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CinemaCon Lays Foundation for 2016’s Animated Awards Race

There will only be five slots to fill so it's going to get pretty competitive this season.

The Secret Life of Pets
Courtesy of Universal

From a ten-minute preview of Illumination’s “The Secret Life of Pets” to a 27-minute deep dive into Pixar’s “Finding Dory,” this year’s CinemaCon is laying the groundwork for a very competitive animated feature awards race in 2016.

Warner Bros. got the ball rolling Tuesday by presenting a look at “Storks,” from writer-director Nicholas Stoller. The film, co-directed by Doug Sweetland, tells the story of, well, storks, who have transitioned from delivering babies to delivering packages. Complications ensue when an order for a baby appears. Andy Samberg stars alongside Keegan-Michael Key, Kelsey Grammer and Katie Crown.

(WB also touted the Warner Animation Group, which could land future consideration for everything from “The Lego Batman Movie” and “The Lego Movie 2” to a new spin on the world of Scooby Doo and friends.)

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Sticking with avian themes, Sony Pictures Animation will be releasing “The Angry Birds Movie” later this year. On Tuesday, the studio debuted a trailer for the film, which stars Jason Sudeikis, Danny McBride and Maya Rudolph. The trailer for Seth Rogen’s raunchy “Sausage Party” also got some play, though consider that one a stretch for conservative AMPAS types.

On the more robust side, Disney’s presentation was highlighted by a full 27 minutes of Andrew Stanton’s long-awaited “Finding Nemo” sequel “Finding Dory.” This time focusing on Ellen DeGeneres’ forgetful Blue Tang fish, the film brings all the trademark emotion and wit of the original film and might even make believers of skeptics who feel that Pixar is going back to the well on their own properties too much.

Stanton said he had assumed the 2003 original — which remained Pixar’s highest-grossing film for seven years until “Toy Story 3” knocked it off its perch — was a “closed circuit.” But one day while re-watching the film, he found himself wondering about the character of Dory. Would she be okay in the world he had created? Would she forget clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son, Nemo, if she got lost again?

“That really bothered me,” Stanton said. “I couldn’t sleep!”

In particular, the film’s opening sequence, which Stanton asked not be spoiled, landed some serious emotional blows. Viewers will be on the verge of tears before the title even floats onto the screen, so pencil this one in as a sure-fire contender later in the year.

Though no footage was shown from “Moana,” Disney’s fall animated entry, it was mentioned with enthusiasm by distribution chief Dave Hollis. The film stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, and is helmed by animation legends Ron Clements and John Musker. The duo has been nominated twice for the best animated feature film Oscar (“Treasure Planet” and “The Princess and the Frog”) and would no doubt have been in the running for previous efforts like “The Great Mouse Detective,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “Hercules” if the category had existed prior to 2001.

Finally, Universal’s Wednesday presentation was largely dominated by looks at Illumination Entertainment’s upcoming slate, which will even feature a new animated version of Dr. Seuss’ “The Grinch.” That and a new entry in the “Despicable Me” franchise are set for 2017, but later this year the company has another pair of films to offer.

The first is “The Secret Life of Pets,” from “Despicable Me” director Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney, who came up as a production designer at Illumination. The film’s first ten minutes were shown, setting up the world of the film in which pet owners leave their trusted dogs, cats and birds every morning as they shuffle off to work. Naturally, high jinks ensue.

Illumination CEO Chris Meledandri made it a point to note for the exhibitors gathered that the film will release three weeks after “Finding Dory,” making the Pixar film a prime “trailer target” to hook the audience. Similarly, “Despicable Me” opened three weeks after “Toy Story 3” in 2010.

The company is also getting into the short film game, attaching a Minions romp — “Mower Minions” — to “Secret Life” in theaters.

Illumination closed with a rough 20-minute look at December release “Sing,” from “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and “Son of Rambow” director Garth Jennings. It stars Matthew McConaughey as a koala looking to liven up his theater business by hosting a singing competition. A flurry of hit tunes, from Katy Perry’s “Firework” to Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance,” were scattered throughout the footage (which was partially conveyed via storyboards), fodder for the performers of Jennings’ fully anthropomorphized world.

And still to come Thursday is DreamWorks Animation’s presentation, which will feature a look at Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn’s “Trolls.” Jeffrey Katzenberg’s unit has of course found Academy success with films from the “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Kung Fu Panda” and “Shrek” franchises, with notices for others like “The Croods” to boot. “Kung Fu Panda 3” is already in the marketplace with big box office and solid reviews, so it could end up being the standout from the studio’s slate this time around.

20th Century Fox will have the latest “Ice Age” installment to flaunt as well.

Add all of that to Disney’s monstrous success “Zootopia,” as well as Laika’s upcoming “Kubo and the Two Strings” (not to mention whatever GKIDS surprise attack is lurking), and you’re looking at a beefy slate of possible players. But as we all know, there will only be five slots to fill.