With Pixar sitting this year out, the animation Oscar race is not only totally wide open but there’s still no clear frontrunner among the big studio three (Disney’s “Big Hero 6,” DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” and Warner Bros.’ “The Lego Movie“). That leaves “The Boxtrolls” from stop-motion powerhouse Laika and Focus Features, Fox/Reel FX’s “The Book of Life,” and two Gkids indies — “Song of the Sea” from the Irish Cartoon Saloon and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” from Studio Ghibli — as the other likely contenders also vying for the five nominations.
Since the Academy’s animation committee adores hand-drawn animation, you can bet there’ll be a place open for one or both of the Gkids. Then again, the committee also likes stop-motion, and how can you deny Jorge Gutierrez’s imaginative and heart-warming “Day of the Dead” tribute (nurtured by producer Guillermo del Toro)?
But let’s dig a little deeper into the attributes of each contender:
After “Frozen,” Disney has definitely attained top status with sibling Pixar, and “Big Hero 6” marks another important turning point and fairy tale departure (much like the marvelous “Wreck-It-Ralph”), embracing the superhero genre for the first time via Marvel. Like the surprising blockbuster, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “BH6” delivers action as well as pathos. In fact, the huggable, inflatable ‘bot, Baymax, could be Groot’s distant cousin. He represents the heart and soul of the movie, helping Hiro overcome the loss of his brother, Tadashi (who created him), and serving as a surrogate guardian. The narrative is a little tricky in that it has to incorporate and justify the rest of Hiro’s nerdie sidekicks without stepping on the crucial Hiro/Baymax story, and the masked baddie represents the third time in a row that we have a mystery villain. But the San Fransokyo world is complex and gorgeous, thanks to Disney’s new global illumination renderer, Hyperion, and the whole thing effortlessly layers one hybrid metaphor on top of another.
Yet the freshest and most fascinating thing about “BH6” is that it’s an anti-superhero superhero movie because Hiro and his buddies rely on their wits instead of violence. He’s always telling them to think their way out of problems from a different angle. This outside the box, non-violent way of thinking is a product of Baymax, who is programmed to be a caregiver, and, by extension, Tadashi, and it distinguishes “BH6” from most other superhero movies.
Although animated sequels rarely win the Oscar (except for “Toy Story 3”), “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is another extraordinary exception. Dean DeBlois has made, quite simply, the most ambitious and satisfying DreamWorks movie in its 20-year history, turning Hiccup’s rite of passage into a vital trilogy on a par with Luke Skywalker’s. The maturing of the buddy bonding with Toothless, the introduction of Hiccup’s long, lost mother and dragon whisperer, Valka, the death of his father, Stoick, the dangerous nemesis, Drago, are the stuff of “The Empire Strikes Back” and “My Neighbor Totoro.” Plus the new Apollo interface and Premo animation software have liberated the DreamWorks animators to create better performances and more lush environments.
While “Dragon 2” under performed domestically because of several factors (too dark, maybe, not as much “fun” as the first movie), it’s done great overseas, raking in nearly $620 million and the home entertainment release has delivered record unit sales, overtaking “Maleficent.” So you count out “Dragon 2” at your own peril.
“The Lego Movie,” meanwhile, is this season’s “Rango”: a smart alternative that adults can enjoy as much as kids for its wild wit and meta thrills. Phil Lord and Chris Miller have figured out what it really means to be a Lego and served up a cultural satire on heroism, creativity, and father-son tension. They’ve also successfully skewered the industry for playing it safe. The brick-style animation by Animal Logic boldly delivers the hand-crafted, messy, and bizarre movements with aplomb, and “The Lego Movie” has performed beyond anyone’s expectations at the box office, grabbing nearly $260 million domestically (third highest of the year so far) and $468 million globally. It’s no wonder that Warner Bros. has quickly ordered three more movies in what has become the studio’s flagship animation franchise.
As far as stop-motion, Laika has taken the industry lead with an ambitious ethos combining a hybrid aesthetic with progressive storytelling. “The Boxtrolls” might be less contained than “Coraline” or “ParaNorman,” and the look of its characters more off putting, but that’s the point. It’s riskier and reaches for a lot more with its Victorian steampunk and Monty Pythonish puns, yet the lovable trolls and Eggs win us over as an offbeat family worth cheering, and Ben Kingsley is remarkable as the villainous Snatcher, the loser who just wants to join the aristocratic elite and indulge in the one thing he’s allergic to: smelly cheese. The fact that Laika keeps improving its craft (the rapid prototype printing/facial animation system is up for an Academy Sci-Tech citation) is another reason to honor its accomplishments.
“The Book of Life” is certainly an indie triumph for Gutierrez and Reel FX and worthy of serious consideration. For some, it might also be a triumph of style over substance, with its rich Mexican feast and lively score by Gustavo Santaolalla overshadowing a very simple folk tale about being true to your talent and honoring the memory of the dead. But it’s a hard balancing act being subversive and mainstream at the same time, and while Gutierrez might’ve gone further with his wild vision, it is, after all, family entertainment, and so we have to be thankful that he got away with as much as he did in adapting “Orpheus” and playing in a cultural sandbox with such universal appeal.
The fact that Moore surpasses “The Secret of Kells” with “Song of the Sea” bodes well in its favor. It’s an exquisitely hand-drawn and stirring story about the last Seal-child (known as a Selkie) trapped between two worlds, evoking Irish folklore and Hayao Miyazaki’s dreamlike sense of wonder. The animation is more complex and assured (utilizing pencil, watercolor, and modern computer techniques), and the story embraces an ecological consciousness with regard to human over fishing. And Moore makes a personal statement about holding onto folk wisdom in the modern world, and passing these stories on to the younger generation. I think “Song of the Sea” could be the wild card in this race.
And yet there’s a lot at stake for Ghibli and co-founder/director Isao Takahata with “The Tale of Princess Kaguya“: It’s the legendary anime studio’s last feature (which Miyazaki confirmed after accepting his honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards). The film is a well-crafted re-imagining of the popular 10th-century folk tale, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”: a dark and haunting rite of passage filled with sorrow and regret. A glowing being dressed like a princess is found in a forest and raised by an elderly bamboo cutter and his wife to be a true princess with painful results when she can’t live up to their expectations. This represents a bold departure for Ghibli thematically as well as visually, with thick, bold brushstrokes, muted colors, and unfinished lines. It’s long at 137 minutes and, not surprisingly, is the most demanding of all the contenders. But it’s worth the experience.
In light of Miyazaki’s disclosure that the hand-drawn era has come to a close at Ghibli because of financial pressures, there’s added incentive to nominate “Princess Kaguya.”