Emperor penguins, as if you didn't know, profess their love through song. This leads to one annoying, self-satisfied pop number after another in Happy Feet, a well-intentioned but mostly grating film about a penguin who - gasp! - dances instead of sings. In the Academy's defense it was a weak year for the Best Animated Feature category: Happy Feet's only competitors were Cars and Monster House.
The first-ever Best Animated Feature winner, Shrek was a popular blockbuster with a novel approach: bringing acerbic wit and pop culture references to old school fairy tales. The film is still funny but the novelty has worn off, leaving behind it just a decent comedy with a fair amount of heart.
Critics and audiences were perplexed by Brave, a Pixar film that appeared to be about a warrior princess kicking butt, but was instead about a princess whose mother turns into a bear, leading to wacky hijinks. But it's a GOOD film about a princess whose mother turns into a bear, leading to wacky hijinks, and the emotional storyline between the two heroines is genuinely potent. Brave may be a weird film, but it's not a bad one.
Disney's first animated Marvel superhero movie won the prize for Best Animated Feature, and it's easy to see why. Big Hero 6 is an imaginative and energetic film about super-scientists fighting each other, but at its heart it's also a touching story about a young boy coping with loss. His new friend Baymax, an indelible creation to be sure, is the ultimate enabler, which leads to happiness and depression in equal measure for our hero, Hiro. If the film's main plot didn't seem written by the numbers, it might have placed a lot higher on this list.
The beloved stop-motion heroes Wallace and Gromit had already earned two Oscars for Best Animated Short before their punny, funny feature film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit took home the Academy Award. The film is an amusing adventure in which the inventor and his hapless dog run afoul of a rabbit monster, but it doesn't have as much of an emotional impact as many of the other Best Animated Feature winners.
Brad Bird's ode to suburban families and superheroes may catch some flack for its Ayn Rand inspired theme - i.e. that some people really are more special than others - but it's a relentlessly inventive motion picture with unforgettable fight scenes and a whole lot of heart. The Incredibles really is incredible.
Brad Bird's second Pixar feature has a bizarre concept - a rat who controls an amateur chef like a puppet in order to work at a world class restaurant - but it's also an inspired motion picture. Passionate, funny and beautifully animated - with a finale that smartly explores the often difficult relationship between artists and critics - Ratatouille is an undeniably odd, but excellent feature.
Disney ambitious anthropomorphic animal buddy cop movie is funny the first time you see it, but works better as a serious drama about social and racial divides every time you revisit it. The jokes are hit or miss, but the cultural commentary is consistently hard-hitting.
Twisted and hilarious, Rango transforms the story of a chameleon who becomes a wild west hero into a thoughtful examination of malleable nature of identity itself. As the title character, Johnny Depp turns in a great performance as a creature who has no idea who he is, and has to make up his whole persona as he goes along. Thanks to Gore Verbinski's eccentric direction, that unusual character arc is a genuine treat, full of surreal moments and incredible action.
Disney's blockbuster musical has it all: intriguing characters, unexpected twists, memorable songs, a great sense of humor and a message about outsider psychology that everyone can relate to. Yes, "Let It Go" got overplayed. A lot. But let that go and you'll find that Frozen really is a modern classic.
Pixar's most emotionally devastating movie also has its strangest plot line. Up is the story of an old man whose wife dies, leaving him alone with his regrets. So he attaches so many balloons to his house that it floats away to an exotic locale filled with endangered giant birds, talking dogs and mad explorers bent on destroying him. But somehow it all works. Up will make you cry harder than practically any film, but it will also make you laugh, cheer and marvel at its ingenuity.
Inside Out imagines a world inside the human mind, where our emotions and impulses take on their own forms and struggle to keep the larger organism happy. It's a rich and intricate concept that Inside Out illustrates beautifully, making an otherwise simple story feel as epic as it feels to the young, troubled protagonist whose head is home to all the other great characters.
A road trip movie without that pesky ol' road, Finding Nemo is a damn near perfect film about an overprotective father who travels the vast expanse of the ocean to track down his only child, who was kidnapped by a well-meaning dentist. Unique characters and a pulse-pounding race against time elevate what could have been a standard family flick to classic status, full of eye-popping visuals and truly powerful scenes.
The darkest film in the Toy Story saga is also the best, as the beloved action playthings wind up unwanted and unloved after their owner grows up. Toy Story 3 combines terrifying imagery of these heartwarming characters accepting their own unthinkable death with whimsical interludes involving the dream life of Barbie and a Mexican lothario version of Buzz Lightyear, and gets away with every single moment of it. It's one of the most important artistic achievements in Pixar's already significant history.
Experimental, courageous and astoundingly meaningful, Pixar's sci-fi classic WALL-E stars a trash compacting robot who discovers the meaning of love and winds up saving the lethargic, apathetic human race from themselves. The ambition of WALL-E, from the initial and almost entirely silent first act to the film's troubling notions about the nature of the corporate machine (not unlike the one that was responsible for this film, ironically), are breathtakingly realized in what will probably go down as of the better sci-fi films ever made.
Hayao Miyazaki, arguably the greatest living filmmaker, won his only Academy Award for Spirited Away, and the Best Animated Feature award has never been more deservedly given. Spirited Away may very well go down as Miyazaki's finest work. It's a masterpiece of unlikely storytelling, about a young girl forced into servitude after her parents are turned into pigs. But by accepting the responsibilities we ordinarily from which we ordinarily protect our children, she grows up. The strange and beautiful world of Spirited Away is unlike practically anything else you will ever see, and Miyazaki directs it with his usual, masterful sense of wonderment.