Despite banner year, toons still ghettoized

Anis land few Oscar noms in major categories

In the 68 years since the Academy gave a special award to Walt Disney for the creation of Mickey Mouse, little has reversed the overwhelming advantage live action movies hold over animated features when it comes to landing Oscar nominations in the major categories.

In a year when titles such as “Tarzan,” “The Iron Giant,” “Princess Mononoke” and “Toy Story 2” have received critical acclaim for the kind of sophisticated storytelling usually associated with adult fare, as well as their visual panache, toons still get little respect from traditionalist Oscar voters.

“A lot of worthy films have been short shrifted by the Academy through the years, and certainly several of them have been animated,” says Brad Bird, director of Warner Bros.’ well-received “The Iron Giant.” “People tend to treat animation the same way they do comedies. There’s still a certain prejudice out there that they are frivolous and not worthy of a serious award.”

Bird, who spent several years directing episodes of the popular Fox series “The Simpsons,” says he experienced a similar cold shoulder from TV Academy voters. “I think many people will agree with me that ‘The Simpsons’ has been one of the best comedies of all time, and yet we had to fight very hard to make the show eligible for Emmy consideration in the best writing category. And then, nobody nominated us. I’m not saying that we should have won, but we sure as hell were as good and funny as ‘Murphy Brown!’ ”

The helmer singles out “Pinocchio” as one of his favorite films of all time, and robbed by the Academy. “I don’t want to sit here and just carp about the awards, but the five best Disney films certainly deserved better recognition.”

Bird, whose next project is a live-action version of “Curious George,” says he’d be less optimistic about the animated contenders this year if Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” hadn’t broken the spell in 1992. The retelling of the classic French fairy tale was the first animated feature to get a best picture nom. (The pic won Oscars for Alan Menken’s score and the title song by Menken and Howard Ashman.)

A very good year

Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, who put all four animated films on his top-10 of 1999 list, says the fact that there were so many strong entries this past year might ruin the chances of any one of them getting a best picture nomination.

“There’s no doubt that this has been the best year for feature animation,” Turan notes. “However, the Academy seems to be somewhat nervous about animation. The level of competition is pretty high in the best picture field, and it’s not the Academy voters’ first inclination to single out an animated film.”

Among this year’s four big toons, “Toy Story 2” has the highest chance of landing a best original script nomination: Not only was the first “Toy Story” outing nominated for best script in 1996, writer-director John Lasseter received a special achievement Oscar for Pixar’s technology breakthroughs that same year. In addition, Woody and Buzz Lightyear’s second adventure has already received two Golden Globe nominations (best comedy and best song, for Randy Newman’s “When She Loved Me”).

Made in Japan

Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke,” a sprawling adventure that runs for more than two hours, tells the very grown-up story of a wild-child raised by wolves and her battle to preserve a pristine forest. It stands as one of the most popular films in Japan, second only to “Titanic” on the country’s all-time B.O. list. Many U.S. critics, including Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times included “Princess” on their year-end best list.

“From a pure filmmaking standpoint, (Miyazaki’s) staging, his cutting, his action scenes are some of the best ever put on film, whether animated or not,” Lasseter recently told the New York Times.

However, it’s unlikely that the little-seen Miramax release will get any recognition in the major fields.

Many animation insiders agree with Lasseter that it seems unfair to put animated features in a separate ghetto, as many of them hold their own as strong films, period. Yet, creating a new category might be the solution to the problem.

“If you look at the four top animated films of the year, you’ll notice that they all have very strong character development and excellent writing,” says Terry Thoren, CEO of the L.A. animation outfit Klasky Csupo. “It’s a shame that the Oscars don’t have a separate category just dedicated to animated features, because then all of those titles could be nominated and the writers, directors and voiceover talent could be recognized separately.”

Now, there’s something Disney chairman Michael Eisner and Academy prexy Robert Rehme can discuss next time they run into each other.

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