Strong Storytelling Is Key for Oscar Animation Contenders

There was hardly a louder outcry on Oscar nomination morning than when “The Lego Movie,” arguably the most popular animated film of 2014 with $258 million in box office receipts, did not receive an Academy Award nomination for animated feature. The various reasons why have been debated ad infinitum, but when looking at the films that made the cut, it’s clear that the competition was fierce.

The five nominees are all high-quality films worthy of consideration. They run the gamut from big-budget studio films to hand-crafted independent fare. They all tell heartfelt, compelling stories with stunning visuals of varying styles, and touch on similar themes. So, what should Academy voters look for when they mark their ballots?

Big Hero 6
In a word: Baymax. Disney Animation’s first foray into Marvel’s treasure vault has all the earmarks of an action-packed heroic origins story: a troubled boy genius (conveniently named Hiro) struggling with a tragic loss, his intelligent and industrious friends, a fiendish and equally troubled villain, and a city in peril. Oh, and a hugable health-care robot that looks a little like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man without the sailor’s hat. That robot, deceptively simple in design, is the complex beating heart and soul of the film. The story, which touches on grief, friendship and family, is supported by gorgeous production design that blends the best parts of San Francisco and Tokyo into San Fransokyo. It couldn’t hurt that “Big Hero 6” wasn’t too far behind “The Lego Movie” at the box office, taking in $217 million for the year.

The Boxtrolls
(Focus Features)
Laika keeps pushing the envelope with stop-motion animation, and that’s evident in “The Boxtrolls.” Every puppet, prop and backdrop is built and manipulated by hand ,and yet, everything moves so fluidly, it’s hard to believe it’s stop-motion. The story of a boy adopted by a strange race of trolls that live within individual boxes is unique and touches on themes of nontraditional families, discrimination and acceptance. And Ben Kingsley’s turn as the villain Snatcher is a tour de force that’s worth the price of admission alone. But it’s the artistry that really drives this film. “The Boxtrolls” builds on everything Laika has done before in “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” which also picked up Oscar nominations. So could third time be the charm for the Portland, Ore.-based independent animation studio?

How to Train Your Dragon 2
(DreamWorks Animation)
DreamWorks Animation’s sequel to its popular “How to Train Your Dragon” didn’t reach the domestic grosses of the first movie, but it did succeed in taking hero Hiccup and his friends into young adulthood, touching on serious themes such as anger and loss, and adding a twist that showed how Hiccup came to have his great affinity for dragons. The risk of maturing those beloved characters paid off. The visuals are stunning, and when Hiccup and Toothless fly together, it still feels as if you’re flying yourself.

“The Song of the Sea”
One of two hand-drawn films that received nominations, Tomm Moore’s follow-up to “The Secret of Kells” is based on an Irish folk tale. The Cartoon Saloon production tells the story of a boy and his strange little sister who cannot speak and who is more than she seems. While the themes are dark — the boy resents his sister because he blames her for their mother’s death, and their father still mourns the loss of his wife by drinking at the local tavern — the toon is colorful and whimsical in its look. It has a pleasing cartoony style that’s easily digested by kids and adults alike. The design is reminiscent of Mary Blair’s “It’s a Small World” concept drawings.

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”
Venerable Japanese animator Isao Takahata’s languid, watercolor painting of a film is the second hand-drawn nominee. Where “Song of the Sea” is richly colored, the palette for “Princess Kaguya” is subdued. It’s based on a 10th-century Japanese folktale about an old bamboo cutter who finds a tiny princess inside a glowing bamboo stalk. The Studio Ghibli production takes its time as it follows the princess as she grows from an infant into a rebellious young woman. In one of the most emotional stories of all the nominees, the princess, known to her youthful friends as Little Bamboo, teaches her elderly foster parents who she actually is and where she comes from. The themes are about appreciating nature and the folly of trying to please others. The high level of craft is evident in the painterly quality of the scenes, each one a watercolor masterpiece.

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