The best animated feature Oscar isn’t exactly a below-the-line award. In a sense, it’s more akin to a “best picture” Oscar, (which just happens to be animated). For animated film contenders it all comes down to how all of the crafts work together. Story, animation, direction, editing, production design and sound have to coalesce to make for a great animated film.
According to Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rules, there have to be at least 16 eligible contenders in the category to have five animated nominees, otherwise, there are only three. Since instituting the best animated feature Oscar in 2001, only twice has the Academy been able to come up with five nominees, (2003 and 2010).
And last year, the Academy changed some of the rules for the animation category, drawing a line between “animation” and “effects.” Under the new rules, to qualify as animation, characters’ performances and movement must be created using a frame-by-frame technique rather than motion capture. That precludes some films, like Mars Needs Moms, or even Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, which comes out in December, from making a run in the category and narrows the field of potential contenders.
So far, this year, there have been a number of animated films that qualify as early contenders, but whether there will be enough by the end of the year to reach the coveted 16 remains to be seen. Overall, it looks unlikely.
The Disney/Pixar animated feature film Cars 2, which opened on June 24 earned over $548 million at the box office, making it the 16th highest-grossing animated film in global cinematic history. The film was co-directed by John Lasseter who directed the original Cars in 2006, and Brad Lewis, producer of the Oscar-winning film Ratatouille. Lasseter made his feature film directing debut with Toy Story in 1995. He has since directed such Disney/Pixar classics as A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2. He also served as executive producer of all other Pixar films to date. He is currently the chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and principal creative advisor of Walt Disney Imagineering.
And if recent history is any indicator, Disney/Pixar films have won four of the last five Oscars, making them a force to be reckoned with.
But DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 2, released May 26, is also a strong contender. In the action-packed sequel to Kung Fu Panda, Jack Black reprises the role as Po, the rotund Martial Arts Panda. Much of the crew from the original film also returned to work on the sequel, including director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who served as story artist and head of story on the original.
After spending nearly four decades creating visual effects, George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic made its animated feature debut with Rango, which opened March 4. Critics quickly dubbed the CGI artwork as “extraordinary” due to the dense and textured photographic look, which brought to life production designer Crash McCreery’s designs of animal-like townsmen and desert settings. Directed by Gore Verbinski, Rango centers on a pet chameleon (Johnny Depp) who finds himself appointed sheriff when he stumbles to the Wild West town of Dirt. ILM brought the surreal southwestern setting and richly detailed characters to life by applying live-action techniques to the dialogue recording, lighting, costuming and animation pipeline.
McCreery has been involved with the creation of such iconic characters as the dinosaurs in all three Jurassic Park films, Edward Scissorhands, and Davy Jones and his crew from the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. He continued to work with Pirates director Verbinski on Rango as art director, where he defined the look of over 80 characters, more than 30 sets and even voiced one of the characters for the feature.
20th Century Fox’s Rio, released April 8 is an another early contender. Directed by Carlos Saldanha, who was nominated for a best animated short film Oscar in 2002 for Gone Nutty, the film tells the story of a domesticated tropical bird who never learned to fly, and his quest to find his soul mate. Saldanha co-directed or directed the hit films Ice Age (2002), Robots (2005), Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006) and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009).
Disney returned to its classical roots this summer with Winnie the Pooh. Directed by Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall, the film is animated in Disney’s classic, hand-drawn artistic style. In their quest to create an exciting new theatrical feature starring some of Disney’s best-loved characters, the directors had a secret weapon – Burny Mattinson. Mattinson is one of the few Disney artists who worked with Walt Disney – and he’s still on staff at Walt Disney Animation Studios more than 50 years later.
Mattinson worked on the original series of 25-minute featurettes – Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1964), Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968) and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, (1974).
“There’s nobody better to channel the spirit, the charm of classic Disney. We call him The Pooh Guru because he’s been our guiding light throughout the process,” said Hall.
From early in the year, Gnomeo and Juliet recasts Shakespeare’s romantic tale of the Montagues and Capulets set amongst two warring clans of garden gnomes.
Directed by Kelly Asbury, who co-directed Shrek 2, (2004) and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, (2002), the film came out in February, which could be a disadvantage come Oscar time, with a slew of animated films slated for the holiday season, which can often drown out films from early in the year.
Looking ahead, there are a number of films to watch for coming out later this year, including DreamWorks Animation’s Puss in Boots, coming out at the end of October; Aardman/Sony Pictures Animation’s Arthur Christmas, and Warner Bros.’ Happy Feet Two, both slated for November.
In the animated industry, the main bellwether awards show is the Annie Awards, now in its 39th year. Scheduled for Feb. 4 at UCLA’s Royce Hall in Los Angeles, the awards recognize excellence in animation in 28 categories including best animated feature, television production, television commercial, short subject, video game, as well as individual achievements and often give a good indication which film will take the Oscar.
ASIFA-Hollywood is currently accepting nominations, (due by Oct. 14).
For more on the Annie Awards, see http://www.asifa-hollywood.org/
Previous Animated Feature Film Oscar Winners
Happy Feet – George Miller
Kingdom Pictures, LLC Production; Warner Bros. [Australia/U.S.A.]
Ratatouille – Brad Bird
Pixar Production; Walt Disney.
WALL-E – Andrew Stanton
Pixar Animation Studios Production; Walt Disney.
Up – Pete Docter
Pixar Production; Walt Disney.
Toy Story 3 – Lee Unkrich
Pixar Production; Walt Disney.