Retiring Miyazaki Enters Wide-Open Animation Oscar Race (Analysis)

Hayao Miyazaki - H - 2013
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Almost every year since the Academy first presented the best animated feature Oscar in 2002, there has been one film that was the clear frontrunner to take home that prize. Remember Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Ratatouille (2007), Wall-E (2008), Up (2009), Toy Story 3 (2010) and Rango (2011), among others?

This year, that is not the case.

The category is overflowing -- with mediocrity. There are lackluster sequels including Sony's The Smurfs 2, Universal's Despicable Me 2 and Pixar's Monsters University. There are standalone films that came and went without making a huge impression -- in part because they seem a lot like films that came before them -- such as Disney's Planes and DreamWorks' The Croods and Turbo. And then there's some grab-bag stuff, including GKIDS' French-language Ernest & Celestine and Drafthouse Films' live-action/animation blender The Congress.

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There is one film, though, that strikes me as having potential to break away from the pack: The Wind Rises, the first film in five years from 72-year-old Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki, who previously won the best animated feature Oscar for his masterpiece Spirited Away (2001) and was also nominated for Howl's Moving Castle (2004). Miyazaki is an immortal god in the animation community -- and seriously bolstered his prospects of being honored this year, I would argue, when he announced on Sept. 1 -- the same day that The Wind Rises, his 11th film, had its world premiere in Venice and its North American premiere in Telluride, where I caught it -- his retirement.

The film has already received a commercial bounce from the revelation: it was released in Japan eight weeks ago and has been No. 1 at the Japanese box office ever since. But this past weekend, the first since Miyazaki's announcement, THR reported that its gross increased 13.6 percent from the previous weekend, and it is now expected to soar past the $100 million mark next weekend.

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Now the question is whether or not the news will make Academy members more inclined to celebrate Miyazaki's swan song, as well -- and I can't imagine how it wouldn't. Today, it was confirmed that the film will be in contention this year, as Disney's Touchstone Pictures, which owns its U.S. rights, will give it an Oscar-qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles during the week of Nov. 8, before rolling it out in the rest of the U.S. beginning Feb. 21. And with the power of Disney behind it, it will have a strong shot.

But, it must be noted, the film's path to the Dolby is not entirely clear. There are still a few animated awards hopefuls that have yet to debut, including Sony's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, out Sept. 27, and Disney's own Frozen, out Nov. 27, a computer-animated 3D production that could resonate more with American audiences. Speaking of which, there is already some controversy over the fact that the Japanese film revolves around -- and basically celebrates -- the man who designed the planes that waged war against Americans during World War II, which could rub some voters the wrong way.

Still, The Wind Rises has some very powerful champions on this side of the Pacific, including Hollywood producers/power couple Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, who traveled to Telluride to introduce the film there and spoke gushingly about "Miyazaki-san."