Ranking The Best Animated Features Nominated & Predicting the Winner At The 95th Academy Awards (2023): An anthropomorphic wooden boy and an anthropomorphic red panda, a charming shell with shoes, and a charming feline with boots—this eccentric bunch of characters colored our screens in 2022 and have now made their way to nominate their respective films for the prestigious Academy Awards this year. Announced last week, the Academy nominations for Best Animated Features boast a particularly strong list of competitors.

As expected Disney-Pixar scored a nomination with their Turning Red (released on Disney+), although Disney’s other two endeavors, Light Year and Strange World, failed to make a mark this award season. A24 (which has already scored several accolades thanks to its smash hit, Everything Everywhere All At Once) marked its foray into animation with Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, a delightful stop-motion treat.

Netflix replicated Disney’s legacy this year by scoring not one but two nominations—one for their swashbuckler adventure The Sea Beast and the other for Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. The dark horse this year was DreamWorks’s Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, the sequel to the saga of the beloved feline from the Shrek universe. Initially creating little buzz, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish became a critical darling and a box-office hit bringing DreamWorks Animations back on track as pioneers of vibrant storytelling.

A solid set of nominees—each film delighted this reviewer and made this listicle particularly hard to rank. Nevertheless, here I am ranking these five films and marking my humble prediction as to which film would bag the coveted prize!

5. The Sea Beast (Netflix)

The Sea Beast

To date, Netflix’s most successful animated film, The Sea Beast, is a gorgeously animated sea adventure best described as Pirates of The Caribbean meets How to Train Your Dragon. Directed by Chris Williams (Moana, Bolt), The Sea Beast earns every bit of its two-hour runtime, beginning with a riveting sea-monster attack scene that is instantly reminiscent of Dead Man’s Chest.

The film follows Captain Crow (an awesome Jared Harris!), a hunter who leads his invincible ship ‘Inevitable’ to slay a mythical red monster, only known as ‘The Red Bluster.’ Joining him is a valiant crew, including Crow’s disciple Jacob (Karl Urban). But when a precocious girl impedes their hunting expedition, Maisie (Zaris-Angel Hator), all hell breaks loose. While Crow grows more restless about hunting the beast, Jacob begins to rethink his actions as he spends more time with Maisie.

Director Williams continues his streak of vibrantly capturing marine life while paving the way for much-needed representation with a Black-female girl protagonist in the form of Maisie. The film also has a Foucauldian insight into how the creation of knowledge by the most powerful shapes our relationship with both the present and the future.

Despite this, the plot features a familiar beat that was covered a decade ago by How to Train Your Dragon, and Williams somewhat repeats Moana’s message of harmony with the natural world. If only it had steered a bit away from standard tropes, it would have definitely been higher on this list. Nevertheless, those looking for an animated sea adventure needn’t look further, as The Sea Beast delivers much of the genre’s thrills within an important message. Plus, Toothless from HTTUD has a new competition in cuteness with the film’s giant red monster.

4. Turning Red (Disney/Pixar)

Animated Features Academy 2023 - Turning Red

Talking of cute red monsters, Pixar Animations continued their streak of excellence with Turning Red, the studio’s first film released in 2022. Directed by Domee Shi, the film marked a breath of fresh air by pioneering Asian-diaspora representation both in front and behind the camera while simultaneously being a bold thematic feature.

Set in Toronto’s Chinese neighborhood, the film follows Meilin Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), a nerdy overachiever navigating her new-found teenagehood while trying her best to subscribe to parental expectations. But when a familial curse turns her into a giant fluffy red panda, Mei turns her world upside down. Little does Mei know that this curse might actually be a blessing in disguise and help her show the true path of being oneself.

Domee Shi, who directed the Oscar-winning short Bao (2018), continues her exploration of parent-child relationships, especially as they relate within the Asian context. Shi further distinguishes her film from other Pixar endeavors by taking inspiration from anime films and shows, which lends the film an original kinetic aesthetic.

Turning Red is the studio’s most realistic coming-of-age drama (despite featuring a fantastical Red Panda plot!), discussing puberty, menstruation, and generational conflict with confidence. While Pixar’s Luca only hinted at the queer undertone of the film, Turning Red embraces supposedly taboo topics for a children’s movie. Even though the film’s overstuffed finale might come off as a bit bloated, Turning Red nevertheless is a fresh breath of air for Pixar and a highlight for the remarkable Shi.

3. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (A24)

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Director Dean Fleischer Camp took the beloved talking shell from his YouTube short films and transformed it into a feature-length mockumentary that is as adorable as it is heartbreaking. Dean stars as a version of himself, an amateur documentary filmmaker who movies into an Airbnb after a divorce. There he soon encounters Marcel (voiced incredibly by Jenny Slate), a one-inch-tall talking shell who wears adorable shoes. Dean strikes a friendship with the talkative shell and his grandmother, Nana Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini). Dean learns of Marcel’s tragic story and important lessons about family, love, and change as he films Marcel’s wonderous life and uploads those adorable bits on the Internet.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes on combines live-action with stop-motion animation to deliver a quiet yet highly imaginative flick. Seeing the world through Marcel’s tiny eyes, the film makes most of this point of view to render the mundane into something weirdly fascinating (think Toy Story or Honey, I Shrunk The Kids). However, the film does not entirely clings to Marcel’s adorable persona and gradually becomes a profound meditation on loss and the change it entails.

Its existential probing is not as deep as other adult-animated features like Anomalisa (2015), but the very simplicity of its message makes Marcel a distinct standout entry. The mockumentary also nudges at the question of documentary filmmaking and the perceived subject-filmmaker binary of the medium but does not dwell deeper into this inquiry.

While all the other animated nominees rely on the energy and swift pace of the medium, Marcel is unapologetically quiet, making it one of the most comforting films you will see this year.

2. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (Netflix)

Best Animated Features

If you thought that Walt Disney’s 1940 classic, Pinocchio with its undercurrent themes of slavery, child abduction, and grooming, was one of the darkest animated films, wait till you see Guillermo del Toro’s reimagining of the beloved fairy tale. Del Toro sets the fable of the talking wooden boy within fascist-era Italy to deliver a remarkable stop-motion odyssey that both adapts and subverts the original story.

In the film, Pinocchio (voiced by Greggory Mann), a puppet carved by a grieving carpenter, Geppetto (David Bradley), is brought to life by a special forest spirit. However, a naïve Pinocchio is soon thrust into a world of temptation and must make his decisions wisely if he is to impress his father. But it is not easy in fascist-era Italy, where difference is not tolerated, and conformity is expected.

Co-directed by Mark Gustafson, the stop-motion animated film is clearly a labor of love for its makers, having taken several years to be completed. Themes of deviance, war, and belonging, which have often colored the auteur’s work, recur in Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio but with as intelligence as one would expect from the master. Deeply humane in spirit and defiantly anti-war, this harrowing adaptation is definitely a glorious addition to Guillermo del Toro’s filmography.

1. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (DreamWorks Animation)

Animated Features Academy 2023 - Puss In The Boots

To be honest, no one asked for a sequel to Puss in Boots (2011), a Shrek franchise spinoff. While the underrated 2011 film was a clever Western about the iconic outlaw, it soon receded from public memory, and no one batted an eye when the sequel was announced. But here we are! Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is a wildly inventive adventure that is one of the best films of the year.

In the film, Puss in Boots (a fantastic work voice from Antonio Banderas) realizes that he has lost eight of his nine cat lives and must travel to an enchanted forest to locate a wish-granting star. In this pursuit, he is accompanied by his old love, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek Pinault reprising her role from the 2011 film), and an eccentric therapy dog (the show-stealing Harvey Guillén). The trio must race against time as they are chased by a ruthless gang of characters from fairy tales and a mysterious, haunting wolf that wants to kill Puss.

While the first film cemented the status of Puss in Boots as a heroic but rather pompous outlaw, The Second Wish deconstructs the mythic persona to lend a mortal quality to our hero. Director Joel Crawford further imbues his film with so many distinct animation styles and set pieces that every frame of this sequel is a sight to behold. It is also a tightly scripted flick featuring a host of memorable characters voiced by thespians like Banderas, Hayek, Olivia Coleman, Florence Pugh, Ray Winstone, John Mulaney, and especially Wagner Moura as the mysterious Wolf.

It is one of the decade’s boldest and most gleeful animation films and my favorite pick from the nominations.

Which Film Would Win The Golden Statue?

If we go by my personal ranking, I would definitely like to see Puss in Boots: The Last Wish to take home the Oscar. But judging from this award’s season, it is highly likely that Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio will nab the award. The film has already been awarded at the Golden Globes (where we also got del Toro’s remarkable speech about how ‘animation is cinema.’) and at Critics Choice Awards.

It is highly expected that the Academy would continue in the footsteps of its predecessors and award the trophy to the stop-motion reimagining of the classic fairy tale. Considering that only one stop-motion film has ever been awarded the Oscar, this would be a significant win for the medium (not to mention that the film is incredibly well-deserving). If anything upsets this win, I hope it is our beloved outlaw feline from DreamWorks Animation.

Related Read to Best Animated Features: Oscars Nominations 2023

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