Traditional techniques make a comeback in this year's animation race

The Academy’s animation branch may have fewer features to consider, compared with numbers from previous years, but there’s a much wider array of techniques on display. And, without a Pixar front-runner to compete against, it’s an open race.

What’s already established is that there will be an animation race. Eight feature releases are required to trigger the award category, and 10 qualify from 2005. Disney led the pack with four feature-length cartoon pics, including “Chicken Little,” British pick-up “Valiant,” kid franchise “Pooh’s Heffalump Movie” and the latest epic from anime master Hayao Miyazaki, “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Dreamworks scored with two audience-pleasers, “Madagascar” and “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit”; while Fox, Sony and Warner Bros. unspooled one high-profile animated pic each.

In the four years there’s been a stand-alone category for feature animation, voters have clearly favored computer-generated images over traditional hand-drawn toons. But this year’s crop has produced two strong contenders utilizing the seldom-used (for features) technique of stop-motion animation (puppets in one, articulated clay figures in the other), as well as a few noteworthy hand-drawn anime entries, and some serious contenders to inherit Pixar’s CG throne.

Though three nominees are assured, Academy rules allow the possibility of five noms if 16 toon features qualify. Since 2001, the year the category was established, Academy members saw several foreign entries qualify at year’s end, with L.A. engagements and special Academy screenings posted at the 11th hour. So far, no serious additional contenders have emerged.

Early industry consensus reveals that this year’s strongest candidates seem to have on or two things in common: strong box office and/or Oscar pedigree.

“Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride,” clocking in with more than $50 million at the wickets since mid-September, was welcomed by a fan base that also embraced Burton’s cult fave “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” The helmer’s stop-motion puppet technique has become so polished that many audiences think they are watching computer-generated images instead of an ultra-slick stepchild to the funky Rankin-Bass “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” TV specials of yore. Burton’s unique vision and expertise as an animation filmmaker make this film stand out.

No one will mistake primitive techniques of “Gumby” with the lavish clay animation world of “Wallace & Gromit,” a boffo hit that already has grossed more than $50 million domestically since opening in early October. Having won two Oscars for previous “Wallace & Gromit” shorts, the filmmakers are kudo vets.

“This is the film to beat,” says animation producer and Oscar voter Tee Bosustow. “It’s got the charm, heart, humor and adventure we’ve come to expect from Aardman Animation.”

Classic makeover

Recent bow “Chicken Little” brings Disney’s famed 70-year-old feature animation unit up to speed with a high-tech spin on an old classic. The studio hopes 3-D unspoolings on Imax screens will accomplish what “Polar Express” achieved last year: more attention from Academy voters.

Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” a box office smash in Japan, opened to rave U.S. reviews during a limited run this summer. Miyazaki’s reputation, and his Oscar win for “Spirited Away,” will be remembered by Academy voters this year.

Animation committee member and voice actor Will Ryan (“An American Tail,” “The Little Mermaid”) says, “This film serves as yet another reminder that hand-drawn animation has the ability to compel and delight audiences as no other film can.”

“Madagascar” was an unexpected hit and has launched another franchise for Dreamworks. A funny, likeable, well-made film that won audiences hearts, the studio is likely to remind Academy members that this film was one of this year’s standout animated achievements.

Dark-horse candidates include Fox/Blue Sky’s “Robots,” from Oscar winner Chris Wedge (“Ice Age”); Disney-Vanguard’s “Valiant,” from the producer of “Shrek”; and Sony’s anime extravaganza from “Akira” director Katsuhiro Otomo, “Steamboy.”

“The Academy likes this category,” says Jon Bloom, chair of the AMPAS’s executive committee on short films and animated features. “They’ve added very few new award categories over the years, and this one has quickly become a major one, garnering lots of media attention. And we’re very proud that this is one award that young people appreciate and are excited about.”

Jerry Beck is the author of “The Animated Movie Guide” (Chicago Review Press).

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