Best Animated Feature: The Anatomy of Award-Winning Work

March 12, 2024

Animation is a vital storytelling medium woven across centuries of human creativity and innovation. Its roots can be traced back to ancient civilizations where early forms of animation, such as shadow puppetry and flipbooks, were used to entertain and tell stories. In the late 19th century, pioneers like Émile Reynaud and Thomas Edison experimented with devices capable of projecting moving images, laying the groundwork for the birth of animation as we know it. Since then, decade after decade has brought us beloved animated pictures like Spirited Away, Toy Story, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and many more.

Best Animated Feature: The Anatomy of Award-Winning Work

Throughout the 20th century, iconic animation studios like Disney, Warner Bros., and Pixar, have revolutionized animation, bringing iconic beloved characters and stories to the silver screen. Animation continues to evolve and thrive as a dynamic medium, celebrated every year in the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards. In this article, we’ll discuss nominated and award-winning work embracing new technologies and pushing the boundaries of storytelling in the digital age.

The Boy and the Heron (2023)

A truly excellent animated film stands the test of time and continues to resonate with audiences long after its initial release. For famous storyteller Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Studio Ghibli, this applies to nearly every animated film he’s ever made. Miyazaki, known for films such as My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle, stunned audiences with his last film, The Boy and the Heron

The film, which follows a young man in search of his stepmother, inspires creativity, and sparks the imagination, leaving a lasting impression on viewers of all ages as they grapple with the themes of family, love, and adventure. It was nominated and won Best Animated Feature at the 2024 Academy Awards. Image via The Ringer.

Nimona (2023)

Memorable characters are at the heart of every memorable animated film. Audiences connect with characters who are relatable, multi-dimensional, and undergo meaningful development throughout the story, despite being drawn. The 2023 film Nimona, directed by Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, features strong character arcs and relationships that add depth and emotional resonance to the film. The film explores the true definition of monsters, villains, and heroes, and features Chloë Grace Moretz as Nimona and Riz Ahmed as Ballister Boldheart.

Based on a graphic novel from ND Stevenson, the film was produced by Annapurna, who specializes in film production, video game creation, and more. As NYFA Game Design Instructor Brandon Winfrey said to The Hollywood Reporter, Annapurna is on the cutting edge of visual storytelling, akin to entertainment powerhouses like A24. The film was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2024 Academy Awards.

Turning Red (2022)

Remarkable animated films often explore universal themes and messages that resonate with audiences across cultures and generations. Themes of love, friendship, courage, perseverance, and self-discovery are timeless and allow viewers to relate to the characters and their journeys. Turning Red celebrates Asian culture, following Disney films like Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Raya and the Last Dragon, while cleverly showing the protagonist, Mei Lee, experiencing the changes of adolescence and balancing her relationship with her overprotective mother. The film was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar.

Robot Dreams (2023)

Great animated films evoke a wide range of emotions through authentic storytelling and genuine character interactions. In Robot Dreams, directed and written by former NYFA instructor and guest speaker Pablo Berger, audiences follow the friendship of a dog and his robot.

Based on the graphic novel by Sara Varon, the film uses music and sound to drive the narrative, delivering an exciting journey through Manhattan in the 1980s. The film was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2024 Academy Awards. Image via Polygon.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022)

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio demonstrates the creativity possible in visual storytelling. The crew on the stop-motion animated film painstakingly produced the sets, characters, and each frame in the two-hour feature. The character of Pinocchio took over a year to create, balancing the newest technology with traditional methods of fabrication and prototyping. Our very own Tony Candelaria, a teacher at NYFA Los Angeles, also worked on the film. In 2023, the film won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film.

Elemental (2023)

Animated films that celebrate diversity and incorporate elements of different cultures enrich the storytelling experience and appeal to a broader audience. Elemental, a story about various “elements” including water, fire, earth, and air, demonstrates the importance of and value of representation, embracing diversity and inclusivity.

The story was based on director Peter Sohn’s own life experiences, paying tribute to his parents, who immigrated to New York City in the 1960s. The film was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar. Image via IMDB.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023)

Animation allows for limitless creativity in visual storytelling, and exceptional animated films often feature stunning artwork, intricate character designs, vibrant colors, and imaginative worlds. The Oscar-nominated Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023), which reunites Spiderman and Gwen Stacy, is an exceptional example of effective visual storytelling. The film shows various Spiderman characters from different universes using both 2D and 3D animation styles and features Shameik Moore as Miles Morales, Hailee Steinfeld as Gwen Stacy, Jake Johnson as Peter B. Parker, Oscar Issac as Miguel O’Hara, Jason Schwartzman as Spot, NYFA alum Issa Rae as Jessica Drew, and Daniel Kaluuya as Hobie Brown.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (2021)

Innovative animation techniques, whether hand-drawn, computer-generated, stop-motion or a combination thereof, can elevate storytelling and bring characters alive in unique ways. In the Oscar-nominated Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, a film that follows a documentary filmmaker who makes a film about a mollusk shell discovered inhabiting his Airbnb, these animation techniques are on full display. 

Marcel, voiced by Jenny Slate, was made from an actual mollusk shell, which was scanned, and recreated using the digital sculpting software ZBrush, and then 3D printed. The use of this technology resulted in a truly immersive experience, bringing the character of Marcel to life. Image via IMDB.

The Sea Beast (2022)

From the fluidity of character movements to the intricate backgrounds and visual effects, attention to detail is crucial in animation. Every aspect, including sound design, music, and voice acting, should contribute to the overall experience. In the Oscar-nominated The Sea Beast, a young girl boards the vessel of a renowned sea monster hunter, embarking on a voyage into undiscovered seas. One of the parts of the movie is the details, as it’s one of the few animated films that accurately depicts the real navigational requirements of a sailing ship in the era of sail.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022)

An exceptional animated film begins with a captivating story. The narrative should be engaging, well-paced, and emotionally impactful, with well-developed characters and meaningful themes. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022), features the beloved character of Puss, voiced by Antonio Banderas. The film is the sequel to Puss in Boots (2011), released after the Shrek series after the positive reception of the Puss in Boots character. The film also introduces new characters into the Puss in Boots/Shrek universe, including Harvey Guillén as Perrito, Florence Pugh as Goldilocks, Olivia Coleman as Mama Bear, and 2024 Oscar winner Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mama Luna.

Bring Your Animated Stories to Life at NYFA

With the right creative vision, technical expertise, and a passion for storytelling, aspiring animators can create truly exceptional films that entertain, inspire, and endure for generations to come. At New York Film Academy, prospective filmmakers can learn the art of 3D animation through our hands-on and intensive classes while building vital skills in screenwriting, editing, cinematography, and more. 

Ready to learn more about NYFA? Explore our 3D animation programs today!