animation's hit TV series, which is dialogue-free. The silent film sees Shaun and his flock, who are bored with their daily routine, journeying away from their rural home and into the big city.

The challenge of the Lionsgate film was bringing the characters to life without using words, which the movie's sound designer Adrian Rhodes said they accomplished with actors mumbling and making sheep and dog noises. Included in the film are plenty of adult-aimed gags, including when the sheep meet a Hannibal Lecter-like cat, to target an older audience.

In addition to being a critical hit and awards contender, Shaun the Sheep Movie has earned a near-perfect 99 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes.


When Marnie Was There helped to knock The Peanuts Movie and The Good Dinosaur — which earned Globe and Annie nominations — out of the Oscar running by snagging a place in the animated film category.

The second hand-animated film from GKIDS, Marnie is based on Joan G. Robinson's young-adult book of the same name and tells the coming-of-age story of 12-year-old Anna, who has low self-esteem, and the mysterious Marnie figure.

"For all the Annas and Marnies who will come to the theaters to see this film," said director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, I hope to make a movie that feels like a soulmate — one who might sit next to them and just be by their side." The pic takes place in Japan, but Marnie is blond-haired and blue-eyed, and slightly different each time she appears. "I wanted to create a character who feels like she's somewhere between dreams and reality," said the helmer.

The Academy Awards will air live on Sunday, Feb. 28, at 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT on ABC.