At the midway point of 2022, here’s the current state of the animated feature Oscar race: Pixar’s “Turning Red” is the early frontrunner, the studio’s “Lightyear” is still a contender after underperforming at the box office (especially if it heats up Disney+), GKids’ sublime “Inu-Oh” (from visionary director Masaaki Yuasa) is an impressive international entry, and A24’s acclaimed stop-motion/live-action hybrid, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” could shine as a potential contender.
Meanwhile, the most eagerly anticipated fall releases are Disney’s “Strange World” (November 23), and three from Netflix: the stop-motion pairing of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (a limited theatrical run in November before streaming in December) and Henry Selick’s “Wendell & Wild” (premiering at TIFF as part of Special Presentations, fall theatrical, streaming in October), and “My Father’s Dragon,” the latest 2D film from Irish powerhouse Cartoon Saloon and director Nora Twomey (“The Breadwinner”).
Pixar goes for two nominations again
Pixar scoring two nominations in the same year has happened once before: In 2020, with Pete Docter’s Oscar-winning “Soul” and Dan Scanlon’s “Onward,” whose theatrical release was disrupted by the pandemic in 2020 and premiered on Disney+ early as a result. So it’s not out of the question, owing to the strength of the Pixar brand.
But “Turning Red” (which went straight to Disney+, but got the requisite Oscar-qualifying theatrical run in L.A., NYC, and Oakland) has made a great impression, thanks to the bold imagination of director Domee Shi. And also the mentoring of chief creative officer Docter, who encourages Pixar filmmakers to lean more into their cultural diversity and personal stories. This is most evident in “Turning Red,” where Shi continued exploring her conflicted relationship with her mother, following the Oscar-winning “Bao” short.
Her feature debut revolves around the dorky Chinese Canadian 13-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang), who transforms into a giant red panda as part of a sexual awakening. Shi turned Pixar upside down with a 2D anime look for her unconventional coming of age comedy. This was accomplished through a shape language for Mei and Panda Mei’s freaked out expressions, along with the illustrative look of the production design.
Then there’s “Lightyear,” the origin story for “Toy Story” Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans). It was a clever conceit from director Angus MacLane, inspired by his passion for Buzz and “Star Wars.” This resulted in a “Rip Van Winkle”-like theme of time passing by Buzz through a series of unsuccessful test flights while stranded on a dangerous planet. The idea resonated with MacLane as a result of his feeling disoriented at the end of every project. The sci-fi action premise was new to Pixar, and it embraced everything visual and sound detail with a sense a spectacle (including the first use of IMAX). But the response to going outside the familiar toy universe was lukewarm. Perhaps it was too confusing or just not appealing enough. But there’s still a chance that “Lightyear” could pull an “Onward” and grab a nomination.
Disney goes sci-fi retro
Disney has explored the richness of diversity, too, under the leadership of chief creative officer Jennifer Lee, including last season’s Oscar winner, “Encanto,” and nominee “Raya and the Last Dragon.” However, this season the studio switches gears with “Strange World,” a sci-fi adventure that’s a cross between “Swiss Family Robinson” and “Treasure Planet.” It’s about a racially mixed family of explorers (led by voice actor Jake Gyllenhaal) venturing into uncharted territory. Directed by Oscar winner Don Hall (“Big Hero 6”), “Strange World” is inspired by 20th century pulp magazines, which translates into a bizarre assortment of colorful and otherworldly creatures and environments, thanks to Disney’s cutting edge animated tech.
Netflix’s biggest animation year
With five nominations in the last three years, Netflix has become an animation powerhouse. This season the streamer is submitting six movies, including three potential nominees in “Pinocchio,” “Wendell & Wild,” and “My Father’s Dragon.” In addition, Netflix has Richard Linklater’s semi-autobiographical, sci-fi adventure, “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood,” a hybrid of 2D and 3D techniques using a customized pipeline; “The Sea Beast,” Chris Williams’ CG retro seafaring adventure; and the upcoming 2D anime release, “Drifting Home,” about a couple of kids who mysteriously find themselves floating at sea in their old apartment complex, directed by Hiroyasu Ishida (“Penguin Highway”).
Del Toro’s “Pinocchio” is a passion project that marks his animated feature debut, co-directed by stop-motion vet Mark Gustafson (“Fantastic Mr. Fox). It sets Carlo Collodi’s famed Italian folktale in 1930s Fascist Italy and serves as an allegory about blind allegiance to authority. The voice cast includes newcomer Gregory Mann as the titular wooden puppet, Ewan McGregor as the insect narrator/moral authority Sebastian J. Cricket, David Bradley as Geppetto, Christoph Waltz as the villainous Count Volpe, and Tilda Swinton as the Fairy with Turquoise Hair. The stop-motion was done at the Portland, Oregon outpost of ShadowMachine, and character design has an Eastern European retro vibe. The production design by Guy Davis (“The Shape of Water”) and Curt Enderle (“Isle of Dogs”) envelops the world in carved wood, which evokes an artifice of both beauty and ugliness. Pinocchio was designed by illustrator Gris Grimly, Frank Passingham (“Kubo and the Two Strings”) was the cinematographer, and two-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat composed the score.
Selick (“Coraline”) marks his comeback with “Wendell & Wild” — his own passion project — inspired by his two sons, who he drew as little devils when they were young. He partnered with Jordan Peele (“Nope”) as producer and co-writer on the tale of two sibling demons trapped in Hell who plan an escape. Turns out Hell is inside the boom box of a Black teenage girl (voiced by Lyric Ross), whose alter ego is an Afro-Punk princess. The film reunites Peele with his longtime collaborator Keegan-Michael Key, as the voices of Wild and Wendell, respectively. The stop-motion, also done in Portland with a freelance team of animators, has a vivid arts and crafts vibe. Peter Sorg (“Frankenweenie”) was the cinematographer, Paul Harrod (“Isle of Dogs”) did the production design, and the score is by composer Bruno Coulais (“Coraline”).
Cartoon Saloon has become the hand-drawn Studio Ghibli of Ireland, with Tomm Moore’s folkloric trilogy — “The Secret of Kells,” “Song of the Sea,” and “Wolfwalkers” — joined by Twomey’s Afghanistan drama, “The Breadwinner.” With “My Father’s Dragon,” based on the children’s book by Ruth Stiles Gannett, Twomey enters a more fantastical realm. It’s about a restless youngster Elmer (Jacob Tremblay), who runs away from the city in search of Wild Island and a young dragon in need of rescuing. If nominated, “My Father’s Dragon” would extend an unbroken streak of four consecutive Oscar nominations for Cartoon Saloon.
A potential wild card in the race
“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” the hybrid mockumentary from director Dean Fleischer Camp (making his feature debut), has been embraced by critics for its charm, wit, and inventive stop-motion. It’s based on the series of viral shorts co-written by Fleischer Camp and Jenny Slate, who voices the titular one-inch anthropomorphic shell. Marcel lives in an Airbnb with his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini) and develops a friendship with doc filmmaker Dean (Fleischer Camp), who moves in and films Marcel’s daily activities, which go viral.
“Marcel” was shot with two crews: live-action in an LA house and other locations, and stop-motion (overseen by animation director Kirsten Lepore) on miniature sets with tiny characters and props. This was comp’d into the live-action environments, enabling every scene to be animated in a real world setting.
A24 is submitting “Marcel” for its use of stop-motion. According to Academy rules: “In an animated film, animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time. In addition, a narrative animated film must have a significant number of the major characters animated.”
However, “Marcel” only has two major characters: the titular shell and Connie, with Fleischer Camp appearing briefly onscreen. (In addition, there’s a large group of stop-motion characters introduced for a few scenes at the end.) The Academy usually frowns on such a limited animated ensemble, but then it hasn’t encountered the likes of “Marcel” before: the first stop-motion/live-action submission. If necessary, A24 and Fleischer Camp will make their case with supporting materials and documentation to the executive committee of the Short Films & Feature Animation branch.
The indie hopefuls
GKids — the indie darling of the Academy, with 12 nominations since 2010 — has suffered a slump since the rise of Netflix, but has three anime contenders this season. They include “The Deer King,” the fantasy epic that marks the directorial debut of Masashi Ando (“Spirited Away”), and “Goodbye, Don Glees!,” the drama about three friends wrongly accused of starting a forest fire, from first time director Atsuko Ishizuka. However, the most formidable contender is “Inu-Oh,” the bold, watercolor-infused rock opera about feudal Japan from director Yuasa (“Mind Game,” “The Night is Short, Walk on Girl”). Adapted from the historical novel, “Tales of the Heike: Inu-Oh,” by Hideo Furukawa, it explores the friendship between Inu-Oh (voiced by Avu-Chan, leader of Queen Bee), a cursed dancer, and Tomona (voiced by Mirai Moriyama), a blind musician and biwa priest, whose revolutionary noh dance drama turn them into rock stars.
Also in contention are “Perlimps” (Sony Pictures International), about two rival spies dispatched to an Enchanted Forest, from Brazilian director Alê Abreu (the Oscar-nominated “The Boy and the World”), and “Suzume no Tojimari” (Crunchyroll), a Japanese sci-fi adventure about two teens who inadvertently unleash “Doors of Disaster” throughout their country, from director Makoto Shinkai (“Your Name,” “Weathering with You”).
Photo Credit: DreamWorks Animation LLC
DreamWorks embraces the 2D trend
It’s DreamWorks’ turn to subvert CG animation with handmade looks for its two Oscar hopefuls: The animal outlaw caper “The Bad Guys” (directed by Pierre Perifel) and “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (from director Joel Crawford), the sequel to the “Shrek” spinoff, where the titular cat (Antonio Banderas) struggles to survive after burning through eight of his nine lives.
Inspired by the innovative and Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” both films applied new DreamWorks tech to create 2D-like textures for characters and environments. With “The Bad Guys,” the studio built a series of line work and dry brush techniques across every department to remove rich detail in an effort to generate flatter, more abstract details from the real world. With “The Last Wish,” a painterly design style was applied to the fairy tale world, while still maintaining the dynamics and immersion of CG.
Apple Original Films
The John Lasseter comeback at Skydance Animation
“Luck,” the first animated feature from Skydance Animation and Apple Original Films, marks the return of John Lasseter after his fall from grace at Pixar and Disney. His role as head of Skydance’s animation division is a fresh start for the animation guru, who oversaw the pre-existing project: a fantasy comedy about the unluckiest girl in the world (Eva Noblezada), who stumbles into the Land of Luck and the divide that separates its magical creatures. Lasseter hired director Peggy Holmes, who worked on the Fairies franchise at DisneyToon Studios and screenwriter Kiel Murray of the “Cars” franchise. With a voice cast that also includes Simon Pegg as a lucky black cat, Jane Fonda as the Land of Luck dragon leader, and Whoopi Goldberg as the antagonistic head of security, the movie offers a compelling drama about self-worth that overlaps with a divisive fantastical world.
On its own merit, “Luck” would face difficult odds as an Oscar hopeful. But the baggage from Lasseter makes it even harder. Yet don’t underestimate Lasseter’s ability to make Skydance an animated force in the future (especially with Brad Bird’s passion project, the sci-fi/noir “Ray Gunn,” on the horizon).
“Turning Red” (Disney/Pixar)
Note: Only films that the author has seen will be named frontrunners at this time
“My Father’s Dragon” (Cartoon Saloon/Netflix)
“Strange World” (Disney)
“Wendell & Wild” (Netflix)
“Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” (Netflix)
“DC League of Super-Pets” (Warner Bros.)
“Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero” (Crunchyroll)
“Drifting Home” (Netflix)
“Goodbye Don Glees!” (GKids)
“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” (A24)
“Minions: The Rise of Gru” (Universal/Illumination)
“Paws Of Fury: The Legend Of Hank” (Paramount)
“Perlimps” (Sony Pictures International)
“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (Universal/DreamWorks)
“Suzume No Tojimari” (Crunchyroll)
“The Bad Guys” (Universal/DreamWorks)
“The Bob’s Burgers Movie” (20th Century)
“The Deer King” (GKids)
“The Last Whale Singer” (Global Screen)
“The Sea Beast” (Netflix)
“Under the Boardwalk” (Paramount/DNEG)