Eye on the Oscars: Animation Preview

With the exception of “Rango,” all of this year’s American-backed big-studio toons take place abroad, ranging from “Rio’s” beautiful Brazilian vistas to “Cars 2’s” whirlwind tour of a world inhabited only by cars. Such exotic settings may not seem surprising when you consider animation’s long tradition of transporting auds to foreign worlds, though lately, there seems to be a new incentive for telling global stories.

First and foremost, while domestic box office remains relatively flat, international audiences — particularly those in the emerging markets of China, Brazil and Russia — are rapidly expanding, along with the number of screens.

“As the technology improves, you can really embrace other cultures and other countries in a way that was never done before,” says Bill Damashke, chief creative officer of DreamWorks Animation. A case in point is DWA’s “Kung Fu Panda 2,” which did $653 million, of which $500 million was international. Carefully designed and animated as “a version of China and a celebration of Chinese culture and art,” the sequel did great business all over Asia, he reports.

How a toon will play overseas affects everything from writing the script to the casting of vocal talent. For DWA’s “Puss in Boots,” which is set in what Damashke calls a romanticized version of Spain, “It just made sense to put Salma Hayek opposite Antonio Banderas. She’s a great match and has the right Latin feel for the role,” he says. Similarly, “Kung Fu Panda 2″ features Asian stars Jackie Chan and James Hong alongside Angelina Jolie and Dustin Hoffman. “We wanted a very mixed, international cast,” he says.

Sony’s “Arthur Christmas” was developed by U.K. animation house Aardman (of “Wallace & Gromit” fame). “When they came to us it already had Santa’s sled journeying from the North Pole all around the world,” says Bob Osher, president of Sony’s digital production division. After 18 months of work in England, the director, producers and some crew then moved to Sony’s Culver City facility, and later back again to finish post-production in London. “So working with an English team from Aardman, who are so well-known around the world, gave our film a built-in international feel and look.”

With “Cars 2,” Pixar abandoned the quintessential Americana setting of Radiator Springs in favor of a wider international scale, with pit stops in Tokyo, Paris, London and Italy.

“It was developed as an international story right from the get-go by John Lasseter,” says “Cars 2″ producer Denise Ream. “He got the initial idea while traveling all over the world promoting the first one — along with some of the humor, like driving on the ‘wrong’ or opposite side in the U.K.”

In conceiving “Rio” at Blue Sky, Brazilian-born director Carlos Saldanha decided on the eponymous city and built the story around it, capitalizing on the creative team’s drive “to explore a world and place that hadn’t been done yet,” the director says. “As I was writing, I was thinking about how ‘Ratatouille’ used Paris so well, so why not Rio? It’s so photogenic and exotic. And then everything — the animation palette, the design, the music — all just flowed naturally from that.”

Native son Saldanha is pleased to see that “Rio” may end up being the biggest film of the year in Brazil. “People were so proud to see a film set there, while for American audiences, there’s more of a cultural challenge.” He notes that when the project was first greenlit, “We knew it was a little risky, setting the story in Rio. But once we’d made it and done all the trailers and promotion, we just thought of it as a global movie.”

“It’s certainly great for international audiences to be able to go to the movies and see something that’s relevant and part of their world,” agrees Ream, who suggests that the global trend is also related to filmmakers expanding their storytelling muscles: “They’re more confident in exploring unfamiliar worlds, and the technology enables us to be far more adventurous. From a Pixar perspective, it’s all about the storytellers just letting their imaginations really run wild.”

Osher stresses that animation has always been very strong internationally. “Successful animated films tend to well outperform internationally than they do domestically,” he says. “They’re typically dubbed into 40-plus languages, so they feel like local films, whether you’re watching in Brazil, Japan or Cuba. That’s a big advantage over live-action films with subtitles.”

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