Acad honors retro style over flashy studio fare

'Up' the only CG blockbuster in animation category

What’s wrong with this picture? Three of the 10 top-grossing films of 2009 — “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” “Monsters vs. Aliens” and “Up” — were shiny, state-of-the-art computer-animated toons, yet only “Up” was recognized by the Academy. The other blockbusters, including Sony Pictures Animation’s $125 million CG hit “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” were passed over in favor of “Coraline,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The Princess and the Frog” and “The Secret of Kells” — projects that favored old-fashioned stop-motion and hand-drawn 2D cel animation.

Could this mean voters are tiring of CG techniques? “I think it’s a similar situation to what happens with documentaries — meaning that the animation voters in the Academy, given the chance, would rather support an underdog than reward an already successful film,” muses “Entertainment Tonight” critic Leonard Maltin. “When it comes to big hits like ‘Ice Age 3,’ I think their feeling is that those films don’t need additional rewards. The public’s already weighed in. So they’d rather give that slot to a film like ‘The Secret of Kells.'”

Animation historian and Cartoon Brew blogger Jerry Beck puts this year’s lineup in the context of the animated shorts category (which actually passed over Pixar entry “Partly Cloudy” in favor of CG small fry this year), noting, “It’s always been an oddball category because of the sheer range of animation projects, from short comedies to epic dramas, and the branch has always looked carefully at quality and especially innovation.”

In the past, Beck explains, “CG was new and cutting-edge, and you were lucky if occasionally an independent or foreign film with a slightly different take — such as ‘Persepolis’ or ‘The Triplets of Belleville’ — sneaked in.”

When it comes to the Annie Awards (where members of the toon industry honored “Up” over old-school contenders), ASIFA-Hollywood president Antran Manoogian stresses, “It doesn’t matter what animation technique is used. The key to any good movie is compelling characters in a great story, and it comes down to content and quality.”

But this year’s noms do seem to indicate a shift in taste. “The big studios — Fox, DreamWorks, Sony — and their big, expensive commercial films were largely shut out,” Maltin observes. Then again, so was Japanese 2D maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s well-reviewed “Ponyo.”

“Smaller, quirkier projects like ‘Kells’ and ‘Fox’ … are really independent films and out of the mainstream, despite some having studio pedigrees,” Beck opines.

So how do they explain “Up’s” inclusion? “I guess they just couldn’t ignore the excellence of ‘Up,'” Maltin says. And as Manoogian points out, “Look, ‘Up’ is also nominated for best picture and best original screenplay, which says a lot.”

It helps that Pixar has cultivated a reputation as a director’s studio, where the filmmakers are encouraged to let their creative fingerprints show on the final product (a trait far more visible on stop-motion and cel animation).

“The fact that other studios are in the game is a very healthy thing for animation, and I think the people at Pixar feel the same way,” Maltin says. “They’re animation lovers, too. I don’t think their interest is in world domination.”

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