MANY THINGS about the Oscars are ridiculous, but one of the most obvious is the award for Best Animated Feature. Introduced in 2001, the category's there to save the Academy the shit they got when Disney's Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture in 1992.
Earlier this week, another animated film, Pixar's Toy Story 3, was nominated for Best Picture, as well as Best Animated Feature—yet again reinforcing the fact that, well, this whole "Best Animated" business is pretty useless. If a film's good enough to be nominated for Best Picture, why would it matter if it's animated?
The year's two other contenders for Best Animated Feature are just as good as Toy Story 3: How to Train Your Dragon, an unexpectedly great flick from DreamWorks Animation (a studio better known for cranking out fluff like Kung Fu Panda and Shrek), and the expectedly great The Illusionist, Sylvain Chomet's follow-up to his beloved The Triplets of Belleville. Based on a script for an un-produced live-action film that was written by Jacques Tati in 1956, The Illusionist follows the titular magician—aging, weary, facing obsolescence—and his companion, a young, wide-eyed woman named Alice, who jumps at the chance to escape her provincial existence, only to find that life in the city isn't all that she had hoped.
Nearly free of dialogue and full of stunningly evocative visuals, The Illusionist is whimsical and bittersweet, gorgeous and melancholy. I hesitate to say too much about it, because its many charms—countless small moments of sadness and humor—sneak up on you, patient and subtle. A master of movement and timing, Chomet lets The Illusionist unfold in confident, wide shots, letting his characters come to life through the most pedestrian of movements. But for all its nuance, The Illusionist is never anything but engrossing: This is a sad, sweet, humane story that Chomet carefully and precisely unravels, and it's as much a work of art as anything that came out this past year, animated or not.