In the late 2000s, the idea that Disney Animation made the two frontrunners for the best animated film Oscar, while Pixar made a successful sequel that will get an obligatory nomination, would have been shocking.
It wasn't even a decade ago that Pixar (which is owned by Disney) ruled the roost in creating ambitious, creative, original animated film, while Disney's traditional animation branch was producing fine-but-forgettable films like Bolt. Now, the balance has shifted, and February 2017's 89th Academy Awards will mark the photo finish of a tight race between Moana and Zootopia. Finding Dory will have to be comfortable with third.
In one corner, you've got Moana, fresh off a massive opening weekend at the box office and enjoying critical raves. The film is, in the same vein as Frozen, an update to the traditional Disney princess formula — though Moana herself would be the first to correct you if you called her princess.
She's the daughter of the Motunui island chief, and is set to become chief herself in time. But her home is slowly dying, with fish disappearing and crops withering because of a dark power emanating from Te Fiti, an island beyond Motunui's reef. It's forbidden to go beyond the reef in Motunui, but Moana braves it to find a lost demigod of legend and save her island.
So the story isn't exactly "Someday My Prince Will Come," but the traditional structure is there. Young woman wants something, faces obstacles, gets help in the form of friendly humans and animals, experiences self-doubt, then achieves her goal. Scored by some catchy tunes written by a Broadway composer (in this case, Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda) and you've got a pretty straight pitch down the middle on the Disney animation spectrum.
Then there's Zootopia.
Though it came out months ago, Zootopia was also a smash with both critics and audiences. It made more than a billion dollars worldwide, and on a qualitative level, it deserved every single one of those dollars.
The story follows country rabbit Judy Hopps as she makes her way into the big city of Zootopia to be a police officer. Right away, she's faced with discrimination on several levels: for her size, for being prey and for her gender. That's but a taste of what comes, however; as the plot unravels (and it's a twisty one), the story morphs into a remarkably sophisticated allegory for racial discourse, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Zootopia shouldn't work — it sounds like a weird after-school special wrapped up in cute animal CGI. And yet the movie's intelligence, wit and heart sell it. It's one of 2016's greatest cinematic surprises, deeply untraditional (no songs, outside of a Shakira end-credits number called "Try Everything") but still firmly a success for Disney.
So which one takes the gold? Remember, ambition and edge aren't usually rewarded by the Oscars; this is the group that chose Crash over Brokeback Mountain, after all. Moana is very up their alley. The smart money is on it.
But don't count Zootopia totally out. It may be remarkably subversive, but it's still a giant hit wrapped in cute packaging. Sometimes, even at the Oscars, the underdog can win out.