Thank God Leo got his Oscar! I’m pretty sure if he hadn’t, his next attempt would have killed him. That poor desperate man.
Welcome back to The Powerwolf’s Monday Mailbag, where we discuss all your most pressing thoughts about the film industry. This week we discuss why groundbreaking films constantly get robbed in the Oscars, whether or not Studio Ghibli has a future, and why they don’t make cartoons like they used to.
Mad Max: Fury Road was my favorite film last year, and I was so excited that it got recognized by the Oscars for Best Picture. It was exciting, it had powerful characters (even in the background), it connected the audience to a serious current issue (climate change) under the radar, it had compelling character interactions with very little dialogue, and was visually masterful. But every editorial I’m reading seems to be wink-wink nudge-nudging about what a huge joke it was that it made it in with the other nominees. Frankly, I found a lot of the nominations from last year to be pretty snooze-worthy and typical Oscar-bait. I was shocked that Spotlight won. Overall it was a very well put together film, but there were points where I almost fell asleep in the theater, and I didn’t feel it covered particularly noteworthy material.
What do you think makes a film a credible piece of art versus Oscar-bait? And why are people dismissing such a genius film as Mad Max?
The Oscars are a joke.
A poll by the Los Angeles Times in 2014* found that 94% of Oscar voters are White and 76% are men with an average age of 62.* Question… how many directors do you think do their most groundbreaking work at the age of 60? Sure, many of them win Oscars at that age. Usually because in hindsight the Academy realized that they’d missed the boat to acknowledge their genius when it was fresh.
I don’t want to downplay the benefit of experience here in determining taste. At 33, I’m still developing my taste. I feel like on a regular basis my opinions refine to include more factors. Not only about what makes films “good”, but what it means to be a meaningful advancement of the medium. I similarly don’t want a primarily 20’s-something voter base dictating to the world what’s the most meaningful film of the year, but shouldn’t the sweet spot be somewhere between 30 and 60? Y’know… when you’re not so old that the world culture is starting to slip by you, but not so young that you don’t understand your place in history? Not so old that Mad Max couldn’t possibly win best picture because it’s “too loud,” but old enough to know that if it were to win, it would be because it’s a finely tuned, superbly directed, visual tour-de-force with progressive undertones, and an advancement of the action genre as a whole, and not just because it’s a really good time.
Seriously… if they included a younger demographic in the vote, they would have known that the issue of child rape by the priesthood was already covered extensively in the more timely 2002 episode of South Park, “Red Hot Catholic Love,” right after the events in Spotlight actually happened.
I won’t even go into the well-covered travesty of gender inequality or lack of diversity. Fortunately, these issues are beginning to be addressed,** but it’s clear that these changes don’t go far enough.***
Needless to say, I don’t believe that a movie’s propensity to stroke the egos of hundreds of old, white, male, industry insiders are at all indication of a film’s quality. Just look at Argo (2012), a movie that re-wrote history to make Hollywood the sole savior in the 1979 Iranian conflict, downplaying the risks taken by our foreign allies. I’m not saying that Argo was a bad film, but it didn’t hold a candle to the universal tale of struggle and belief, Life of Pi. (And that’s not even taking into consideration what a stunning advancement Life of Pi was in film-making.)
The Oscars are a joke, but they are important.
Like it or not, the Oscars matter. This over-inflated back-patting ceremony is still looked at by the populace as a sign that a film has “made it.” Recognition elevates some deserving films that otherwise might not have made their money back and serves as goal-post for many artists who just want to know that the quality of their work has made a difference in people’s lives.
This makes it all the more important for the Academy to change. Change big and change hard. They and the industry have a long way to go before “Oscar-bait” and “quality” mean the same thing, but it’s an important goal and one that people need to keep talking about until things improve.
Good morning, Powerwolf.
I love Studio Ghibli movies. Miyazaki is a hero to all! But now I’m worried. With Miyazaki semi-retiring from animation and any production being put on hold to “restructure” the company, I was curious to see what you thought the future of Ghibli holds. What kind of creative direction do you see them going in? Do you think they can continue without Miyazaki?
Thanks for reading,
– Samuel Clayton
Man, I really hope so, but it’s not looking good. Let’s take a moment to run the numbers on Ghibli’s last three films.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013), directed by Ghibli vet Isao Takahata, received a rare 100% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. However it only made back half of its $50 million (USD) budget. When Marnie Was There (2015), by relative newcomer Hiromasa Yonebayashi, managed a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod, but still only earned back triple it’s very modest $10 million budget. It also embarrassingly opened 3rd in Japan, behind Pokémon the Movie: Diance and the Cocoon of Destruction and Maleficent. Contrast that to Miyazaki’s swan song The Wind Rises,(2013), with a budget of $30 million and an international box office of $136 million.
So between Takahata and Yonebayashi, Ghibli has suffered a net loss of $15 million, with only Miyazaki’s reliable haul saving Ghibli from a really bad few years. Miyazaki’s son, Goro, is the studio’s only other recent director and has a similarly spotty record. It’s becoming clear that, while Hayao Miyazaki is not the studio’s only talented director, he has been the stabilizing factor on Studio Ghibli’s profitability since its inception.
As a result of his retirement, like you said, Ghibli has stepped back from producing their own features for the moment. Instead they are dipping their toes back in the water by co-producing the The Red Turtle with a European creative team, and Takahata serving as Artistic Producer. It’s possible that this is the way for Ghibli to move forward. While Ghibli has a proud Japanese heritage, they exist in a growing international market, and may find a second life by harmonizing their unique voice with others.
My concern is that quality is not Ghibli’s problem, but distinct marketability. The Red Turtle may well lose both Japanese and international fans by not being a “true” Ghibli film. If audiences aren’t willing to give the phenomenal Kaguya the same attention based on the loss of Miyazaki’s name, how will Red Turtle fare without even the company’s trademark anime look?
I would love for Studio Ghibli’s “restructuring” to simply blend the best of both worlds: bringing in new international partners, while retaining their current directors, and simply reinforcing the need for tight scheduling and sticking to budget. That said, according to a report by i-D, “Producer Yoshiaki Nishimura spent 12 hours a day, 6 days a week with director Isao Takahata for 18 months before he agree to make the film.”* After all that, the film still spiraled over-budget and into massive delays.
Perhaps the best strategy would be to have Takahata and Yonebayashi team up to direct a film together, utilizing both of their strengths? Pixar has been very candid about the benefits they’ve seen with tag-teaming (or more honestly, swapped out) directors on their projects. Ultimately it boils down to whether or not the two can actually benefit from one another creatively, like Phil Lord and Chris Miller, or the Russo, Coen, or Farrelly brothers.
Let’s hope so, because assuming they’re given another shot, Studio Ghibli’s fate will rest solely in their hands.
Power, Power, Powerwolf… HO!!!
Do you think that we’re seeing an overall decline in the quality of children’s TV cartoons nowadays? It seems like creators have translated avoiding violence as avoiding any kind of meaningful content.
Old shows like Thundercats were a bit cheesy, and Animaniacs showcased some jokes that aren’t super politically correct. However there’s a sort of heart to the shows and respect for the intelligence of the viewer that you just don’t seem to get anymore.
The most recent and hurtful example was when Cartoon Network replaced Teen Titans with Teen Titans Go!, which is basically a dumbed down, baby-fied version of the original awesome series. We’ve also lost some really sweet shows like Arthur, Doug, Rugrats, etc. I’m sure other folks can think of a lot more.
As the parent of my furry, four-legged first child, I’m concerned that by the time I have a human baby these TV cartoons will have gone entirely to the dogs. What are your thoughts?
Mrs. Dogmom Beargod
I have good news for you. You’ve fallen prey to what I’m going to call the “Back-In-My-Day Phenomenon”™. I define this as the tendency to forget all the garbage media from one’s youth, whilst reminiscing fondly on a few of the really special shows and thinking to oneself that “they just don’t make ’em like they used to.”
It is true though that there will likely never be another show quite like Animaniacs. It was a product of its time, hearkening to the Loonier nature of its predecessors, while opening up to the cultural self-awareness and criticism that American comedy only started touching on in the 90’s. (Prime examples of this are Seinfeld and The Simpsons.) Animaniacs was timely and respectful of both adult and youth audiences, and that made it special. But do you remember Denver, The Last Dinosaur?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLlibrF5DRM – Yup. This existed.
The good news for your unborn children: we live in an age where Animaniacs, Teen Titans, Rugrats, Arthur, and Doug are all available on DVD or streaming. They’re not going away, (and at the rate that the geopolitical and global climates are going, they’ll outlast us all). The better news is that even more fantastic cartoons exist now, despite the recent death of the Saturday Morning block. Adventure Time is an obvious example. Star Wars: Rebels is getting rave reviews. Avatar: The Last Airbender is phenomenal, and its sequel series The Legend of Korra only just left the air. Steven Universe may be the best television show I’ve ever seen. Bravest Warriors is just a YouTube click away. And gems like Bee and Puppycat can now be crowdfunded into existence for all to enjoy.
All of these examples are beloved by both children and adults. And because they have stood on the shoulders of giants (like Animaniacs) they’re able to move past cultural criticism into more meaningful culture building. We’ll use Adventure Time as the most succinct example. The hero, Finn, lives in the post-apocalyptic wreckage of a society that didn’t take care of itself. He’s an imperfect hero in an imperfect world, but he has a good heart and knows how to enjoy life. Most importantly, he surrounds himself with friends from different cultures and backgrounds who have different strengths than him. Friends that give him such sagely advice as “Dude, sucking at something is just the first step to becoming sorta good at something.” It’s funny, and it’s also the kind of advice I could have used as a kid.
Great cartoons are appearing everywhere now, and it’s our duty to keep an eye out for them, and, lest they vanish, let their creators know that we’re willing to invest in them.
Do it for art. Do it for the world.
Do it for the children.
Thanks again for enjoying The Powerwolf Mailbag this week. Remember that your questions are our lifeblood, so keep ’em coming to firstname.lastname@example.org and remember to share all your thoughts in the comments section below!