Diverse list is a microcosm of the state of feature animation

Punctuated by Disney’s return to relevance, the re-emergence of traditional stop-motion techniques, the rise of indie-produced CGI pics and the continued marginalization of the hand-drawn form, this year’s contenders field for Oscar’s animated feature trophy is a microcosm of the current state of the industry and where it’s headed.

Certainly, among the 10 films vying for the full-length toon category’s three spots this year, almost every facet of the biz is represented.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a year that has had so much diversity of technique and content,” notes David Stainton, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation.

Of course, it’s diversity to a point — six of the 10 contenders are computer animated. Still, Disney’s first self-produced CGI pic, “Chicken Little” — which has taken in more than $165 million worldwide since Nov. 4 — represents a powerful indicator that the Mouse will remain a leading force in an industry that seems to, at least for the moment, have moved beyond hand-drawn pics.

“Audience acceptance is our greatest prize, and we’ve won that,” Stainton says. ” ‘Chicken Little’ is a comeback film in many ways. And getting an Oscar nomination would be the icing on the cake with what we’ve gone through with this film.”

As much as Disney’s stand-alone emergence in CGI is symbolic of where toon industry is headed, so is the sheer CGI volume of a contenders field that also includes the computer-made “Madagascar” from DreamWorks Animation, which grossed $526 million worldwide, and “Robots” from Fox and Blue Sky Studios.

A subtext to this computer-toon proliferation is the emergence of foreign-made CG titles on the contenders list: the aerial-combat-spoofing “Valiant,” produced by U.K.-based IDT subsidiary Vanguard Animation and distributed by Disney; the “Little Red Riding Hood”-inspired “Hoodwinked,” produced by Manila’s Kanbar Animation and distributed by the Weinstein Co.; and “Gulliver’s Travel,” from India’s Pentamedia Graphics.

“I feel that next year we will have a glut of CG movies, and I don’t see all of them succeeding,” Stainton predicts. “We can’t make 15 movies a year about a group of animals on an adventure — and I see a lot of that coming up.”

Stainton’s division is currently prepping another CG release, “Rapunzel Unbraided.” “But it’s not about going backward — to ‘Pocahontas’ or ‘Hercules’ — but going forward with something startling, fresh and original.”

This year’s body of animated feature work doesn’t suggest that resurgence of hand-drawn toons is on the way.

There are only two hand-drawn pics up for consideration. Both are anime titles — “Howl’s Moving Castle,” from Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”), and Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Steamboy” — that had limited release in the U.S. and limited crossover appeal to mainstream auds.

Still, the re-emergence of traditional stop-motion techniques in two strong contenders this year — “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride,” from Warner, and the Aardman-produced, DreamWorks-distributed “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” — suggests future Oscar toon contenders won’t exclusively be the domain of CG films.

Feature-length pics made with stop-motion — a time-consuming technique utilizing live-action puppets a la “Corpse Bride” or the clay figures of “Wallace & Gromit” — are rare. For that matter, so is the scenario of having two stop-motion pics being considered for an Oscar in the same calendar year.

Currently, there are no other stop-motion releases on the horizon. But closing in on $180 million in worldwide B.O. — and featuring a legacy of three previous Oscar wins in the animated shorts category from helmer Nick Park for his previous claymated efforts — a trophy from “Wallace & Gromit” could spur demand quickly.

After all, auds can’t live on CG alone … can they?

“All the big studios are looking for different voices,” says Bill Damaschke, head of creative production and development at DreamWorks. “It’s about diversity. Within our studio and at Aardman, we try to have each feature be distinct. The audience is smart and sophisticated enough to want different things.”

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