In the most competitive animation Oscar race ever, the power of Disney still prevailed, with both “Zootopia” and “Moana” making the cut. They were joined by “Kubo and the Two Strings,”(Laika’s fourth nom), “My Life as a Zucchini” (GKIDS’ ninth nom), and the Studio Ghibli co-production, “The Red Turtle.”
However, Disney was the only major studio represented, with Pixar’s “Finding Dory” sequel getting snubbed despite becoming the number one animated movie of all time. Also left out were Illuminaton’s “Sing” and DreamWorks’ “Trolls.”
But with so many international entries, the biggest question was how many would get nominated, considering how inclusive the multi-branch animated feature film committee has been in recent years. Two other prime contenders were both Japanese hand-drawn movies: the body-switching hit, “Your Name” (honored by the LA Film Critics Association), and GKIDS’ “Miss Hokusai.”
Speaking of technique, stop-motion got an extra boost with both “Kubo” and “Zucchini” (which also benefited from exposure as the Swiss foreign-language entry). They were joined by Disney’s two CG movies and the hand-drawn “Red Turtle.”
Diversity prevailed thematically as well, led by the zeitgeist-grabbing frontrunner “Zootopia,” the female-empowered “Moana,” the Japanese samurai fantasy “Kubo,” the orphan-centric “Zucchini,” and the cycle of life emphasis of “Red Turtle.”
Looking ahead, “Zootopia” remains the well-deserved, heavy favorite. After all, it was the galvanizing movie of last year, with its prescient theme of anti-prejudice and unity. It resonated globally, too, collecting more than $1 billion at the box office. And, now, as we enter the Trump Presidency with the country even more divided, “Zootopia” has even more of an edge.
“Zootopia” represented another breakthrough for Disney, which has already won two Oscars during the John Lasseter era (“Big Hero 6” and “Frozen”). The Byron Howard/Rich Moore-directed feature ventured into mystery terrain while reintroducing anthropomorphic characters.
Yet as difficult as it was to believably create a complex society shared by predator and prey alike, it was even harder to convincingly convey fear and prejudice without overstating it (thanks to a cunning script by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston).
The secret was emphasizing sharp wit and channeling prejudice through newbie bunny cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and con artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). And, fortunately, the filmmakers flipped the protagonist from Wilde to Hopps, which made it more thematically meaningful.
Disney’s other popular contender (racking up half a billion world-wide), offered a more badass teenage heroine while exploring the Polynesian culture for the first time.
Indeed, the free-spirited Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is braver and more self-reliant than her Disney predecessors in her quest to save the world. And in assuming the role of island chief, she has no time or interest in pursuing a love life.
Still, Moana can’t do it alone and is joined by the shape-shifting, egotistical, demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson). Together, they create a new twist on the venerable Disney buddy comedy.
“Moana” also advanced Disney animation as a stronger interplay between 2D and CG under the direction of hand-drawn vets John Musker and Ron Clements. Water, fire, and hair, in particular, were upped more graphically by the tech team. And the movie benefited from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Oscar-nominated song, “How Far I’ll Go.”
“Kubo and the Two Strings”
Laika has been innovating stop-motion as an immersive, tactile, hybrid experience, but “Kubo” substantially raised the bar. And in making his directorial debut, Travis Knight (Laika’s president/CEO/artist) embraced the Japanese samurai fantasy as a personal statement about family and unity.
Additionally, the puppetry, sets, costumes, and Oscar-nominated VFX (the first for animation since “The Nightmare Before Christmas”) took the Oregon studio to a new level of artistry and progressive storytelling.
“Kubo” contained everything from an exoskeleton beetle to origami puppets to a fully-flying, articulated-caped, sister puppet to the first fully 3D-printed puppet (The Moon Beast) to the largest stop-mo puppet in history (the 11-foot orange Skeleton).
Plus, there was water that required special VFX attention, combining CG simulation with practical elements supplied by the art department in keeping with the inspirational look of wood block artist Kiyoshi Saito.
“The Red Turtle”
Michael Dudok de Wit’s sublime cycle of life drama on a lush tropical island provided the best of European and Japanese sensibilities. Mysterious and poetic but still compelling and entertaining, the Dutch director (Oscar winner for the “Father and Daughter” short) offered animation for adults that asks us to think about love, beauty, and mortality.
There’s not a lot of conflict, which is always a challenge, yet the performances are more sophisticated than you find in most animation. De Wit said the idea of the turtle came quickly as a peaceful, solitary and majestic sea creature, which conveys a quasi-immortality. The deep red color was intense and its mysterious presence was well-handled, thanks to further inspiration from Studio Ghibli.
To aid the animators with natural performance, de Wit had local actors dress up as the castaways and filmed them for reference. This provided accurate proportion and perspective, form-fitting clothing and quirky gestures they never could’ve invented on their own.
However, the turtle shell proved very challenging, as objects are difficult to animate in 2D when it turns in perspective, so the turtle was animated in CG with 3ds Max from Autodesk.
“My Life as a Zucchini”
This sensitive coming of age debut from Claude Barras recalls Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows.” Its depiction of adolescent pain and longing among the abused and neglected kids in an orphanage is funny and engaging and perfectly suited to the simplicity of stop-mo.
Meanwhile, Barras’ signature style of large eyes and heads (obviously influenced by Tim Burton) served him well in gaining expression and empathy. Zucchini’s blue hair was striking, too.
But in transitioning from shorts to his first feature, Barras not only expanded beyond his core team (recruiting artists from Europe, New Zealand, Laika), but also grappled with making “Zucchini” more accessible to younger children without diluting its impact.
In terms of handling sexual content, they kept it funny and steered clear of any potential shock value, even consulting with a couple of child psychologists.