The nominations for Academy Awards won’t be announced until January 25, but according to an overwhelming critical consensus, it appears that a sequel – typically a four-letter word to Oscar voters – may join the ranks of Best Picture nominees for the first time since 2004. This year's potential nominee was critically hailed, commercially successful, and overwhelmingly moving, thanks to its ability to revive its franchise with even more fascinating characters; the film to which I'm referring, of course, is Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.
Beyond even that amazing, amazing film, looking back at the last 12 months, there might be a number of viable candidates for that same nomination – Jackass 3D, or The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, anyone? (Sure, sure, I guess, if you're picking outsiders, you could include Toy Story 3 too.) But why is it that Oscar has been so unfriendly to sequels throughout its 82-year history, when there are so many great movies about talking animals and transforming robots to choose from as nominees?
In all fairness, not every sequel featuring a talking animal is worthy of receiving an Academy Award nomination; while The Squeakquel was obviously top-shelf entertainment, for example, Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties didn't quite live up to the promise of its admittedly-brilliant predecessor. But since the earliest days of the Oscars, follow-ups of almost any kind of film have consistently received little respect; in fact, it wasn't until the 13th Academy Awards ceremony that a sequel of any kind was recognized with a Best Picture nomination. (1940's All This, and Heaven Too was the sequel to the little-seen All This, but the series' final installment, 1943's All This, and a Bag of Chips, was sadly snubbed by the Academy.)
In 1945, The Bells of St. Mary's, a sequel to the 1944 film Going My Way, was nominated for Best Picture, but it wasn't until 1974 that another sequel, The Godfather Part II, was deemed worthy of a similar nomination. And after that, the next sequel to be nominated for Best Picture was in 1990, and it was The Godfather Part III. Although The Silence of the Lambs is more or less incidentally a sequel, and it did win Best Picture in 1992, the only other franchise to receive Best Picture nominations for all of its installments is The Lord of the Rings, which won the award only for the final chapter, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. So the question remains: other than the few notable exceptions above, why are sequels the red-headed stepchild of the moviemaking industry? Especially when Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was obviously the best movie of 2008?
The easy answer is that the Academy's nominating committees don't seem to think there's as much originality in sequels as there is in first installments or standalone films. (Yeah, right – like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is any more creative than Saw 3D.) Admittedly, it's a defensible argument to suggest that using established characters to tell a new story in a familiar world could be less creative than creating all three from scratch. But there are a number of sequels that are widely considered as good, if not possibly better than their predecessors, including Star Trek (2009), The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, The Bourne Supremacy, Toy Story 2, Terminator 2, The Color of Money, Aliens, Evil Dead II, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Empire Strikes Back, Dawn of the Dead, and of course, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, none of which were even nominated in the Best Picture category.
While a (perceived or actual) lack of creativity may be a legitimate defense for not nominating many sequels for major awards, there's also an element of pride that seems to drive many of the Academy's nominations. Specifically, the Oscars want to at least appear to be more interested in the artistic than the commercial side of moviemaking, and validating follow-ups or sequels only highlights the "business" side of show business. (Never mind the fact that virtually every movie is made in order to generate revenue.) As such, nominating committees (much less the voters) have historically chosen works that appear to reflect a certain sort of artistic intent, if not integrity, and most of those have been original works – or in the case of Hollywood, "original," since only a miniscule percentage of movies made each year are not based on previously published material.
At the same time, the one throughline among almost all of those films is the fact that they are genre material, which is perhaps the only reason more likely to generate zero nominations (except in technical categories) than if something is a sequel. Other than maybe comedies, the Oscars ignore genre films more consistently than any other kind, possibly because the reported median age for Academy members is 94, and anything that features blue people, web-slinging or conspicuous use of spandex qualifies to them as frivolous stuff for "whippersnappers" only.
Now, is it fair to generalize about the predilections and motivations of Academy members? No less so than to dismiss the vast majority of sequels as unimaginative, uncreative filmmaking ventures. While many of them, admittedly, are very much just trying to capitalize on the success of a first film (Speed 2: Cruise Control, I'm looking in your direction), almost all of the unrecognized sequels listed above further explore – to genuinely powerful effect – ideas either introduced or set up by their predecessor. Surely Spider-Man 2 is at least as sophisticated a film, technically, artistically and thematically as Ray, which is an impersonation in desperate need of a movie as good as it.
2010's big question mark is whether or not Toy Story 3 escapes the animated-movie ghetto and earns a spot among the year's Best Picture nominees. With the 2009 decision to expand the list of nominees from four to ten, it stands to reason that the Academy will include it, if only because there were barely ten other films released this year that are worthy of even being nominated. (That said, any real fan of the Toy Story series knows that part 2 is by far the best of the three, and any nomination or win would only be recognition of the entire series' considerable artistic achievements.) Beyond that, 18 other sequels or follow-ups were released in 2010, so there's a significant number of films that could challenge The Social Network, much less A-Team, for Best Picture.
But no matter what happens, the important thing to remember is that sequels are reminders of our cultural heritage, and their mythmaking provides the backbone of our collective preferences and preoccupations at any given time. In which case, Sex and the City 2 doesn't need to get nominated for Best Picture, because it has already won our hearts, by which I mean our money. And even if none of these films wins an actual award after the Academy does decide to step up and nominate one or two of them, we can take comfort in the fact that the moviemaking industry has already stepped up, and in 3D, for God's sake, which we're fairly sure is a lot better and more exciting than getting a phallic gold paperweight that comes with a rented tuxedo and an exhaustive list of agents' names.