It’s been a wild ride for DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” Initially perceived as a dark horse, Dean DeBlois’ masterful sequel has now become the frontrunner, especially after winning the studio’s first Golden Globe and with “The Lego Movie” out of the Oscar picture, That is, if it can hold back Disney’s “Big Hero 6,” Laika’s “The Boxtrolls,” Cartoon Saloon’s “Song of the Sea” and Studio Ghibli’s “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (the latter two from indie distributor Gkids).
But when you think about it, all five nominees (which run the gamut from CG to stop-motion to hand-drawn) are stirring rites of passage, demonstrating narrative passion and visual elegance.
1. “Dragon’s” Hiccup is thrust into the unwitting role of heroic leader of his Viking clan as well as the endangered dragon species. In the middle part of this trilogy, he gains a mother loses a father and suffers a temporary rift with his best buddy, Toothless. But he comes away emboldened and more secure in his role as he takes the battle of survival to the next level. And DreamWorks conjures a lush design and more animated complexity, thanks in part to the new Apollo platform (featuring Premo animation and Torch lighting) and the maturity of its artists. Like its hero, DreamWorks has come of age through the ambitious vision of DeBlois, who has made the best movie in its 21-year history.
2. In “Big Hero 6,” Disney’s first superhero movie and Marvel adaptation, orphan Hiro loses a brother, gains a surrogate in the huggable Baymax bot and is likewise thrust into the unwitting role of heroic leader in the fight to save San Fransokyo. However, “BH6” ultimately becomes an anti-superhero superhero movie in that it eschews violence in favor of compassion, and offers outside the box creative solutions to difficult problem solving. What a great metaphor for Disney, which, of course, has regained its mojo and is riding its own momentum after last year’s “Frozen” phenomenon and Oscar victory. And with the help of its new Hyperion renderer, Disney boasts a rich new look of its own with ray tracing and global illumination. For example, the massive San Fransokyo (three times as complex as any Disney movie thus far) could not have been built without it.
3. “The Boxtrolls” contains its own orphan hero in Eggs, raised underground by benevolent and misunderstood trolls. The likable lad struggles with his own identity crisis, but rises to the occasion to fight racism and complacency among the aristocracy that lives above him. Laika has rapidly matured throughout its three films, transforming stop-motion into a more dynamic hybrid, boldly pushing boundaries and tackling more difficult stories without sacrificing the fundamental nature of the craft. And despite the brilliant use of rapid prototype printing for face replacement, Laika utilizes all forms of animation in its distinctive process.
4. In “Song of the Sea,” six-year-old Saoirse discovers that she is a Selkie, a mythological being that lives as a human on land and as a seal underwater. She struggles to find her inner voice and overcome her deepest fears in order to sustain the ancient tales of her mother and save her race from extinction. Tomm Moore receives his second Oscar nomination but his sophomore movie is more daring and complex than “The Secret of Kells.” He has quickly become Ireland’s Miyazaki with his dreamlike sense of wonder, love of folklore and ecological concern. And his animation is exquisite (utilizing pencil and watercolor and digital techniques). The hand-drawn legacy couldn’t be in better hands.
5. There’s a lot at stake for “Princess Kaguya,” Studio Ghibli’s penultimate feature and the swan song for co-founder Isao Takahata. It delivers a dark and haunting tale filled with sorrow and regret: an anti-princess movie in which an elderly couple raise a magical orphan to be a proper princess. But the pressure placed on the young girl is enormous and ultimately too painful to endure. Turns out she really is a princess yet has been exiled from her home on the Moon. She cries for help but is trapped between two worlds. It’s a bold departure for Ghibli with thick, bold brushstrokes, muted colors and unfinished lines. It’s also long, meditative and somber, the most demanding of the nominees, but Takahata evokes genuine empathy for Kaguya. Now it’s become the dark horse in a strong field with five worthy contenders.