Oscars: Can 'Spider-Verse' Beat Powerhouses Pixar and Disney in the Animated Feature Race?

Bendik Kaltenborn

While the film has emerged as the frontrunner for the animated feature Academy Award, it faces competition from 'Incredibles 2' (Pixar) and 'Ralph Breaks the Internet' (Disney Animation).

The movie debuted with a splash. Featuring a Marvel superhero who had never before had the full feature-film spotlight to himself, it was enthusiastically embraced by critics, scoring a roaring 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and then immediately took off at the box office.

Even more significantly, it was praised for providing a winning protagonist with whom young moviegoers of color could identify. Kids soon began appearing on Twitter and Instagram dressed as the film's titular hero. In short, it was hailed as a cultural breakthrough.

We're not talking Black Panther here, though all of the above certainly was true of the Marvel megahit. Instead, the subject at hand is Sony Pictures Animation's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which followed a similar trajectory, breaking some of the same ground in the animation world that Black Panther had already broken in the live-action arena.

Spider-Verse — which centers on young half-Latino, half-African-American Miles Morales as he grows into his identity as Spider-Man in one of the many alternative universes that spider-men seemingly inhabit — has already won the Golden Globe for best animated motion picture and the Producers Guild Award for outstanding animated theatrical motion picture. And, as one of five nominees, it now is seeking to continue that momentum by claiming the Oscar for best animated feature.

But making that final Spidey leap isn't guaranteed by any means. The movie faces formidable competition. There's Pixar's entry, Brad Bird's Incredibles 2, which follows the further adventures of Bob and Helen Parr and their supergifted children from the 2004 original, which was itself an Oscar winner. Disney Animation is fielding another well-liked sequel, Rich Moore and Phil Johnston's Ralph Breaks the Internet, in which the video game villain turned hero Wreck-It Ralph ventures into the wilds of cyberspace. Additionally, director Wes Anderson, who received an animation nomination for 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox, is back with a new example of his idiosyncratic brand of stop-motion whimsy, Fox Searchlight's Isle of Dogs, about a land full of endangered canines, while GKIDS, the indie distributor, earned its 11th nomination for best animated feature for its latest Japanese import, Mamoru Hosoda's hand-drawn Mirai, a magic-infused tale of a young boy dealing with a sibling rivalry.

Statistically, those Pixar and Disney nominations present a bit of a roadblock to any upstart animation competitor. In the 17 years since the category was created, Pixar or Disney Animation has won 12 times, most recently in March when Pixar scored with its Mexican-themed Coco. In fact, it's been a full seven years since a film that wasn't produced by Disney or Pixar — Paramount's animated Western Rango — took the prize. And both movies also have lots of critical support themselves — Incredibles 2 registered at 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, while Ralph was close behind with 88 percent.

But in a year when Oscar voters might be looking to celebrate diversity, Spider-Verse, directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, is unusual in the spontaneous support it has received from live-action directors, applauding both its inventive storytelling and inclusive spirit. Raved If Beale Street Could Talk director Barry Jenkins in one tweet, "Certified hype: SPIDER-MAN #IntoTheSpiderVerse is magnificent! In being the best SPIDER-MAN film ever, one of the best films of this year period & best tentpole since EDGE OF TOMORROW!" Seconded Ava DuVernay, "Saw #SpiderVerse for the second time last night. Took the whole family. This time in 3D … From my 85-year-old Grandmother who hails from South Central LA. To my 13-year-old niece visiting from Alabama. And everyone in between. We laughed. Cried. Cheered. And had wonderful discussions afterward. Perfect."

To be sure, when it comes to diversity and gender issues, animated features often are more progressive than most mainstream studio pics, and that's true of this year's other nominees as well. In the latest version of Incredibles, Holly Hunter's Elastigirl takes on the biggest challenges as Craig T. Nelson's Mr. Incredible remains at home. Ralph gives equal weight to Ralph's sidekick, Vanellope von Schweetz, voiced by Sarah Silverman, who is something of a mean speed racer. Mirai focuses on a young boy, learning to live with the various members of his family, in a world where identities can be quite fluid. And while Isle of Dogs is, inevitably, inhabited by dogs, they represent a varied lot, from purebreds to mutts.

The question come Academy Awards night will be whether this particular animated Spidey can surpass all those competitors to spin a web that captures Oscar.

This story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.