A24’s acclaimed stop-motion/live-action hybrid “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” could be the wild card in the animated feature Oscar race — going up against such early favorites as Pixar’s “Turning Red,” Disney’s “Strange World,” and Netflix’s two stop-motion behemoths: “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” and Henry Selick’s “Wendell & Wild” (the latter being the lone animated feature premiering at TIFF).
And why not? The feature debut from director Dean Fleischer Camp (adapting a series of shorts he created with “Marcel” star Jenny Slate), has been embraced by critics for its charm, wit, inventive stop-motion, and its adorable breakout star. The one-inch anthropomorphic shell (voiced by Slate) lives 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, who’s in search of his lost family, even winds up on “60 Minutes” with Lesley Stahl as a result of his soaring stardom.
While A24 and Fleischer Camp believe that “Marcel” is eligible to compete for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars — and plan on submitting it for Oscar consideration to the executive committee of the Short Films & Feature Animation branch — it’s not so simple. The Academy is very specific about the rules for animation, particularly when it comes to evaluating hybrids, of which “Marcel” would be the first submission to incorporate stop-motion: Academy rules say, “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.”
“Marcel” was shot twice with live-action and stop-motion crews, and then seamlessly integrated the miniature world of its animated star into the real world in every scene. The shoot in a real house was done by cinematographer Bianca Cline, while the stop-motion crew was overseen by animation director Kirsten Lepore, and shot by Eric Adkins, who recreated the lighting of the live-action scenes.
“Stop-motion/live-action hybrids have been around since the earliest days of cinema… but there are so few features made this way, partly because of how complex it is,” Fleischer Camp said in the film’s production notes. “If any tiny detail is off, the animation won’t mesh very well with the live-action plate you shot. So it’s incredibly meticulous.”
According to one member of the Academy’s Animation branch who spoke to IndieWire, the “significant number of the major characters animated” stipulation comes from the desire for nominated films to have main casts of animated characters who appear in most of the films’ shots. “Marcel” only has two major characters, both animated: the titular shell and his grandmother. Fleischer Camp and Stahl appear briefly onscreen, and a large group of stop-motion characters are introduced for a few scenes at the end of the film. So any potential qualification for “Marcel” will depend on how the rules are applied. If necessary, A24 and Fleischer Camp can make their case with supporting materials and documentation to the executive committee of the Animation branch. If there is any further doubt about the film’s eligibility in the category, an Academy subcommittee will further analyze the animated contents of ‘Marcel’ to determine whether or not they pass the 75 percent and major characters thresholds.
In the 22-year history of the Best Animated Feature category, there have been nine hybrid qualifications: “Osmosis Jones,” “Stuart Little 2,” “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked,” “The Smurfs 2,” and “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water.” None of those films ultimately received a nomination. Only three films have been disqualified for not meeting the 75 percent threshold: “Arthur and the Invisibles,” “Yogi Bear,” and “The Smurfs.” The third SpongeBob movie, “Sponge on the Run,” was withdrawn for failing to complete qualifications runs required for eligibility.
The submission deadline for the 95th Academy Awards is November 15. If “Marcel” is deemed eligible, it would enter a field with three stop-motion contenders. The first and only time that three stop-motion entries were nominated for Best Animated Feature occurred in 2012, with Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie,” Laika’s “ParaNorman,” and Aardman/Sony Pictures Animation’s “The Pirates: Band of Misfits.”