Every few years, the Academy tweaks the rules for its animated feature category, with the net result that the nominees tend to skew ever more mainstream. That makes it tough for most of this year’s hopefuls: A record-setting number of animated features submitted (nearly three dozen, though the Academy is still finalizing its list). Those who pick the noms are required to watch roughly a third before ranking their top five, which can include additional titles they might have seen on their own. Blockbusters naturally benefit, though “Flee” and “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” earned nominations in 2022 and 2023, respectively, suggesting that artful indies still stand a chance.
The Boy and the Heron
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Voices: Luca Padovan, Robert Pattinson
Studio: Studio Ghibli
Rumors of Miyazaki’s retirement were greatly exaggerated, as the unstoppable creative force (who won an Oscar for “Spirited Away” in 2003) returns with a story inspired by his childhood memories during wartime. More fanciful than “The Wind Rises,” but very much of a piece with his earlier work, the film follows a troubled boy on a journey to save his stepmother, culminating in a poignant, personal scene where an older man searches for an heir to carry on his legacy.
Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget
Director: Sam Fell
Voices: Thandiwe Newton, Bella Ramsey
Studio: Aardman Animation
After Aardman’s original “Chicken Run” failed to land a best picture nomination in 2000, the Academy was inspired to create the animated feature category. Twenty-three years later, the sequel seems like a shoo-in for a nom, boasting Aardman’s trademark mix of British wit and amusing stop-motion work. Once again, “Nugget” centers a plucky female protagonist as it pokes fun at a popular genre — in this case, “Mission: Impossible”-style adventure movies, as Ginger arranges to rescue her daughter.
Director: Tian Xiaopeng
Voices: Wang Tingwen, Su Xin
Studio: October Media, Coloroom Pictures
Distributor: Viva Pictures
Visually stunning (to the point of nearly overwhelming audiences’ eyeballs), this emotional CG Chinese blockbuster from the director of “Monkey King: Hero Is Back” erupts with colorful, creative touches. When a girl falls overboard during a family cruise, she stumbles upon a mysterious restaurant floating in the middle of the ocean. She’s distracted by all the commotion in the kitchen for a time, though the film’s Pixar-esque emotional core (which involves coming to terms with her father’s remarriage) packs a punch.
Director: Peter Sohn
Voices: Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie
Pixar’s latest may have been a critical and commercial disappointment on its initial release, but the allegorical opposites-attract comedy — which sets out to show that Fire and Water can make a relationship work in a society determined to keep them separate — found its audience in a big way on Disney+. “Good Dinosaur” director Sohn brings his distinctive character design and second-generation immigrant experience to this high-concept romance, which brings “Inside Out”-level ambition to a “Zootopia”-like megacity.
Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia
Directors: Julien Chheng, Jean-Christophe Roger
Voices: Lambert Wilson, Pauline Brunner
Studios: Folivari, Mélusine Prods., Studiocanal, France 3 Cinéma, Les Armateurs
The Academy has changed the rules since the original “Ernest & Celestine” was nominated in 2014, making it harder (read: all but impossible) for artistically deserving foreign and independent toons to get nominated in this category. Still, animation fans would do well to seek out this splendid sequel, which translates the watercolor look of Gabrielle Vincent’s beloved picture books into a charming, hand-painted aesthetic that offers a visually appealing alternative to busy big-studio animation.
The First Slam Dunk
Director: Takehiko Inoue
Voices: Paul Castro Jr., Ben Balmaceda
Studio: Toei Animation
A monster hit in Japan, where it won the country’s Academy prize for animation, this basketball-centric anime feature has earned more than a quarter of a million dollars. In America, it was a breakout for U.S. distributor GKids, attracting fans of the manga series and newbies who connected with the engaging sports drama. Directed by the artist responsible for the original books, the movie alternates between a high-stakes game and the backstories of players on both teams.
Directors: Jim Capobianco, Pierre-Luc Granjon
Voices: Daisy Ridley, Stephen Fry
Studios: Curiosity Studio, Foliascope, Leo & King
Distributor: Blue Fox
This educational-minded stop-motion movie focuses on idea man Leonardo da Vinci, who was encouraged by a French princess to design all kinds of revolutionary devices, as well as draw up plans for a utopian city. Technically speaking, the film looks downright rudimentary compared to the likes of Aardman and Laika, though some viewers may appreciate a certain kinship with the work of 1960s British TV animator Gordon Murray, creator of “Trumpton” and “Camberwick Green.”
Directors: Robert Marianetti, Robert Smigel, David Wachtenheim
Voices: Adam Sandler, Bill Burr
Studio: Happy Madison Prods.
Striking a tricky balance between juvenile humor and the kind of positive messages young viewers could genuinely use, this computer-animated musical from the team behind the “TV Funhouse” segment on “Saturday Night Live” sends Sandler back to school, again, to play an elderly iguana who’s spent more than seven decades stuck in a fifth-grade classroom. The film’s irreverent in a good way, boasting a whole bunch of amusing songs designed to boost kids’ confidence.
Directors: Benjamin Renner, Guylo Homsy
Voices: Kumail Nanjiani, Elizabeth Banks
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Considering the sheer cultural impact that Illumination has had, it’s surprising that the studio responsible for creating the Minions has never been nominated. That could finally change with this project, hatched by company founder Chris Meledandri and co-directed by Oscar nominee Renner (“Ernest & Celestine”). The comedic tale follows a family of mallards on a wrong-way trip, mixing life lessons with Renner’s delightfully wacky animal-centric comedy.
The Monkey King
Director: Anthony Stacchi
Voices: Jimmy O. Yang, Jolie Hoang-Rappaport
Studios: Reel FX Creative Studios, Pearl Studio
One of China’s most popular legends — namely, “Journey to the West” — gets an energetic new spin, courtesy of the China-based studio that animated “Kung Fu Panda 3” for DreamWorks back in the day. Now partnered with Netflix, Pearl helps an American director adapt the mischievous monkey’s story for a more international crowd. Not to be confused with the Donnie Yen live-action franchise or the earlier toon, voiced by Jackie Chan, the latest is fun, but no Oscar contender.
My Love Affair With Marriage
Director: Signe Baumane
Voices: Dagmara Dominczyk, Michele Pawk
Studios: The Marriage Project, Studio Locomotive, Antevita Films
Distributor: 8 Above
Latvian-born Baumane (“Rocks in My Pockets”) worked with ultra-indie animation legend Bill Plympton early in her career, honing a loose hand-drawn style that serves her well in this deeply personal account of navigating a patriarchal upbringing … and the surprise that awaited her in adulthood. The playfully told story shares a woman’s perspective of falling in love with a trans person, using the freedom the medium provides to explore both parties’ feelings.
Directors: Nick Bruno, Troy Quane
Voices: Chloë Grace Moretz, Riz Ahmed
Studio: Annapurna Pictures
The hippest of this year’s offerings, graphic novel-inspired “Nimona” subverts many of the codes of classic fairy-tale toons, focusing on a disgraced gay knight and a powerful hot-pink “monster” treated as villains by a (corrupt) kingdom. The creature’s shape-shifting antics provide several off-the-wall animated sequences in a bold-looking, orphaned Blue Sky project that was cut loose during the Disney/Fox merger, and then rescued by Annapurna, making it an underdog success.
Director: D.K. Welchman, Hugh Welchman
Voices: Kamila Urzędowska, Robert Gulaczyk
Studios: BreakThru, DigitalKraft, Art Shot
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
The husband-wife team behind 2017’s Oscar-nominated “Loving Vincent” practice an incredibly labor-intensive animation technique, whereby artists hand-paint each frame according to reference footage taken with actors. The process gives the effect of a living canvas, though audiences have been less rhapsodic about the result this time around. One reason: Though Władysław Reymont’s Nobel-decorated novel is widely known in its home country, Americans aren’t necessarily familiar with the material. The film is also representing Poland in the international feature category.
Director: Alê Abreu
Voices: Lorenzo Tarantelli, Giulia Benite
Studios: Buriti Filmes, Sony Pictures, Globo Filmes, Gloob
Abreu was a surprise nominee in 2015 for the Brazilian film “Boy and the World.” His kid-friendly follow-up proves even more audacious in terms of color and design. Alas, the category doesn’t work the way it did back then, making it harder for an independent Latin American feature with a micro U.S. release to score a nomination. Back then, every entry was screened and rated on its own merits, with the five top-scoring films advancing. Today, voters rank their faves.
Director: Pablo Berger
Studios: Arcadia Motion Pictures, Noodles Production, Les Films du Worso, RTVE, Movistar Plus+
Spanish director Berger (“Blancanieves”) affably shifts from live-action to animation, employing a simple hand-drawn style to blend personal impressions of New York City life back in the 1980s with a sneakily moving adaptation of Sara Varon’s graphic novel. Like that comic, the film unfolds without dialogue, focusing on a lonely dog who orders a robot companion by mail. The pair seem inseparable until a tragic setback, inviting audiences to reflect on what friendships are made of.
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken
Director: Kirk DeMicco
Voices: Lana Condor, Toni Collette
Studio: DreamWorks Animation
Distributor: Universal Pictures
These days, both Pixar and DreamWorks lean heavily on sequels to prop up their corporate bottom lines, which makes this original concept a welcome break. The CG movie centers on a junior sea monster torn between life on land and the mysterious legacy her parents managed to hide from her until now. The mythology’s a bit slippery (making mermaids the villains, for example), but the gumby character designs are fun, and phosphorescent visual effects dazzle.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Directors: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson
Voices: Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld
Studios: Columbia Pictures, Marvel Entertainment, Sony Pictures Animation, Pascal Pictures, Lord Miller Prods., Arad Prods.
Distributor: Sony Pictures
Sony’s follow-up to Oscar-winning “Into the Spider-Verse” is all but guaranteed a nom. But only the “Toy Story” franchise has ever scored wins with a sequel, meaning the trophy is hardly preordained. Yes, the film’s boundary-pushing style further advances the influential blend of pulp comics, pop art and anime, but it’s still only half a story, ending on a cliffhanger that could have voters holding for the (still undated) finale, à la “Lord of the Rings.”
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Voices: Nichole Sakura, Josh Keaton
Studios: CoMix Wave Films, Story Inc.
Sooner or later, the Academy is bound to recognize the breathtaking talent of “Your Name” director Shinkai. The anime auteur’s latest blockbuster continues his fascination with natural disasters, focusing on emotional details over spectacular devastation (scenically speaking, no one can compete with Shinkai’s skies). A teenage girl who lost her mother during the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake discovers she has the power to prevent future quakes, teaming up with a “closer” of magic doors, trapped in the form of an anthropomorphic three-legged stool.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie
Director: Aaron Horvath, Michael Jelenic
Voices: Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy
Studios: Universal, Illumination, Nintendo
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Not far behind “Barbie” as the second highest-grossing movie of the year, this eye-candy adaptation of the ultra-popular Nintendo game stands a good chance at being Illumination’s first nominee in this category. Keep in mind, current rules favor widely seen studio movies, and this all-ages hit tickled kids and parents alike by upgrading the look of the 8-bit classic to slick, state-of-the-art CG. Perhaps most importantly (considering 1993’s laughable live-action movie), it worked without tarnishing the underlying IP.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem
Director: Jeff Rowe
Voices: Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr.
Studios: Nickelodeon Movies, Point Grey Pictures
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
The cult franchise got a radical overhaul from co-writer and producer Seth Rogen & Co., whose adolescent sense of humor nicely compliments the “teenage” aspect of the reptilian avengers’ identity. But the real breakthrough occurred at the animation level, which could conceivably put “Mutant Mayhem” in the final five, as Rowe (a co-director on Oscar nominee “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”) embraced a cutting-edge style that allows the finished product to look as rich as the concept art typically relegated to making-of books.
They Shot the Piano Player
Directors: Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal
Voices: Jeff Goldblum, Tony Ramos
Studios: Fernando Trueba PC, Gao Shan Pictures, Les Films D’ici, Prima Linea, Submarine Animanostra
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
The duo behind Oscar-nominated “Chico and Rita” reteamed to make another music-centric film in the same bright, basic style (tropical colors, thick lines), transforming what could have been a standard documentary into an animated tour of Latin America. Inventing a fictional New York journalist, the film features real-life interviews with those who can illuminate the half-forgotten legacy of Bossa Nova pioneer Francisco Tenório Jr., a Brazilian pianist who went missing in Argentina amid the 1976 coup.
Director: Kajsa Naess
Voices: Jan Gunnar Røise, Kåre Conradi
Studios: Mikrofilm, Vivi Film
In an unusual move, the Norwegian Film Institute stepped in to support a theatrical qualifying run and Oscar campaign for this winsome Norwegian-Belgian co-production. Employing a perky hand-drawn style (flat, “cartoony”-looking characters rendered with thin black lines), the kid-friendly adventure film playfully recounts explorer Roald Amundsen’s expedition to conquer the North Pole from the perspective of airship designer Umberto Nobile’s pet terrier. It’s a long shot for a nom, though the awards bid serves to tout Norway’s rising toon industry.
Trolls Band Together
Director: Walt Dohrn
Voices: Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake
Studio: DreamWorks Animation
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Although the first “Trolls” movie snagged an original song nod for Timberlake’s catchy “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” the Academy doesn’t seem to take the CG franchise seriously enough to nominate it in the animated feature race. That means an uphill battle for this upbeat sequel, whose creative visual design embraces bright colors and tactile textures, from the characters’ flocked skin to a pool-party zone where the production design is made up of water beads and foam noodles.
Director: Alberto Vázquez
Voices: Jon Goiri, Gaizka Soria
Studio: Abano Producións, Uniko, Autour de Minuit, Schumuby-Borderline Films
Like early-2000s web series “Happy Tree Friends,” this twisted adult-targeted toon puts adorable characters (rainbow-bright teddy bears) in totally inappropriate situations: first boot camp, where a bed-wetting bear is mercilessly hazed, and later a battlefield where the plush warriors are ordered to kill every last unicorn. It all adds up to an irreverent commentary on the way macho culture chokes the sensitivity out of young men, providing radical counterprogramming against feel-good studio toons.
Directors: Chris Buck, Fawn Veerasunthorn
Voices: Ariana DeBose, Chris Pine
Studio: Walt Disney Animation Studios
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
This 100th-anniverary offering from the Mouse House comes loaded with Easter eggs, paying homage to a century of animated favorites that came before — a fan-targeted tactic that seems to have backfired slightly by underscoring the new film’s shortcomings. Though “Wish” didn’t meet commercial expectations, artistically speaking, it brought an exciting innovation to the studio’s computer-animated fairy-tale aesthetic, fusing 3D, digitally rendered characters with the kind of hand-drawn outlines audiences associate with classic Disney toons.
Nine More in the Mix
Not every animated feature released in theaters is eligible for Oscar, though at least nine additional films took the trouble to submit the paperwork for consideration in the category. Viva Pictures had a hit with Sundance-selected “The Amazing Maurice” in February, GKIDS distributed anime releases “Blue Giant” and “Lonely Castle in the Mirror,” Netflix gave theatrical qualifying runs to CG titles “The Magician’s Elephant” and “Miraculous: Ladybug & Cat Noir The Movie,” and Paramount scored a box-office success with “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie.” That leaves two epic, computer-animated Chinese toons, “Chang’an” and “Warrior King,” as well as wild-card Indian submission “Supreme Motherhood: The Journey of Mata Sahib Kaur,” to round out this year’s slate of contenders.