Gold Grabbers

A deep range of features contends for honors, kudos and statuettes in one of the most competitive years for animation in Oscars history.

There’s never been a year as robust for animated features as 2016, making this year’s Oscars race one of the most competitive in the category’s 15 years of existence.

And that’s great news for animation fans. The diversity of subject matter and technique is as deep as ever, ranging from beautiful handcrafted international features to a subversive R-rated CG-animated hit, to some of the year’s biggest box office blockbusters.

Here is Animation Magazine’s annual run down of the contenders for this year’s animated feature awards race.

 

The Frontrunners

findingdory574e1574940c8

Finding Dory

Animation Magazine #261

Studio: Pixar

Distributor: Buena Vista

Release Date: June 17

Box Office: $1 billion worldwide ($485 million U.S. domestic)

Director: Andrew Stanton

Cast: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill

Rotten Tomatoes: 94 percent fresh

Critics’ View:  “In the end, the real value of Finding Dory lies in its goofy effervescence. Although DeGeneres’ Dory, with her breathless stream-of-consciousness patter, is unavoidably likable, the cast of supporting characters here may be even better. Ed O’Neill supplies the voice of Hank, a selfish, irascible octopus who uses his gift for camouflage in some outlandish ways—when we first see him, he’s masquerading as the dangling kitten in the classic Hang in there! poster, a juxtaposition of weird visual ideas that shouldn’t go together at all but qualifies as a small flash of genius.” — Stephanie Zacharek, Time.

Behind the Scenes: Stanton says he always knew Dory’s backstory, even though he had never revealed it even to people who worked on Nemo. “I knew she had traveled the ocean many, many, many years, didn’t remember a thing and, because of her short-term memory loss, had probably lost anyone she had ever connected with or they ditched her because she drove them crazy,” he says. “And she probably had this massive sense of abandonment without any ability to place it. It’s sort of why she always apologizes.”

But building a story that worked with Dory at its core was extremely difficult given that she was created to be the ultimate sidekick in Nemo. Stanton says it took a year and half for the Dory team to figure out that the biggest problem with the character was that without the ability to self-reflect there was no way to track her growth through the story.

Having identified the problem, the solution turned out to be many small adjustments to the story, which finally began to come together in the last eight months of its four-year journey — much like Nemo did, Stanton says.

Awards Chances: Pixar is always a threat when it comes to awards — though as a sequel Finding Dory is less of a lock than its original features. For every Toy Story 3, which handily won Best Animated Feature in 2011, or Finding Nemo, which won in 2003, there’s a Monsters University to show that Pixar can be passed over. The technical achievement of creating Hank the septopus is sure to impress animation insiders, as is Pixar’s ability to use story to evoke tears from even the most jaded moviegoer. Earning an Oscars nomination is likely more than half the battle for Dory. If it can make it past the large field of competitors to the final five, its popularity — plus that of Ellen DeGeneres, again delivering a knock out voice over performance — gives it a strong shot with the wider, actor-heavy voting body of the Academy.

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS

Kubo and the Two Strings

Animation Magazine #262

Studio: LAIKA

Distributor: Focus Features

Release Date: Aug. 12

Box Office: $63 million worldwide ($47 million U.S. domestic)

Director: Travis Knight

Cast: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey

Rotten Tomatoes: 97 percent fresh

Reaction: “Folks familiar with the Oregon-based studio LAIKA — the people responsible for the Freudian waking nightmare Coraline (2009) and the tender I-see-dead-people parable ParaNorman (2011) — know that the company has more or less set the standard for modern stop-motion animation. But with Kubo and the Two Strings, LAIKA doesn’t so much surpass its own previously set bar so much as demolish it. Watching Kubo turn flat pieces of paper into tiny warriors or an undulating origami swarm of birds, or an underwater swimmer surrounded by floating eyeballs, or a climactic stand-off between our hero and a giant, serpent-like spirit, you forget you’re essentially watching things being painstakingly, microscopically manipulated. And then you remember that this is indeed the product of artists working with small figures on a grand scale, and you find yourself staring at the onscreen sound and fury in awe. The work here is fluid and near-flawless — which is as an apt description for the entire film as any.” — David Fear, Rolling Stone.

Behind the Scenes: The non-human puppets posed unusual challenges. Beetle looks like an origami samurai, and was the first LAIKA character built with an exoskeleton. “We had to allow the internal hard parts to ride over the internal skeleton,” says Georgina Hayns, creative supervisor of puppet fabrication. “There’s a soft foam core that sits around the armature and then all of these breast plates slide over the top of the material.”

Beetle’s armor itself is made of Tyvek, which looks like paper but can’t be torn. Those properties, however, made it difficult to paint, requiring a number of techniques including roughing up the surface, dying and spray paint to color it.

Monkey was another difficult character, as LAIKA’s first fully furred puppet, Hayns says. “We approached it more like a live-action body suit,” she says. “We built her armature and we built on top of it a muscle suit … and then we covered the muscle suit with a fur fabric suit.”

As with human hair, the fur-like coat was combed through with silicone to create a stylized effect that was easy to animate and avoided chatter.

The sisters — since they’re twins, they are portrayed with identical puppets differentiated by their choice of weapon — were all about the cape. Hayns says her team designed a cape that could transform into wings as the story called for and be used in every shot (save one) needed for the movie.

Awards Chances: Each of LAIKA’s previous films has been nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar — though none have taken home the statuette. Kubo is the strongest film LAIKA has made to date, as well as one of the year’s best films of any type. If critical praise were the defining criterion, it would have the gold locked up, but the film’s box office has not — to date — performed as well as its predecessors and earned a mere fraction of its billion-dollar-grossing competitors. The Oscars like to pretend those factors don’t matter, but they clearly do factor in — if not enough voters have even seen the film, its chance of victory is slim. But the quality is there, as is a bit of celebrity factor with the rising star of the highly likable Travis Knight — a strong campaign that gets Knight out there and makes sure people see the movie could complement the creative aspects well enough to put Kubo over the top.

Zootopia56d772c6a163b

Zootopia

Animation Magazine #258

Studio: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Distributor: Buena Vista

Release Date: March 4

Box Office: $1 billion worldwide ($341 million U.S. domestic)

Director: Byron Howard and Rich Moore; Jared Bush, co-director

Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba

Rotten Tomatoes: 98 percent fresh

Reaction: “The film that unfolds from these beginnings is in many ways a conventional one, but it unfolds with so much wit, panache, and visual ingenuity that it outstrips many a more high-concept movie. Its lessons about tolerance, diversity, and racial profiling may be familiar, but they are delivered with a conviction that is never cloying and frequently a touch subversive. (As when Judy describes Nick as ‘articulate,’ or patiently explains, ‘A bunny can call another bunny “cute,” but when someone who’s not a bunny …’)

“Visually, the film is a giddy delight, bright and inventive. Given the wildly varying sizes of their mammalian cast — from hamster to rhino — the directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore and the co-director Jared Bush have particular fun with scale and perspective. One moment Judy is too small for her world, unable to reach the rim of the police department toilet without leaping; the next she is too large, rampaging through the Habitrails of Zootopia’s ‘Little Rodentia’ neighborhood. And don’t get me started on the movie’s joyously wicked sendup of The Godfather, in which Mr. Big, a tiny arctic shrew, attends his daughter’s wedding surrounded by gargantuan polar-bear heavies.” — Christopher Orr, The Atlantic.

Behind the Scenes: The story itself went through multiple iterations, starting out as a spy story, then becoming a detective yarn before settling into shape as a tale about Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, an idealistic young bunny who leaves Bunny Burroughs for the big city and a job as Zootopia’s first bunny police officer. She meets up with sly fox Nick Wilde, played by Jason Bateman, and winds up needing his help to solve a crime in a couple of days before she has to return home a failure.

While earlier versions focused on the Nick character, it became clear in the fall of 2014 — a scant 18 months or so before the movie was to be released — that the story was about Judy.

“A lot of studios would say, we can’t do anything about it,” says Rich Moore, who joined the production around this time as director, bringing along crewmembers like his Wreck-it Ralph head of story Jim Reardon. “But we are so lucky to have a boss in John Lasseter, who is not afraid to — when the right idea presents itself — say that’s what the story wants to be, that’s the right way to go, let’s make that change.”

Reworking the story at that point was less about a complete revamp than being creative with the work that had already been done, Moore says. “The city itself didn’t change and the characters, for the most part, were rooted in who they always were,” says Moore. “But it was a mechanical change of how do we service our themes and our tone and pit these characters against one another the best way possible.”

Awards Chances: Mentioned last here by virtue of alphabetical conventions, Zootopia has all the earmarks of a front-runner that could win the race walking backwards with 50-pound weights attached to its feet. Aside from being a huge hit, visually stunning and the best-looking CG picture Disney has ever made, Zootopia works on a story level that’s on par with anything Disney (or any other studio or filmmaker) has pulled off in many a year. A veteran of The Simpsons, Moore brings to Disney that show’s knack for nailing topical issues with laugh-out-loud comedy. But it’s the depth that it’s taken to in Zootopia — all wrapped up in an incredibly fun, appealing and satisfying story — that really sets this apart as the film to beat.

 

The Serious Contenders

The Little Prince premiering on Netflix on August 5, 2016. Photo: Netflix

The Little Prince

Animation Magazine #258

Studio: Kaibou Productions, LPPTV, M6 Films, On Animation Studios, Onyx Films, Orange Studio, TouTenKartoon

Distributor: Netflix

Release Date: Aug. 5 (U.S.)

Box Office: $98 million worldwide ($1.4 million U.S. domestic)

Director: Mark Osborne

Cast: Mackenzie Foy,  Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams

Rotten Tomatoes: 93 percent fresh

Behind the Scenes: How to make a film that effectively moves from CG to stop-motion and back again was the first big challenge for the show. “It was a compelling idea conceptually but very complicated to work out, and to be honest it was a notion that only became real once (stop-motion creative director) Jamie Caliri joined the project,” says director Mark Osborne.

The most distinctive element of the stop-motion is that all the elements look like they are made of paper. “I wanted to link the two worlds by having the paper that the little girl is reading the story on inspiring her, and that imaginary world that she created,” Osborne says.

Puppets were built with a ball-and-socket armature and covered in all kinds of paper. “Everything that you see on screen in the stop-motion world, almost everything, is made out of paper,” says Osborne.

Awards Chances: A very strong contender that succeeded all over the world before U.S. distribution plans were set, then canceled, and then were re-set via Netflix. That delay may make the film look less current to some, but to overlook it would be a shame because it’s a truly touching and heartfelt movie. It’s also a great example of a true global independent, made completely outside the traditional American studio system, and an ideal example of how animation has become a harbinger of the future of film production. Despite all that, The Little Prince is still charming enough and delightful enough to overcome its obstacles and make a solid run for an Oscar nom.

Long Way North still 8

Long Way North

Animation Magazine #264

Studio: Sacrebleu Productions, Maybe Movies, 2 Minutes, France 3 Cinema and Nørlum

Distributor: Shout! Factory

Release Date: Sept. 30

Director: Rémi Chayé

Cast: Chloe Dunn, Viviene Vermes, Peter Hudson

Rotten Tomatoes: 100 percent fresh

Behind the Scenes: Production on the movie was very collaborative, with Chayé open to input and contributions from everyone. Henri Magalon says the producers and crew were all involved in working on the script, the animate and on finishing the financing. “We worked together jointly on all the decisions of the line production: Where to locate the studios, what team to hire, how to accompany Remi the best,” he says.

The look of the movie came slowly to Chayé, whose experience is mostly with narrative elements like storyboards and layout instead of design. “I had no personal style to work with and I had to define it,” he says. “I looked at the influence of the people I was working for, like Tomm Moore on Brendan and the Secret of Kells and Jean-Francois Laguionie on Le Tableau. … Finally, at one point, I discovered that if I remove the line of my drawings, the result was somehow interesting, so I decided to go along with that idea.”

With the story problems solved and the animatic working, animation was a relatively smooth 18-month process for the feature. “Liane-cho Han was the supervisor of the whole thing, animation wise,” says Chayé. “The main thing for me was to make sure they caught the emotion and Han made a very beautiful job on that part.”

Awards Chances: Cartoon Saloon proved European indies can earn Oscar nominations, as it did for The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. That gives Long Way North a road map to follow for awards season, one also blazed by such films as that will surely be aided by the engrossing tale of a young girl’s search for her explorer grandfather and the delightfully colorful and expressive 2D animation Chayé and his team deliver.

hokusai_C061 copy

Miss Hokusai

Animation Magazine #264

Studio: Production I.G.

Distributor: GKIDS

Release Date: Oct. 14

Director: Keiichi Hara

Cast: Anne Watanabe, Yutaka Matsushige, Shion Shimizu

Rotten Tomatoes: 100 percent

Behind the Scenes: Hara, who is already at work on his next film, sees only a tenuous link between the Hokusai’s graphic visions and contemporary animation. But he finds that for the artists who make those films, little has changed in the two centuries since Hokusai created “The Great Wave” and other seminal woodblock prints.

“Printmaking of the Edo period is strikingly similar to the production process of hand-drawn animation,” he says. “They are both the result of tight teamwork among very specialized craftsmen aimed at mass audiences; no original art survives, only reproductions. Publishers in the Edo era would decide on the project, select the staff, do the marketing — exactly like today’s animation producers. And like animators, Edo period printmakers, including Hokusai, were considered ‘artisans’ rather than ‘artists.’ I certainly don’t command Hokusai’s creative powers, but I like to consider myself an artisan, striving to make my way through an endless wilderness of white paper, holding nothing but my pencil.”

Awards Chances: Oscar has a soft spot for art-house style Japanese animation, as shown by the nominations it has bestowed upon the likes of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, The Wind Also Rises and When Marnie Was There. Miss Hokusai, unlike those features, is not a Studio Ghibli production, even though it has a similar style. But given the high acclaim the feature has received, that may matter little to the nominating committee, given the depth of emotion, the historical context and the excellent craft on display in this movie.

Moana57c47666d55dd

Moana

Animation Magazine #266

Studio: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Distributor: Buena Vista

Release Date: Nov. 23

Director: John Musker and Ron Clements

Cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Jermaine Clements

Rotten Tomatoes: 98 percent want to see

Behind the Scenes:

Awards Chances: There’s little doubt Moana is beautifully animated. What remains to be seen, with its release still a month off, is how well the story holds up. Musker and Clements are beloved by animation and Disney fans as the directors of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules. But the duo’s films since the mid-1990s have struggled to find the same level of success and Disney has not made another 2D animated theatrical feature since the duo’s disappointing 2009 movie Princess and the Frog. For Moana, Musker and Clements enter into CGI for the first time — and whether the result inspires audiences to the level of a nomination remains to be seen. Remember, the last Disney movie that came out at the holidays with little advance word was a little thing called Frozen

Fusion x64 TIFF File

The Red Turtle

Animation Magazine #265

Studio: Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch, Studio Ghibli, CN4 Productions, Arte France Cinéma, Belvision, Prima Linea Productions

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Release Date: Jan. 20

Director: Michael Dudok de Wit

Rotten Tomatoes: 90 percent fresh

Behind the Scenes: “When I decided to present a castaway, alone in nature on a deserted tropical island, I immediately decided not to have him talk to himself, as Tom Hanks does so beautifully in Castaway,” says Dudok de wit. “But I thought the story needed some dialogue, especially when the man and the woman meet. I imagined the woman would be silent because she is from nature, but the man would say something.

“We have no idea where the protagonist is from; which century, which culture, which background, which place in society,” he says. “We know nothing about him, but if he opens his mouth and says something, it makes us jump, ‘Oh, he speaks English?’ ‘Oh, he’s French?’ It didn’t feel natural.”

The lack of words put more emphasis on the animation than the project would have otherwise demanded. “To compensate for the absence of dialogue, the acting had to be beautiful and clear at the crucial moments,” Dudok De Wit says. “When the man and woman meet — when anyone else would speak — the body language had to be eloquent enough to compensate for the absence of dialogue.”

 

Awards Chances:

2441_FP_MLUN_DS_S1600P0530_L_0128_V02R

Sing

Animation Magazine #266

Studio: Illumination Entertainment

Distributor: Universal

Release Date: Dec. 21

Director: Garth Jennings

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson

Rotten Tomatoes: 88 percent

Reaction: “For the first half of the movie, the stories come fast and furious, and so do the snippets of dozens of pop songs. It’s not frantic in the overly adrenalized manner of many animated films, but it’s something of a jumble nonetheless.

“But when the characters hit rock bottom, the movie quietly gets more emotional and more sure-handed. It’s not easy to make us feel for animated characters who we’ve been laughing at, but we do. … Sure, a couple of those songs are pretty overused — but as a post-screening performance by Jennifer Hudson and Tori Kelly showed, the darn things also work.

“And so does Sing. In an extremely strong year for animation, Illumination has taken a big step up.” — Steve Pond, The Wrap.com.

Awards Chances: This late-year entry will be closely watched as Illumination chief Chris Meledandri is now also overseeing DreamWorks Animation now that it’s been acquired by Universal. The big question for this movie — and for Illumination — is whether they can go beyond the financial success of the Minions to also achieve the critical success that Pixar exemplifies in this industry. Early word is strong, but in a year full of strong competitors that alone may not be enough to stand out from the crowd.

05_140806_05_Coronation_A_RS

Trolls

Animation Magazine #265

Studio: DreamWorks Animation

Distributor: Fox

Release Date: Nov. 4

Director: Mike Mitchell, Walt Dorhn

Cast: Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Jeffrey Tambor

Rotten Tomatoes: 50 percent

Behind the Scenes: “CGI technology is so sophisticated now and so realistic, you can make anything look super real,” says Mitchell. “So for this, we wanted to take that technology and go a different way. We made these creatures they’re like Gummi Bears that have been flocked in velvet. Instead of making a realistic tree … we wanted to cover that tree in felt, and every leaf in felt and maybe the ground is carpet and even the rocks are felted and even the dust and all the effects kind of follow this kind of handmade natural fiber material look that is basically just surfacing, but it’s surfacing I haven’t really seen explored.”

Awards Chances: Cute, fun and beautiful to look at, Trolls is DreamWorks’ top push this year. The movie looks gorgeous and is filled with entertaining songs — both original and classic — that are sure to charm young and old audiences. What remains to be seen is how much depth the movie has and its ability to draw in adults without children — and it’s unlikely to expect gold without that.

 

Don’t Count Them Out

Zucchini Main Image

Ma vie de courgette (My Life as a Zucchini)

Animation Magazine #266

Distributor: GKIDS

Release Date: TBD

Director: Claude Barras

Cast: Michel Vuillermoz, Paulin Jaccoud, Natacha Koutchoumov

Rotten Tomatoes: 100 percent fresh

Awards Chances: This film took the top feature honor at Annecy, is based on a popular book and delves unflinchingly into some serious childhood issues. Its late release and low profile at this point look pretty difficutl to overcome.

SPFP-101 (1) copy

Sausage Party

Animation Magazine #261

Studio: Nitrogen Studios

Distributor: Sony

Release Date: Aug. 12

Box Office: $129 million worldwide ($97 million U.S. Domestic)

Director: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan

Cast: Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill

Rotten Tomatoes: 83 percent fresh

Awards Chances: A fun, subversive movie that’s also a surprise box office and critical hit, Sausage Party would have to overcome its adults-only sense of humor — what clip from the movie could they show at the ceremony if it were nominated? — and the troubling claims of labor violations to earn a nomination.

SLOPSPK001_FPF_00170R

The Secret Life of Pets

Animation Magazine #261

Studio: Illumination Entertainment

Distributor: Universal

Release Date: July 8

Box Office: $849 million worldwide ($365 million U.S. Domestic)

Director: Chris Renaud

Cast: Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet

Rotten Tomatoes: 75 percent fresh

Awards Chances: A global hit and an appealingly fresh look would in many years be more than enough to earn this amiable movie a serious shot at a nom. But in 2016, with no shortage of box office titans and critical darlings — and combinations of the two — there’s likely little room for Pets to squeak through

STORKS

Storks

Animation Magazine #264

Studio: Warner Bros.

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Release Date: Sept. 23

Box Office: $107 million worldwide ($50 million U.S. Domestic)

Director: Nick Stoller, Doug Sweetland

Cast: Andy Samberg, Katie Crown, Kelsey Grammer

Rotten Tomatoes: 61 percent

Awards Chances: A sweet movie, with some terrific animation, fun characters (Pigeon Toady, brah!) and a solid story, it nonetheless seemed a little lost in the crowd when it was released. Also, if Warner’s couldn’t get a nomination for The LEGO Movie, Storks is likely out of luck in so competitive a year.

 

The Long Shots

1271033 - THE WALK

The Angry Birds Movie

Animation Magazine #261

Studio: Rovio Entertainment

Distributor: Sony

Release Date: May 20

Box Office: $347 million worldwide ($108 million U.S. domestic)

Director: Clay Kaytis, Fergal Reilly

Cast: Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride

Rotten Tomatoes: 42 percent

IMA_19

April and the Extraordinary World

Studio: Je Suis Bien Content and StudioCanal

Distributor: GKIDS

Release Date: March 25

Box Office: $295,000 U.S. domestic

Director: Christian Desmares, Franck Ekinci

Cast: Angela Galuppo, Tony Hale, Tony Robinow

Rotten Tomatoes: 98 percent fresh

ice-age-collision-course-gallery-03.jpg__715x415_q85_crop_upscale

Ice Age: Collision Course

Animation Magazine #262

Studio: Blue Sky Studios

Distributor: Fox

Release Date: July 22

Box Office: $404 million worldwide ($64 million U.S. domestic)

Director: Mike Thurmeier

Cast: Ray Romano, Denis Leary, John Leguizamo

Rotten Tomatoes: 13 percent

KFP3_sq1200_s76.pub_f119_4K_RGB_FIN

Kung Fu Panda 3

Animation Magazine #258

Studio: DreamWorks Animation

Distributor: Fox

Release Date: Jan. 29

Box Office: $520 million worldwide ($144 million U.S. domestic)

Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Alessandro Carloni

Cast: Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Dustin Hoffman

Rotten Tomatoes: 87 percent

NERDLAND_STILL_2

Nerdland

Animation Magazine #263

Studio: Titmouse

Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn

Release Date: December

Director: Chris Prynoski

Cast: Paul Rudd, Patton Oswalt, Kate Micucci

Rotten Tomatoes: 17 percent

photo1502.tif

Ratchet and Clank

Animation Magazine #260

Studio: Rainmaker Entertainment

Distributor: Focus Features

Release Date: April 29

Box Office: $8.8 million worldwide

Director: Kevin Munroe

Cast: James Arnold Taylor, David Kaye, Bella Thorne

Rotten Tomatoes: 16 percent

image005

Snowtime!

Animation Magazine #258

Studio: Carpe Diem

Distributor: Shout! Factory

Release Date: Feb. 19

Director: Jean-Francois Pouliot, Francois Brisson

Cast: Angela Gallupo, Lucinda Davis, Sandra Oh

Rotten Tomatoes: 70 percent