Pixar’s “Toy Story 4” leads a field of sequel-heavy studio contenders for Best Animated Feature, along with rival Disney’s “Frozen 2” (November 22) and DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.” But indies are well represented, too, with GKids’ Cambodian drama, “Funan,” and Netflix’s creepy mystery, “I Lost My Body,” as the most acclaimed contenders. “The Lion King,” though, is an unlikely player with its breakthrough photo-realistic animation because of its live-action Disney’s marketing focus. They’re aiming for a VFX nod.
Yet “Toy Story 4” has set the bar this season. It exceeded expectations and broke the franchise box office record as well. Pixar proved there was definitely one more story to tell with Woody’s (Tom Hanks) existential journey with Bo Peep (Annie Potts) about change, growth, and happiness. The studio upped its animation (from the porcelain shepherdess to the complex antique shop), and delivered a bittersweet finale that was even more tear-inducing than its predecessor.
With Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck’s “Frozen 2,” we take a deep dive into the origin of Princess Elsa’s mysterious ice powers, flashing back to her father’s visit to an enchanted elemental forest that went horribly wrong by upsetting the forces of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. The sequel to the Oscar winner offers a more varied visual splendor and a new spiritual adventure for royal sisters Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell). Also returning are Josh Gad (snowman Olaf), Jonathan Groff (iceman Kristoff), and Santino Fontana (villainous Hans). They are joined by “Westworld” star Evan Rachel Wood and “This Is Us” Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown.
DreamWorks’ prestigious “Hidden World” concluded the beloved “Dragon” franchise on a high note, with director Dean DeBlois confronting the politics of hate, as grownup Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) secures the safety of his pal, Toothless, new companion Light Fury, and the rest of the dragon clan. Change, growth, and happiness envelope this finale as well. The animation is stunning, thanks to tech advancements at DreamWorks that allowed such an aesthetically opulent depiction of the Hidden World along with more detailed and tactile surfacing for every facet of the animation.
DreamWorks’ other hopeful, “Abominable” (September 27), directed by Jill Culton (“Open Season”) and co-produced by Shanghai-based Pearl Studio, is a gorgeous-looking adventure about troubled Chinese teen, Yi (Chloe Bennet). She discovers a child-like Yeti on the roof of her Shanghai apartment while playing the violin. Yi then embarks on a quest with two friends to reunite the magical creature she calls Everest (which controls nature as an expression of beauty) with its family in the Himalayas. They’re pursued by the selfish Burnish (Eddie Izzard) and partner zoologist Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson).
Perennial indie contender, GKids, ramps up its distribution operation with several Oscar candidates, a few of which are political dramas. “Funan,” the most acclaimed, takes a deep dive into the horrors of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in Cambodia, courtesy of director Denis Do’s personal family history. It’s about the fierce courage of a mother (voiced by “The Artist’s” Bérénice Bejo) to rescue her lost four-year-old son and escape to freedom. But aside from the harrowing story of displacement and torture, Do revels in the beauty of his parents’ country: the magnetic colors and the vast landscape, which separate humanity from nature as a result of the Khmer Rouge cruelty.
However, GKids’ strongest contender is “Weathering With You,” a dazzling and emotionally powerful climate-change romantic fantasy from “Your Name” director Makoto Shinkai, which competes at the third annual Animation Is Film festival (co-sponsored by GKids and Annecy), October 18-20 at the TCL Chinese 6 Theater in Hollywood.
Meanwhile, Netflix enters the animated Oscar race for the first time with two very different 2D offerings: “I Lost My Body,” the Cannes and Annecy winner from director Jérémy Clapin about a severed hand that scrounges around grimy Paris to find its owner and solve the mystery of his unhappy life, and “Klaus,” a wacky Santa origin story, directed by Sergio Pablos (creator of “Despicable Me”), which combines a retro design with some nifty digital lighting and texturing flourishes.
Other hopefuls include Blue Sky’s “Spies in Disguise” (December 25, Disney), the spy spoof (voiced by Will Smith and Tom Holland) that’s been reshuffled yet again since Disney’s acquisition of Fox, Laika’s stop-motion Yeti comedy/adventure, “Missing Link” (from Annapurna), Aardman’s stop-motion “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon” (December 13, StudioCanal), Illumination’s “The Secret Life of Pets 2” (from Universal), and “The Addams Family” (October 11, United Artists), with Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron voicing Gomez and Morticia.
Contenders listed in alphabetical order. No film will be considered a frontrunner until we have seen it.
“Children of the Sea”
“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”
“I Lost My Body”
“Toy Story 4”
“Weathering With You”
“A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon”
“Another Day of Life”
“Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles”
“Spies in Disguise”
“The Addams Family”
“The Secret Life of Pets 2”