As the year winds down, it’s clear that 2018 was an atypical time for animated features vying for Oscars and other awards. Not all big-name studios fielded contenders: Pixar/Disney had the billion-dollar baby “Incredibles 2,” while Disney Animation’s holiday entry — “Ralph Breaks the Internet” — is poised to repeat the box office and critical success of its 2012 Oscar nominee “Wreck-It Ralph.” Sony cruised to strong B.O. with “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” and in December, Columbia/Sony will launch “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse.” But familiar competitors, including DreamWorks Animation, Laika and Blue Sky Studios sat the game out.

Universal’s Illumination Entertainment had no Minions scurrying around, though it will unveil a 3D-animated take on Dr. Seuss’ Christmas classic with “The Grinch.” Warner Animation Group built on the studio’s storied animation rep with the musical-comedy “Smallfoot” — a man-meets-bigfoot tale. Finally, Fox Searchlight is showcasing Wes Anderson’s idiosyncratic stop-motion style on the Berlin Film Festival-opener “Isle of Dogs,” his first animation since the 2009 Oscar-nominee “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

There’s no shortage of familiar faces onscreen — from Jack-Jack and Ralph to Dracula and Spidey. In animation, franchises still rule. Yet Pixar’s two-time Oscar-winning director Brad Bird waited 14 years to revisit his Incredibles clan.

“When we did the first film, the Batman and Superman franchises were dormant, so we had elbow room,” Bird says. “Now if you throw a rock, you’ll hit five superheroes. That depressed me for about an hour, until I remembered that the superhero part wasn’t what interested me. ‘The Incredibles’ is more about family dynamics, and there are a million permutations of that. Outwardly, the film looks like a candy-colored extravaganza, but the feeling behind it comes from growing up as a little brother.”

Bird was able to follow those instincts, since he’s that rare solo writer-director in a field in which films often have many bosses.

Refreshing a superhero franchise was definitely the challenge facing Sony Animation with “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which displays a toon style that channels the Marvel ‘POW’ ‘ZAP’ panels of comic books. Phil Lord (of “Lego Movie” fame) penned a script with a teen protagonist, an older Peter Parker and a multicultural spin, while Disney/DreamWorks story veteran Bob Persichetti clinched his first co-director shot.

“There were seven producers and all these expectations, so it was daunting,” says Persichetti. “In making a cinematic expression of the original comic, we wanted to satisfy hard-core fans AND also create new characters.”

Their “panel-ization” approach required Sony’s animators and vfx artists to make multiple images that appear together in some scenes.

“Our shot count is two or three times higher than most films that Imageworks has done for Sony,” Persichetti says.

Imageworks also delivered monster effects for “Hotel Transylvania 3,” in which Dracula and company set sail on a cruise and meet mayhem at sea. Director Genndy Tartakovsky, the toon-master behind Sony’s “Transylvania” trilogy, proudly calls it goofy slapstick.

“It’s not as if Luke Skywalker does the wrong thing and the world explodes,” he says. “We get more leeway.”

For the first time, Tartakovsky co-wrote as well as directed. “I wanted a story that would facilitate our physical style of animation. I think we have five sequences without ANY dialogue. More people are steering animation towards realism, but I’m staying with a cartoon sensibility,” he says.

Toon zaniness is never far from the spirit of “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” either — despite the 3D polish on this Disney Animation contender. Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, who penned “Wreck-It Ralph” and the Oscar-winning “Zootopia,” together wrote and directed Ralph’s journey from videogames into the wild world of the internet.

“Ralph’s gone from a little lake into the ocean,” cracks Moore, whose animation DNA includes “The Simpsons.”

In brainstorming the “what ifs …” for Ralph and his friend Vanellope roaming the web, Johnston and Moore imagined a Disney-princess version of an online personality test. Evoking the sister-stars of “Frozen,” they posed the hypothetical question: “Are you an Elsa or an Anna?” That led them to include voice actors from “Frozen” — and also “Moana” — for their new “Ralph” film.

“There’s never been a movie with so many background players at once,” Johnston says. “We have 430 characters, 90-speaking roles and literally millions of extras.”

Computer-animated features are a safe bet to dominate the awards scene this year, but Bird says greater diversity in the medium can remain viable.

“Because of a limited number of examples to emulate, people have conflated computer graphics with contemporary success,” he says.
Bird hopes the stop-motion humor of Aardman’s Oscar-winner Nick Park, the hand-drawn films distributed by GKids and Anderson’s forays into animation will broaden people’s perceptions.

“The fact that Wes would think animation is worth his time forces people to think a little differently,” he says.

There ARE signs of interesting creative expansions in animation if you look behind the scenes. To direct “The Grinch,” Illumination Entertainment chief Chris Meledandri paired “The Secret Life of Pets” co-director Yarrow Cheney with Scott Mosier, who’s best-known for his live-action credits with Kevin Smith. The directing trio behind “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse” included Rodney Rothman, a longtime head writer for David Letterman. And Tartakovsky co-wrote “Hotel Transylvania 3” with Michael McCullers of “Austin Powers” fame, and who is now penning DreamWorks’ next “Shrek.”

All signs are pointing to a busier 2019 in the feature animation derby. Along with “Shrek 5,” DreamWorks Animation will unveil the finale of its “How to Train Your Dragon” trilogy. The year ahead also promises to bring us “Toy Story 4” and sequels to “Frozen,” “The Secret Life of Pets” and “The Lego Movie” (with original creators Lord and Chris Miller in the writers’ chairs). Laika will also return with “Missing Link,” written and directed by Chris Butler, an Oscar nominee for “ParaNorman.”

As creative leadership passes from John Lasseter to Pete Docter at Pixar, and to Jennifer Lee at Disney Animation — and Fox Animation joins the Disney collective — animated features will surely evolve. And with DreamWorks now a stablemate of Illumination at Universal, future awards races may take on a more intramural edge than ever before.