It’s a race highlighted by the Oscar buzzy animated documentary, “Flee” (Neon/Participant), and two movies driven by hand-drawn aesthetics: Pixar’s “Luca,” the gentle coming of age story about two sea monsters becoming human on the Italian Riviera, and “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” (Sony/Netflix), the hilarious family road trip through the robot apocalypse. In addition, Disney has two contenders with “Raya and the Last Dragon” and “Encanto”: its first forays into Southeast Asian and Colombian cultures.
“Flee,” from Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen (the Grand Prize winner at the Animation Is Film Festival), which also vies for doc and international feature contention, tells the true story of Danish academic Amin Nawabi as he grapples with his secret past as an Afghan refugee. Rasmussen not only uses animation to shield the identity of his subject but also to convey the trauma of the story with the graphic power of the medium.
With “The Mitchells,” Oscar-winning producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”) shepherded newbie director Mike Rianda’s wild 2D-inspired vision, and Sony Pictures Imageworks upped its innovative tech to make a moving illustrated book, divided between the organic imperfections of the human world and the slick, sharpness of the robot world. Nerdy teenage filmmaker Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) and nature-loving dad, Rick (voiced by Danny McBride), are constantly at odds but must unite with their family to combat an AI uprising led by menacing, Siri-like PAL (voiced by Olivia Colman). The most creative inspiration: Katie’s flourishes as filmmaker conveyed through her various animated techniques (appropriately called “Katie-Vision”).
With “Luca,” Pixar embraced its most graphic 2D aesthetic to date in CG, courtesy of first-time feature director Enrico Casarosa (“La Luna” short). He pushed a unique storybook look for his Italian sea monster bromance between the titular 13-year-old (voiced by “Wonder” star Jacob Tremblay) and best friend Alberto (voiced by “Shazam’s” Jack Dylan Grazer), who turn human above water. They share an enchanting summer riding Vespa scooters, and soaking up the beauty of the watercolor seaside town, while hiding their secret identities. Inspired by early Hayao Miyazki, Aardman, and “Looney Tunes,” Casarosa translated the drawings and concept art directly into the animation, adding painterly textures to the pliable characters, illustrative backgrounds, and caricatured water.
With “Raya,” Disney turned the titular Southeast Asian princess (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) into a badass warrior, veering further into Marvel territory as an “Avengers”-like action-adventure. More epic than “Moana,” “Raya” incorporated several Southeast Asian cultures through the fantasy world of Kumandra and its divided kingdoms (a very timely theme of unity amid a viral-like form of destruction). But the core was the buddy story between Raya and the magical water dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina). Don Hall (the Oscar-winning “Big Hero 6”) shared directing duties with Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting”), who came to Disney Animation earlier to make an original animated feature. They were joined by screenwriter Qui Nguyen, who hailed from the Marvel writers program and was experienced at creating superhero origin stories.
With “Encanto,” the very hot Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also has the animated musical, “Vivo,” in contention) finally got to work on his first animated musical from the ground up, writing eight original songs and contributing to the storytelling. Led by Oscar-winning “Zootopia” co-directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush, and co-director Charise Castro Smith (“The Haunting of Hill House”), “Encanto” concerns the magical Colombian Madrigal family, who possess special powers for strength, healing, controlling nature, and shape-shifting. That is, except Mirabel (“In the Heights'” Stephanie Beatriz), whose lack of magical powers ironically holds the key to combating a dangerous threat.
“Vivo” (Netflix/Sony) is a love letter to Cuba for which Miranda also wrote eight original songs. He also voices the titular singer-musician kinkajou (a rainforest “honey bear”), who plays music in a lively Havana square with his beloved owner Andrés (Juan de Marcos of the Buena Vista Social Club). That is, until tragedy strikes, and Vivo journeys to Miami to deliver a love song to retiring superstar, Marta (Gloria Estefan) with the help of energetic tween Gabi (newcomer Ynairaly Simo). Kirk DeMicco (“The Croods”) directs “Vivo,” which was scripted by Quiara Alegria Hudes (“In the Heights”), produced by Lisa Stewart (“Monsters vs. Aliens”), Michelle Wong (“Hotel Transylvania 2”), and Oscar winner Rich Moore (“Zootopia”), with visual consultation by Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (“1917,” “Blade Runner 2049”).
Internationally, there are several other contenders: “Belle” (GKids), the musical fantasy reworking of “Beauty and the Beast,” from Oscar-nominated anime master Mamoru Hosoda (“Mirai”), which transports high school student Suzu into the virtual reality of U (designed by “Wolfwalkers'” Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart), where she becomes avatar Belle, a world-famous singer, and meets a mysterious creature. “The Summit of the Gods” (Netflix), a breathtaking French 2D feature from director Patrick Imbert (“The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales”), based on the popular manga by Jirô Taniguchi, concerns a Japanese adventure photographer obsessed with finding a reclusive climber obsessed with scaling Mount Everest. “Where Is Anne Frank,” Ari Folman’s (“Waltz with Bashir”) gripping 2D re-imagining of Frank’s diary, presents the importance of her Holocaust legacy today.
Listed in alphabetical order. No film will be considered a frontrunner until we have seen it.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” (Disney)
“The Mitchells vs. The Machines” (Netflix/Sony)
“Back to the Outback” (Netflix)
“Cryptozoo” (August 20, Magnolia Pictures)
“Ron’s Gone Wrong” (Disney/Fox/Locksmith)
“Sing 2” (December 22, Universal/Illumination)
“The Deer King” (GKids)
“The Summit of the Gods” (Netflix)
“Where Is Anne Frank” (TBD)
“My Hero Academia: World Heroes Mission” (Funimation)
“My Sunny Maad” (Negativ Films)
“Paw Patrol: The Movie” (Paramount)
“Poupelle of Chimney Town” (Toho)
“Spirit Untamed” (Universal/DreamWorks)
“The Addams Family 2” (MGM/UAR)
“The Boss Baby: Family Business” (Universal/DreamWorks)
“Wish Dragon” (Netflix)