For anyone betting in their annual office Oscar pool, the animated feature award has always been the show’s one “gimme” category. Every year has its obvious front-runner, an entry so strong its fans champion it for consideration as best picture: “Shrek,” “Spirited Away,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles” and last year’s “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.”
Now in its sixth year, the animated feature category is more crowded than ever, with enough eligible releases to push the number of nominations from three to five for only the second time (the pool grows when 16 or more pics qualify). But despite a dozen big-studio entries and a handful of format-bending foreign and indie releases to choose from, members of the animation community insist this year’s race is wide open.
“With all due respect, I don’t think there’s a film that just stands out and blows everything away,” says Antran Manoogian, president of ASIFA-Hollywood, an org whose top honor, the Annie, has accurately predicted Oscar’s animated feature winner since the category’s inception.
Despite there being no clear favorite, there’s much expectation for “Happy Feet,” helmed by Oscar-nominated “Babe” producer-scribe George Miller. Tapping into last year’s penguin fervor, pic could become the animated-movie phenomenon of 2006.
Otherwise, Pixar’s “Cars” appears to be the film to beat, although critics and animators alike admit to being underwhelmed by John Lasseter’s latest. “There’s a predisposition to favor certain creators,” says Animation Guild prexy Kevin Koch of the Academy. “Miyazaki, Aardman and Pixar definitely get the benefit of the doubt. You see that with ‘Cars,’ which is probably the weakest of the Pixar films, but will almost certainly get a nomination.”
This year’s Aardman entry, “Flushed Away,” abandons the company’s trademark stop-motion technique for computer animation. Even those associated with the film dismissively refer to it as being “more DreamWorks,” referring to the pic’s decidedly less quirky U.S.-based production partner.
Unlike Oscar crafts categories, this prize recognizes the overall film, not the animation itself, says Jon Bloom, chair of the Academy’s short films and feature animation branch. “We liken it more to best picture, best documentary, best foreign film in terms of the entire achievement.”
The nominating committee represents a mix of animators and general Academy members who screen and rate all eligible films to determine the five finalists.
Among voters, “heart” seems to rank as a bigger factor than cutting-edge technique.
“In the press notes, studios go on and on about how many workstations they have and how big their render farm is, as if that’s more important than a strong story. Nobody says they want to see an animated movie because it had a bigger render farm,” Koch says.
Historically, pics with a distinctive creative voice often trump the format’s top earners. “Chicken Little” and “Madagascar” were shut out last year, suggesting that commercial disappointments such as “The Ant Bully” (based on a children’s book handpicked by Tom Hanks) and “Everyone’s Hero” (a peppy baseball story conceived by the late Christopher Reeve) could beat box office faves “Over the Hedge” and “Ice Age: The Meltdown.”
“Open Season” marks an impressive debut from Sony Pictures Animation, but it could get lost in the crowd of competing animated-critter features. By contrast, with its motion-capture human characters and “Goonies”-style story, the studio’s “Monster House” could prove the year’s most distinctive contender.
The fact that most animated offerings skew young (with the exception of edgy sci-fi toons “Renaissance” and “A Scanner Darkly”) could hurt their chances with the Academy, says Aardman’s Peter Lord.
“Well, they’re adults, for a start, so they’re bound to favor films that appeal to adults,” he says. “Sometimes the solution is, I suspect, a rather cynical one: You’ve got a quite lowbrow script, really, and what you do is paste on a layer of gags, maybe a few references to popular culture or TV personalities, some quite risque jokes, and that is called ‘doing it for adults,’ but it’s a shallow exercise, in my opinion. The best films are those the filmmakers have made for themselves, with no concessions to any particular audience.”