It's a big week for animated feature films. Not only does today see the release of "Wreck-It Ralph," the highly-acclaimed new feature from Walt Disney Studios, but it's also the deadline for new films to register for the Best Animated Feature Oscar race. Barring a shock, we're looking at a list of about 17 films, which means that, as with 2009 and 2011, there are enough films for the category to hold five nominees (more than 16 are required). It won't necessarily happen, but it probably will.
So with that in mind, what are the chances of "Wreck-It Ralph" to be one of the final five, and of winning the big prize? Well, it's a tough year in the category, as there's no obvious front-runner to win, but lots of films that could be viable nominees. Is it likely to be a studio-heavy affair? Or will surprise indies like last year's "Chico & Rita" or "A Cat In Paris" make the cut?
The best place to start is with Disney, who aren't just putting out "Wreck-It Ralph," but have five films in contention altogether. You can immediately rule out "Secret of the Wings," an essentially direct-to-video Tinkerbell movie given a quiet theatrical run for a week as insurance to make sure there were enough films to make it a five-category race. The same is likely true of the Indian-made, Disney-backed "Arjun: The Warrior Prince," which falls between the stools of the corporate behemoth and the indie world. But the company's other three films — "Brave," "Frankenweenie" and 'Ralph' all have a good shot, and could all end up nominees.
2011 was the first year since the category's inception that six-time victor Pixar had an eligible film and failed to get a nomination, with the poorly received "Cars 2" missing the cut. This year's "Brave" was more warmly reviewed, but not by a huge amount (the film's still considered near the bottom rung of the company's output). It's attractive and technically challenging enough, which will probably help to make it in, but even a nomination isn't 100% certain, given the tough competition.
"Wreck-It Ralph" could end up filling the slot — it's had mostly terrific reviews, looks gorgeous, and is likely to do good business. Even so, it's possible that the video game source material could put voters off, and it's arguably the least awards-friendly of the company's three contenders. The final of which is "Frankenweenie." A beautiful-looking film from Tim Burton and far superior to his 2005 "The Corpse Bride," which managed a nomination, it's a real animator's movie (don't forget that Burton got his start at Disney). But will it be hurt by the fact that it's the lowest grossing of the year's three horror-flavored studio animations? And will people want Disney to hog all the nominations?
"Hotel Transylvania" from Sony is the blockbuster of the trio, and director Genddy Tartakovsky is respected in the animation community, but it's a middlingly received Adam Sandler film, and doesn't immediately have the same kind of painstaking craft as the competition, so it's probably an outside bet (though Sony did manage a nomination with "Surf's Up" a few years back, so it's not totally inconceivable). More of a challenge is "ParaNorman," which was well-received, did relatively well, looks terrific, and comes from Laika, who won a nomination with "Coraline" (and probably would have won were it not for "Up"). We imagine it's either that or "Frankenweenie" among the final five, but not both, and we'd give the Burton film the edge right now.
Of the other big players, Sony also has "The Pirates!," and although Aardman won back in 2005 for "Wallace & Gromit," they missed with "Flushed Away" and "Arthur Christmas," and they'll likely do the same here. The film was pretty good, but probably too silly and throwaway for the category this year. Universal had the huge hit "The Lorax," but again, we're not sure it's quite as artsy as is needed for the category, and none of the other "Ice Age" sequels have managed nominations, so it's unlikely that things would change for Fox the fourth time around. The same applies to "Madagascar 3," which wasn't even nominated the first time around, but DreamWorks have a much, much better chance with "Rise of the Guardians" — the advance word we've heard is very good, and it's from William Joyce, who won for Animated Short at this year's ceremony. Expect it to be among the final five.
But what of the smaller, more fringe-y contenders? The most successful in this sub-section of the world have been upstart distributors GKIDS, who specialize in small-scale, Oscar-qualifying runs for animated fare. They've won three nominations in the last few years thanks to "The Secret of Kells" in 2009 and "Chico & Rita" and "A Cat In Paris" at the last ceremony, and this year, they've got several potentials. For one, they've got the latest from Studio Ghibli (who won back in 2002), "From Up On Poppy Hill." It's from Goro Miyazaki, rather than poppa Hayao, and it's a bit drabber and more realistic than "Spirited Away" or "Howl's Moving Castle," which we suspect won't do it any favors.
Also on the slate are France's abstractish "The Painting," the Cesar-winning "Rabbi's Cat" and the Africa-set "Zarafa." Sight unseen (and we hope to catch up with them soon), it's hard to see which of them are serious contenders, but it's entirely possible that one will end up an Oscar nominee. Even so, right now we might be inclined to say that the greatest chance at the "outsider" slot belongs to "A Liar's Autobiography," the animated biography of Monty Python man Graham Chapman, which premiered at TIFF in September. The film didn't get raves, but it's a visually impressive collection of a wide variety of animation styles from a number of houses around the world, and we can absolutely see the branch going for it. Oh, and for number seventeen, there's "Dino Time," a cheapo 3D animation that features two Baldwin brothers, neither of whom are Alec. So, you know, it's not going to get a nomination.
Lots could still change, but for now, if we'd pick out five, we'd say…
"A Liar's Autobiography"
"Rise of the Guardians"