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Animated Fare Like ‘Zootopia’ and ‘Red Turtle’ Toon Into Heavy Issues

The maxim that good scripts are essential to making good movies is especially true in animation.  In this medium, scripts and storyboards provide blueprints for completely invented worlds, and dialogue is recorded before the animation is done.

There’s been an Oscar category for animated feature for just 15 years; and toon screenplay nominations are relatively recent. Prior to that, animated movies typically were likelier to be recognized for song. Thus far, writer-director Andrew Stanton tops the list of Oscar-nominated animation screenwriters with four to his name (including “Toy Story,” “Wall-E,” “Finding Nemo,” and “Toy Story 3”), and he could compete again this year with the Disney/Pixar billion-dollar winner “Finding Dory.”

There’s another billion-dollar baby attracting awards buzz this season, too.  Disney’s computer-animated “Zootopia” nabbed 11 Annie Award nominations (including writing) and a Golden Globe nod for animated film.  It’s also the only animated feature among AFI’s 2016 honorees.

Zootopia” co-writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston say it took five years to achieve this. “The work we do as writers involves hundreds of drafts that have to coalesce into a story that makes sense,” says Johnston, who won an Annie for co-writing “Wreck-It-Ralph.”  “The job of a writer is like that of an editor. And because there were so many iterations, there were many ‘carcasses’ left along the highway!”

“Many darlings were murdered during the making of this movie,” jokes Bush, who also co-wrote “Moana,” Disney’s other 2016 Golden Globe and Annie Award contender.  “An idea that arrives during year one can go out in year two and return in year four. Until a movie is done, there is no finished script.”

Disney’s famed “story trust” encourages writers to constantly push against others’ ideas, which seems apt for exploring the theme of bias and prejudice in “Zootopia.” “It makes the process better, though not necessarily fun,” admits Johnston. He likens it to TV writers’ rooms. “We’re like showrunners. The TV model is more relevant to writing animation than live action.”

“Zootopia” unfolds in an all-animal world, so the creative team took an African safari to observe predators and prey.  Bush says Disney leader John Lasseter stresses research to uncover details that make animated worlds feel authentic.  For the South Pacific-themed “Moana,” Bush traveled on ocean-going canoes and collaborated with people who knew island cultures well. “We had an Oceanic story trust that was great.”

“Moana” isn’t the only animated contender set in an exotic locale.  Laika Studio’s “Kubo and the Two Strings” (released by Focus Features) follows a Japanese boy on a hero’s journey through mystical adventures.  The action often evokes classic Samurai films, quite a feat for a stop-motion movie made with 10-inch puppets.

The film reinforces Laika’s reputation for creating such unconventional, and consistently Oscar nominated, animated features as “Coraline” and “The Boxtrolls.”  Its 10 Annie Award nominations for “Kubo,” including for co-writers Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, reflects the perennial admiration that animation insiders have for the Portland-based indie shop.
Butler, a previous Oscar nominee for directing Laika’s “ParaNorman,” says, “Clearly ‘Kubo’ shows the influence of Akira Kurosawa, Hayao Miyazaki and Ray Harryhausen’s sword-and-sandal epics. Beyond being a beautiful evocation of Japanese mythology, it’s a story about a fractured family, which anyone can identify with.”

“Kubo” doesn’t recreate eastern lore. The inspiration came from Laika artist Shannon Tindle, who introduced director Travis Knight to fledgling screenwriter Marc Haimes, “I was writing horror scripts,” says Haimes, who previously had been a live-action production exec. “Still, Travis thought that a guy who wrote dark stories could write “Kubo.” It was important to make it accessible. I wrote an adventure I wanted to see.”
Haimes’ original script ran the gamut from scary monsters to elegant origami creatures, and was dense with ideas.  The protagonist was an urchin who would be at home in a Charles Dickens’ tale. As Butler notes, “We didn’t shy away from the drama. You can have darkness in kids’ movies as long as you also show the light.”

A striking aspect of this year’s animated contenders is that there’s not one, but two stop-motion films centered on children who survive painful circumstances.  “My Life as a Zucchini,” a GKids release from first-time feature director Claude Barras, tells a bittersweet story of neglected orphans in foster care.  Céline Sciamma, who had never written for animation before, adapted the movie from Gilles Paris’s coming-of-age novel.
“I think you can talk about anything with kids,” says Sciamma, a writer-director whose film “Tomboy” also explored childhood struggles. “It’s not what  you talk about; it is how.  Disney movies like ‘Bambi’ and ‘Snow White’ have deep subjects.  Bambi’s mother dies.

“We took these young characters very seriously and gave them complex backgrounds,” adds Sciamma, who received an Annie Award nomination for writing “My Life as a Zucchini.” “I thought about my own experiences growing up and watching movies by Steven Spielberg like ‘E.T.’ I remember how strongly I felt that kids could be heroes.”

“My Life as a Zucchini” has been warmly received around the world. It won the Audience Prize at Cannes, and the Annecy Animation Festival’s’ Crystal Award. It also earned a Golden Globe nomination for animated feature, and as Switzerland’s official Oscar entry it is shortlisted in the foreign-language film race. It also differs dramatically from typical animated stories for kids, which makes it stand out.

One of the most interesting aspects of awards season is that the media spotlight shines on independent features that expand how we think about animation.  There is no better example this year than “The Red Turtle, “a hand-drawn film from Dutch writer-director Michael Dudok De Wit.

“The Red Turtle” carries us to a deserted island, where a lone man struggles to survive in nature.  The film conveys strong emotions without a single word of dialogue, which makes it all the more remarkable that its five Annie Award nominations include the script by Dudok De Wit and screenwriter Pascale Ferran.

“We initially had dialogue to explain things, but it didn’t feel right.  It was too explanatory,” says the first-time feature director, who previously won an Oscar for his animated short, “Father and Daughter.”  “In ‘Castaway,’ audiences wanted Tom Hanks to talk to the ball. That was perfectly conceived. In this film, you don’t know where the protagonist comes from, or even what century it is. You have to accept that you just know what you see.”

Because hand-drawn animation has become rare in feature films, comparisons have been made between “The Red Turtle” and the films of Studio Ghibli, home of “Spirited Away” Oscar-winner Hayao Miyazaki. In fact, the acclaimed Japanese studio contacted Dudok De Wit about co-producing a feature film with him, which was a first.  As he developed the project, he even traveled to a remote island to develop his ideas.

“The Red Turtle” illustrates how pure imagery makes animation such an international medium for storytelling, which may explain why it won a special jury prize at Cannes and recognition from critics worldwide. As Dukok de Wit observes, “Animation communicates a lot more than people may realize.”

Viewed as a group, the contenders of 2016 reflect the many ways that animation continues to mature.  As Laika’s Chris Butler observes, “We make gradual movements forward in opening up the boundaries of what animation can do.”

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