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Indie Animated Oscar Contenders: Sneak Peek

"The Red Turtle" from Sony Pictures Classics and "Miss Hokusai" and "My Life as a Zucchini" from Gkids are this fall's top indie Oscar contenders.

“The Red Turtle”

Adding to what is already an extremely crowded animation season— at least 26 entries are vying for the five Oscar slots— a few strong indie contenders will arrive this fall.

Ever since Cannes, leading the indie pack is Studio Ghibli’s “The Red Turtle” (November 18, Sony Pictures Classics), the exquisite and compelling 2D castaway drama from Michael Dudok De Wit, director of the Oscar-winning “Father and Daughter” short. It starts screening September 8 at the Toronto Film Festival.

A man shipwrecked on a lush tropical island inhabited by crabs, turtles and birds tries to escape by building and rebuilding a raft, continually wrecked by a mysterious red turtle, which transforms into a beautiful red-headed woman who becomes his companion and soul mate. The two have a son and live happily together as a family.

“The film tells the story in a both linear and circular manner,” De Wit said in an interview with “Positif’s” Bernard Genin. “And it uses time to relate the absence of time, like music can enhance silence. This film also speaks of the reality of death….Yet we can simultaneously have a beautiful and intuitive understanding that we are pure life and that we don’t need to oppose death.”

Meanwhile, “The Wild Life,” opening Friday from Summit, offers a comedic riff on the “Robinson Crusoe” castaway story, only told from the POV of the animals. Belgian nWave offers a wild use of 3D to accentuate the frantic antics in this tropical paradise, co-directed by Vincent Kesteloot and Ben Stassen.

As always, Gkids returns to Oscar contention in full force, this season with four features. However, it has saved the best for last with “Miss Hokusai” (October 14) from director Keiichi Hara (“Colorful”) and Production I.G (“Ghost in the Shell”) and “My Life as a Zucchini,” the Swiss foreign language entry and Annecy jury and audience winner (qualifying date TBD). It makes its North American debut at the Toronto Film Festival in the TIFF Kids section.

The gorgeous 2 1/2D “Miss Hokusai,” based on the Japanese historical manga series written and illustrated by Hinako Sugiura, tells the poignant story of painter O-Ei,  who worked in the shadow of her famous father Hokusai, a master of the ukiyo-e, a school of Japanese art depicting subjects from everyday life, dominant in the 17th–19th centuries.

While O-Ei dutifully finishes her father’s work (including dragons and erotic sketches), she experiences a dangerous rite of passage as both woman and artist, trying to find her own individuality and artistic style. Ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) therefore becomes the perfect expression for animation: both realistic in its depiction of bustling pre-Tokyo Edo and supernatural with its intrusion of demons and goblins. Characters are hand-drawn while CG enhances backgrounds and effects.

By contrast, the bittersweet stop-motion “My Life as a Zucchini,” directed by Swiss newcomer Claude Barras, offers a different kind of odyssey for the blue-haired orphan Raymond, forced into a strange and hostile foster home after the death of his alcoholic mother. Befriended by a cop and eventually by Camille, who witnessed her parents’ murder/suicide, the movie reveals the difficulty of overcoming scarred childhoods and the necessity of embracing new beginnings for the sake of survival and sanity.

Long Way North” (Sept. 30), distributed by Shout! Factory, delivers a lovely, leisurely female rite of passage about an Arctic adventure from another talented newcomer, Rémi Chayé, a French director who previously worked on Tomm Moore’s Oscar-nominated “The Secret of Kells.”

The Flash-animated French-Danish co-production, which won the Annecy audience prize a year ago, follows a determined 19th century Russian girl named Sasha, who endeavors to find her explorer grandfather lost at the North Pole and redeem her family honor. Highlighted by an Impressionistic look with eye-catching landscapes and long, silent passages, Chayé strives for a stylized reality that’s very poetic.

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