With “I Lost My Body,” the bold French existential mystery about a severed hand, and “Klaus,” the innovative 2D Santa origin story, Netflix powered its way into the Best Animated Feature Oscar race for the first time. It knocked out Disney’s mighty “Frozen II” and halted GKids’ six-year run of eight nominations.
Netflix proved that its now an indie animation force to be reckoned with, and this year will contend with Aardman’s stop-motion sequel, “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon” (February 14th), “Over the Moon” (a fall release from former Disney legend Glen Keane), and the quirky CG comedy, “The Willoughbys” (an April release).
However, the competition is formidable: Pixar’s “Toy Story 4,” DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” finale, and Laika’s fifth stop-motion nominee, “Missing Link.” That breaks down to three indies and two studio entries, along with three originals and two sequels (something had to give, and it was “Frozen II”).
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“Toy Story 4,” though, will be tough to beat, as Pixar goes for its 10th feature Oscar. Beyond brand recognition, of course, there’s the phenomenal popularity of the franchise that started it all. And, unlike last year, there’s no “Spider-Verse” in the race. Director Josh Cooley and screenwriters Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom proved that there was definitely one last adventure for Woody (Tom Hanks) beyond the usual road trip, with Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and Forky (Tony Hale) as his catalysts for change. Pixar upped its animation (from the porcelain shepherdess to the complex antique shop), and delivered a surprising, bittersweet climax in which Woody says goodbye to the gang.
But if there’s an upset, look for it to come from Jérémy Clapin’s “I Lost My Body,” which has dominated the critics’ awards. That is, if enough Academy voters screen it and warm up to its artistic pleasures. In parallel narratives, the hand grapples with childhood memories in a fight for survival, while the lethargic pizza delivery guy, Naofel (Dev Patel), falls in love with a librarian, Gabrielle (Alia Shawkat), who rekindles his passion for life. It’s an original, provocative exploration of free will triumphing over destiny.
“Klaus,” the surprise entry in the race, was a long time coming from“Despicable Me” creator Sergio Pablos. He struggled for nearly a decade at his animation studio in Madrid to reinvigorate 2D for his anti-hate Christmas story. Netflix came to his rescue, and the animation branch has rewarded Pablos with a nomination. It’s a charming buddy comedy between a lazy postman (Jason Schwartzman) and a lonely toy maker (J.K. Simmons). But the selling point is the retro look that’s enhanced by volumetric lighting and texturing. Who knows: Maybe “Klaus,” and Netflix, will usher in a lot more 2D movies.
With “Hidden World,” DreamWorks and director Dean DeBlois concluded the beloved “Dragon” franchise on a bittersweet note, as Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless came of age and say goodbye. DreamWorks also unveiled its innovative, path-tracing renderer, MoonRay. It provided a real-world lighting scheme for the first time — the better to channel visual consultant Roger Deakins’ naturalism more like cinematography than painting. They were also better able to convey the beauty and scope of the Hidden World dragon paradise with more convincing bioluminescence and phosphorescence for an ethereal look.
Then there’s “Missing Link,” the Golden Globe winner from Laika, which continues its breathtaking stop-motion innovation. It’s a simple story with epic scope. The charming, Victorian-era comedy/adventure paired narcissistic explorer Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) with child-like Sasquatch, Susan (Zach Galifianakis). Their globetrotting quest in search of the legendary Shangri-La offered full-color, one-off 3D-printed face replacement for the first time, the most ambitious set builds from production designer Nelson Lowry, and the most exquisite, wide-ranging wardrobes from costume designer Deborah Cook (who surely deserves Academy recognition from her branch).
Interestingly, all five nominees offer life lessons about change and inclusion. So, regardless of the outcome, this Oscar race celebrates the promise of a better future for animation.