There were five fierce contenders on the shortlist for this year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Though the honor was given to “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinnochio,” the rest of the nominees are not to be overlooked. Each film uniquely shined and could be equally praised for breaking new ground in animation. Between the splashy, illustrative style of “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” and the expressive yet distinct stop-motion production “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” and “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinnochio,” this year had a strong lineup on the animation front.
This year’s slate of animated feature films was competitive, with the films’ high-caliber animation and strong storytelling feeding off each other. “Turning Red” presents a Chinese-Canadian preteen girl turned red panda, “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” follows a whimsical walking shell looking for his family and “The Sea Beast” tells a tale of misunderstood sea monsters. We saw a reinvention of a classic story with “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” and a sequel to a spinoff in “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” both of which surpass their predecessors.
Gone are the days when animated movies catered only to children. Together, these five films demonstrate the storytelling power of animation.
‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’ (Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson)
The past few years have seen a number of Pinnochio remakes, including a lackluster Disney live-action remake and a hilariously bad animated reboot. This year’s Academy Award winner, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” breaks from the pack to reimagine the story of Pinnochio in an unexpected setting and time period, revitalizing a plot that has been rehashed too many times. This version of Pinocchio takes place in interwar Italy during Benito Mussolini’s rise to power. In a war-torn state where people blindly follow their leaders, Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) struggles to live up to the expectations of his father Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley). Already unable to blend in due to his wooden skin and famous growing nose, Pinnochio’s rowdy energy stands out in a culture characterized by obedience.
Produced using stop motion, the film’s incredible character design and fantasy elements already make it a standout work of art. While some symbolism admittedly comes off as heavy-handed, this film redefines the standard for story remakes, earning high praise among critics for its artistry and depth of storytelling. The film’s production, concept and unique historical context make it worthy of the title of Best Animated Feature.
‘Marcel the Shell With Shoes On’ (Dean Fleischer Camp)
Is it possible to cry for an hour straight about a one-eyed shell with pink sneakers? The answer is an unequivocal yes. “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” follows a meta-film plotline: The film follows the making of a documentary about Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate) and his grandmother “Nana” Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini), two tiny, anthropomorphic shells living in a large house all alone.
But Marcel and Connie were not always the only shells living in this home. They used to be part of a large community until one day everyone but Marcel and Connie was taken from their home. When documentary filmmaker Dean (Dean Fleischer Camp) discovers Marcel, he makes a short film and posts it online, garnering massive internet attention and granting Marcel an opportunity to find his family.
Based on Camp’s popular, three-minute-long YouTube videos of Marcel, this feature-length film effortlessly integrates stop-motion animation with live-action elements while retaining the homemade feel of the original videos. Whimsical, adorable and full of heart, “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” is not only an incredible showcase of the expressive nature of stop motion but also an exploration of loneliness, fear and grief. Perhaps it’s Marcel’s one-inch stature that allows him to appreciate the little things, but his sparkling personality, curiosity for the world and raw honesty are enough to win any audience member's heart.
Though it ultimately did not win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” was certainly deserving of the title for the sheer force of its emotive power conveyed through the tiniest details.
‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’ (Joel Crawford)
Although 20 years have passed since the release of the first Shrek movie, the “Shrek” franchise is not over just yet. In fact, it is more alive than ever in “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.” Sword-wielding, feathered hat-flourishing and boots-wearing Puss (voiced by Antonio Banderas) has found himself at the last of his nine lives. As he flees death and reunites with ex-lover Kitty Softpaws (voiced by Salma Hayek) and new friend Perrito (voiced by Harvey Guillén), Puss attempts to lengthen his life by chasing the Last Wish, a fallen star that will grant a wish to anyone who finds it.
This fantasy adventure film shatters any expectations of being a vapid sequel with its surprisingly profound story about the meaning of life and taking risks for the ones we love. Its splashy, punchy animation delivers an immersive experience, adding an electrifying, illustrative aspect to its vivid action sequences. Touching on topics of mental health, the film lends a complexity to Puss’s character that is refreshing compared to other animated movie protagonists. “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is a sparkling addition to the Shrek universe, elevating the flair and personality seen in previous stories, and a worthwhile watch for even those who haven’t seen the franchise’s previous films.
‘The Sea Beast’ (Chris Williams)
“The Sea Beast” is a family-friendly, computer-animated kaiju story — a genre involving large monsters — that takes place in a world where hunters are praised for their heroic exploits in slaying sea monsters. Hunters on the ship the Inevitable are tasked by their king and queen to capture the Red Bluster, a legendary and invincible massive sea monster. Hunter Jacob Holland (voiced by Karl Urban) and stowaway orphan Maisie Brumble (Zaris-Angel Hator) are taken on an unexpected adventure where they learn that there is more to “monsters” than they thought.
With a strong script, creative and immersive action sequences and vibrant animation, “The Sea Beast” is certainly an entertaining watch. Out of all the animated films nominated this year, this is the most clearly oriented toward younger audiences, but that doesn’t stop it from discussing mature themes of anti-violence, the dangers of glorifying war and the moral gray areas encountered trying to fight the good fight. The storyline of “The Sea Beast” is similar to those of other popular children’s movies such as “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Moana,” but it gives it a new spin. Its clear narrative provides an effective vehicle for delivering lessons to children on moral dilemmas that adults face every day.
‘Turning Red’ (Domee Shi)
When it first came out, “Turning Red” made waves for depicting a Chinese-Canadian preteen navigating the struggles of puberty and her changing relationship with her mother. These are both relatable experiences to many audiences, except that Meilin “Mei” Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) has to deal with another change in her body: She frequently turns into a giant red panda. And yes, the panda is a metaphor for periods.
Mei’s relationship with her mother Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) becomes strained as she embarks on a series of preteen rites of passage, like crushing on the local convenience store clerk or trying to see her favorite boy band. Mei’s relentless, uncontainable energy — combined with her struggles to meet her mother’s idea of a good daughter — make for a heroine that could transport any viewer back to their preteen years.
The film’s animation has a squishy, adorable quality that perfectly adds to the feeling of being a thirteen-year-old girl. “Turning Red” speaks directly to the struggles of trying to grow up without growing apart from family, tackling the universally relatable chaos of tweenhood while incorporating a diverse, immigrant-family perspective. The representation in “Turning Red” is a huge win for children of Asian immigrants, with the film adeptly portraying the complexities of their relationships and experiences on the big screen.
Mei’s favorite boy band, 4*Town, is fictional, but the songs they perform in the film are written by real-life pop songwriters Finneas O'Connell and Billie Eilish. The vocals are performed by O’Connell, Jordan Fisher, Topher Ngo, Josh Levi and Grayson Villanueva. The music is reminiscent of the era of bands like the Backstreet Boys, adding a distinct 2000s feel to the movie and grounding the story in the iconic time period.
Although a captivating and accurate portrayal of the struggles of coming of age, “Turning Red” is not just for Asian preteen girls — its themes of navigating a changing relationship can appeal to anyone of any age or background.
Ashley Guo is an arts & culture writer and layout designer. She previously covered city and state politics as a Metro section editor. In her free time, Ashley enjoys listening to music, swimming, and reading!