Believe it or not, this year marks the tenth anniversary of the inception of the Best Animated Feature Film Academy Award. The original goals of adding the category way back in 2001 were to increase the awareness and prestige of a medium that had gone woefully unappreciated by the Academy for 64 years.
In 1937 Walt Disney introduced the cinematic world to the first ever full-length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. That year, the Academy presented Walt with one full-size Oscar and seven minature statuettes to celebrate his "significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field." Over the next 64 years, 37 animated feature films garnered 64 Academy Award nominations and 15 Oscars in competitive categories—mostly for songs or scores, with one for BEst Picture (Beauty and the Beast), one for Best Original Screenplay (Toy Story), and one for Visual Effects (Nightmare Before Christmas). Until The Prince of Egypt won Best Original Song in 1998, no studio other than Disney had ever won an Academy Award for an animated feature.
The events that led to the Academy deciding to give animated features their own category actually began ten years before the category came to fruition. When 1991's Beauty and the Beast was nominated for six Oscars—the most for any animated film in history, including the medium's first-ever Best Picture nomination—it represented a turning point for animated features. While 1937–1990 had seen 17 films nominated for 29 Oscars and winning 5, from 1991–2000, 18 animated features earned 35 nominations and 10 Oscars. Though the majority of the awards were still in music categories, the '90s saw diversification in another way: 5 of the 18 films to earn competitive nominations were non-Disney fare, compared with just 3 in the preceding 54 years.
Many in the animation industry lobbied for a long time to give animated features their own category, and finally, a decade after Beauty and the Beast broke the glass ceiling the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar was created. Animators and fans alike hoped the new category would increase awareness and prestige for animated films and encourage the production of more and diverse entries. Initially the category was a temporary experiment; rather than making it a permanant category, the Academy determined it would need to be activated each year by the Academy's Board of Governors. Finally, for the first time for this year's Oscars, the category has become "permanant" and no longer needs to be activated each year.
As we approach the eleventh Oscar to be given for Best Animated Feature, it is worth examining whether the award has accomplished its goals. Some critics of the award argue it actually hurts animated films. By creating a mini Best Picture-type award for animated films, their logic states, you are essentially boxing animated films in and making them less likely to be taken seriosuly in other competitive categories. Many film critics and movie fans were up in arms in 2008 when WALL-E, one of the highest-grossing and most critically-acclaimed films of the year, failed to garner a Best Picture nomination. Some in the media even insinuated that the film had been deliberately snubbed.
Perhaps it was partially in reaction to this furor that caused the Academy to chance the Best Picture category the following year to allow ten nominated films to compete. If allowing more-popular fare to break into the top category was the Academy's goal then the move was immediately successful; that year, Up became the second animated feature in history to earn a Best Picture nomination.
If the overall goal of the Best Animated Feature Oscar was to bring greater prestige and attention to animated films overall, the category has arguably been successful. Having their own category does mean that every year, whether they earn any other nominations or not, animated films will have a place in the awards-season buzz. Additionally, animated films have continued to earn other competitive nominations over the past ten years—since 2001, 19 films have earned 42 nominations and 4 Oscars outside the Best Animated Feature category. The selection of films recognized by the Academy since the animated feature category was created has become more diverse as well. The last decade has seen the first animated film ever nominated for Best Foreign Language film, and animated films from Israel, France, Spain, Ireland, and Japan have received Oscar recognition. A category many feared would be dominated by Disney has actually helped bring more non-Disney fare to the forefront than might otherwise have happened. Since the category's inception, 26 of the 39 films nominated for Best Animated Feature have not been produced by Disney or Pixar, though 6 of the 10 winners have been. For the first time in 2011, a movie released by Disney/Pixar, Cars 2, failed to even make the cut for a nomination. Outside the Best Animated Feature category, 7 of the 19 nominated films were also non-Disney; that's almost as many animated non-Disney films as the entire previous 64 years.
Overall, though many have criticized the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and though it still remains to be seen whether any animated feature can actually win Best Picture or earn a nomination in an acting category, the inclusion of the Best Animated Feature in the annual Academy Awards has raised the prestige and visibility of animated films everywhere.