With the fall/holiday season just around the corner, the Oscar animation race is even more wide open than last season, when "Rango" jumped out early and never looked back, grabbing the Academy Award. In fact, most of the eventual nominees may not have been released, which makes it hard to pin down how strong a year it will be. But that also underscores the current state of the industry: as the technical craft improves and commercial pressures increase, animators and distributors have to fight against complacency.
The big question at the moment is: How many nominees will there be? I'm figuring there will be the requisite 16 releases to nominate five, including the four titles Gkids will qualify before the end of the year. My preliminary thinking is that "Brave," "Frankenweenie," and "Rise of the Guardians" will get nominated, with "The Lorax," "Hotel Transylvania, "ParaNorman," "Wreck-It Ralph," "From Up on Poppy Hill," and "Zarafa" fighting it out as the most likely contenders for the remaining two spots.
Here's a recap of 2012 thus far:
Pixar 's "Brave" offered its first female protagonist, a powerful mother/daughter conflict, and the studio's most exquisite setting in medieval Scotland. Despite its detractors, "Brave" is much better than "Cars 2" and is currently the top grossing animated movie of the year (outpacing "Wall-E" with $230.1 million).
"The Lorax" tackled the most personal of Dr. Seuss stories with an eye on environmental relevance, striking visuals, and entertainment value. Producer Chris Meledandri might not have pulled off a "Despicable Me," but he clearly bested "Horton Hears a Who!"
"Ice Age: Continental Drift" proved to be another global box office hit for Fox/Blue Sky while upping the action and danger for the popular trio of misfits: Manny (Ray Romano), Diego (Denis Leary), and Sid (John Leguizamo). The venerable franchise underscored that families — no matter how unorthodox — need to stick together, no matter their conflicts, which is the essential ingredient that makes it resonate worldwide.
"Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" turned out to be a franchise best for DreamWorks. Indeed, the zany antics of Alex (Ben Stiller), Marty (Chris Rock), Melman (David Schwimmer), and Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) were much more surreal set against such dazzling eye candy in Monte Carlo and Rome. And the unflappable French baddie cop (voiced supremely by Frances McDormand) made the best human foil yet for the animals.
"The Pirates! Band of Misfits" certainly raised the bar significantly for Aardman's stop-motion craft. The puppets were slicker, the sets more extensive, the overall look more vibrant, and the VFX more authentic. This was a far cry from the Oscar-winning "Wallace and Gromit." If only the swashbuckling Bristol wit scored more forcefully with American audiences.
By contrast, Laika's "ParaNorman" seems to have struck a more responsive chord. Its naturalistic beauty pushes verisimilitude, which is a game-changer for stop-motion. That's pretty unique for stop-motion, and the Portland, Oregon, animation studio now has something to build on for the future, thanks to the perfection of its rapid prototype 3D color printer and a marvelous movie about inclusion that looks more authentic.
That leaves four big studio releases jockeying for position in a very crowded fall/holiday field: First up is Sony's "Hotel Transylvania" (September 28), a Looney Tunes-inspired take on Dracula (Adam Sandler) losing his grip on his rebellious daughter (Selena Gomez) with more monsters crammed into a hotel since "The Mad Monster Party." Director Genndy Tartakovsky ("Samurai Jack") rescued this project from development hell with snappy timing and a hand-drawn sensibility, breaking the rigs and breathing new life into Sony Pictures Animation. This should delight the Academy's animation committee if he also managed to pull the story together.
Not surprisingly, the animated movie getting the most buzz is Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie" (October 5). The black and white, stop-motion reworking of his live-action short looks better and with each successive trailer, and is only enhanced by the tactile wonders of the exhibition now on tour. It's the most personal movie yet from the Goth master, who has forgone a co-director for the first time in animation to ensure the purity of his vision. It's Burton's remembrance of his forlorn childhood in Burbank in the '60s, as his alter ego resurrects the corpse of his beloved dog, Sparky, but then must deal with the consequences. It would be a fitting irony for Burton to snatch an Oscar with the help of Disney and John Lasseter after the Mouse House fired both of them for not fitting in with the corporate image.
Disney strikes again with "Wreck-It Ralph" (November 2), a clever adventure within the world of video games ("Alice in Wonderland" meets "Tron"), directed by "Simpsons" and "Futurama" refuge Rich Moore. It appears that Disney has rediscovered its creative voice after wandering in the woods by figuring out how to meld the best of hand-drawn and CG animation. Again, if the story jells and the emotional payoff works, this has a better chance than "Tangled" of nabbing a nomination. Let the legacy empower rather than entrap the artist.
The season ends with DreamWorks' highly anticipated "Rise of the Guardians" (November 21). Directed by Peter Ramsey, it's a fairy tale "Avengers," in which a Russian Santa (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), a silent Sandman, and Jack Frost (Chris Pine) join forces to combat Pitch (Jude Law), who brings nightmares to children. Adapted from the new book series by Oscar-winning William Joyce ("The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore"), who executive produces, "The Guardians" looks dark, enchanting, and primal — a terrific leap from "How to Train Your Dragon."
And then there are the four contending Gkids titles: "From Up on Poppy Hill," the blockbuster Studio Ghibli movie from Japan about gearing up for the 1964 Olympics, directed by Goro Miyazaki from a screenplay by his legendary father, Hayao Miyazaki; "Zarafa" (Pathe, France), an epic journey that takes a boy and his giraffe from the Sudan to Paris to deliver the majestic animal to the King of France, Charles X; "The Rabbi's Cat" (TF1, France), set in Algeria in the 1920s, in which a cat learns how to speak after swallowing the family parrot and wants to convert to Judaism; and "Le Tableau" (Rezo, France), a painterly-looking CG feature in which painted characters in different stages of completion unite in search of the artist.
For those wondering how you get 16 releases: Disney plans to also qualify the Indian co-production, "Arjun: The Warrior Prince," and the upcoming "Secret of the Wings" Tinker Bell Blu-ray/DVD (streeting October 23). And why wouldn't Disney if it helps garner multiple nominations?
But as we know, things change, so stay tuned.