For the studios, 2016 has mostly been about the year of the animal, highlighted by Disney’s billion-dollar “Zootopia” and Pixar’s “Finding Dory” (the new all-time animation box office leader).
However, the year culminates with another potentially strong Disney Oscar contender, “Moana” (November 23), along with two musicals: Illumination’s “Sing” (December 21), which played to cheering crowds this week at the Toronto Film Festival, and DreamWorks’ “Trolls” (Nov. 4). Warner Bros., meanwhile, offers the buddy comedy, “Storks” (September 23), which has attracted good world of mouth for its humor.
Disney explores new territory with the Polynesian-themed “Moana,” the first foray into CG for directors John Musker and Ron Clements (“The Princess and the Frog,” “Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid”), who push the legacy in a new direction with contemporary appeal (including songs by “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda).
The free-spirited, teenage Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) possesses strong navigational skills and is determined to sail out on a dangerous mission to save her island and eradicate its isolation. She’s also a capable warrior, taking on a ship full of tiny coconut pirates called Kakakora.
And although Moana’s joined by the shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson)— a reluctant sidekick at first — their relationship remains strictly platonic.
Of course, “Moana” also advances Disney animation as a stronger interplay between 2D and CG. Water, fire and hair, in particular, have been upped more graphically by the tech team. Moana’s hair flows more naturally, as it did in classic 2D animation, and she has a special rapport with the ocean, which beckons her like a gentle wave of the hand.
The directors even encouraged the creative use of 2D by animating Maui’s tattoos (supervised by veteran Eric Goldberg), with a mini-Maui serving as his Jiminy Cricket-like conscience.
For “Sing,” Illumination head Chris Meledandri smartly updates the musical contest (popularized by TV’s “American Idol” and “The Voice”), boasting 85 classic songs (from “Hallelujah” to “Golden Slumbers”/”Carry That Weight”), and focusing on the role of the producer as impresario, who conjures entertainment out of nothing.
Here, a koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) tries to save his vaudeville-style theater by staging a singing contest, whose contestants include a mouse (Seth MacFarlane) who croons Frank Sinatra as smoothly as he cons, a timid teenage elephant (Tori Kelly) with an enormous voice and a case of stage fright, an overtaxed and under-appreciated mother pig (Reese Witherspoon) run ragged tending a litter of 25 piglets, a young gangster gorilla (Taron Egerton) looking to break free of his family’s felonies, and a punk-rock porcupine (Scarlett Johansson) struggling to shed her arrogant boyfriend and go solo.
Written and helmed by Brit Garth Jennings (“Son of Rambow,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”), making his animation directorial debut, this is also the first time that Illumination has entrusted a single director. With a showbiz backdrop, joyful “Sing” would appear to have more Oscar potential than “The Secret World of Pets.”
With “Trolls,” DreamWorks makes its musical debut. It’s the far side of “Shrek”— a bright, happy, nostalgic trip that taps the idealism of the ’60s/’70s counterculture for all its worth. And directors Mike Mitchell and Walt Dohrn were free to make up their own story and mythology wrapped around the fuzzy immersion of the iconic dolls.
Poppy (Anna Kendrick) epitomizes the perky, quirky hippy ethos: singing, dancing, hugging, scrapbooking and partying. However, BFF Branch represents the most pessimistic troll, who lives in a bunker and warns of the impending attack of the monstrous Bergens, who eat trolls wrapped in bacon for a sugar rush.
He’s voiced by Justin Timberlake, who also exec produced the soundtrack and wrote four original songs, including the hit single, “Can’t Stop the Feeling.”
In addition to originals by Timberlake and the “Get Back Up Again” anthem from the Tony/Emmy-nominated songwriting team of Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (“Dear Evan Hansen”), are a sprinkling of classics from from Earth Wind and Fire, Lionel Ritchie and the Gorillaz.
“Storks” marks the first of the Warner Bros. “think tank” movies (exec produced by “The Lego Movie’s” Phil Lord and Chris Miller), directed by Nicholas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) and former Pixar animator Doug Sweetland. Sony Pictures Imageworks supplied the animation.
Storks now deliver packages for Cornerstore.com until Junior (Andy Samberg) inadvertently activates the old Baby Making Machine, producing an unauthorized baby girl and a race to make his first baby drop and restore the Storks’ true calling. The voice cast also includes Katie Crown, Kelsey Grammer, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Jennifer Aniston, Ty Burrell, Danny Trejo and Stephen Kramer Glickman.