This awards season, it’s a race between Pixar’s first Black-led feature,” Soul,” and Cartoon Saloon’s “Wolfwalkers,” directed by three-time Oscar nominee Tomm Moore and art director-turned director Ross Stewart (co-produced by Apple Original Films). The other nominees include Pixar’s first fantasy, “Onward,” and two entries from Netflix: “Over the Moon,” the gorgeous musical fantasy about the Chinese Moon Goddess from Disney legend Glen Keane (Oscar winner for the “Dear Basketball” short), and Aardman’s “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon.”
From Pete Doctor, Pixar’s two-time Oscar-winning director and chief creative officer, “Soul” explores the life of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a New York middle-school band teacher, who gets the ultimate gig playing piano at the top jazz club, only to fall into a manhole and journey to The Great Before, an ethereal pre-birth training center. There he encounters the rebellious 22 (Tina Fey), but they form a bond and team up so Gardner can return to Earth and complete his journey. The predominantly Black cast also includes the voice work of Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Ahmir Questlove Thompson, and Daveed Diggs. The Oscar-nominated score is by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who composed the experimental, synthetic music for The Great Before) and Jon Batiste (who composed the jazz music for the New York segments). And the Oscar-nominated sound is from supervising sound editor and re-recording sound mixer Ren Kylce,
As with the Oscar-winning “Coco,” Pixar wanted to ensure cultural authenticity, so Docter enlisted Black screenwriter Kemp Powers (Oscar-nominated for “One Night in Miami”), who was promoted to co-director. Additionally, Pixar formed the “internal culture test” with Black employees, and also recruited outside consultants, including Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young (“The Arrival”), and celebrated jazz musicians Herbie Hancock and Terri Lyne Carrington. Docter has won twice.
Meanwhile, the only 2D nominee, “Wolfwalkers” (released theatrically through GKids), poses the biggest Oscar threat to “Soul,” after collecting the majority of critics’ awards. Representing the final installment in Moore’s Irish folktale trilogy (“The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea”), “Wolfwalkers” centers on an 11-year-old female apprentice hunter forced to re-evaluate her mission to wipe out the last remaining wolf pack in 17th century Ireland. The 2D work juxtaposes a block-print style for Kilkenny with watercolors and ink splats for the forest and a charcoal look for the wolves. The animation industry adores Moore, considered the Irish Miyazaki (Hayao took home the last 2D animated feature Oscar in 2001, for “Spirited Away”), so the third time could be the charm.
“Onward,” directed by Dan Scanlon (“Monsters University”), is a very personal story inspired by the dad he never knew. It’s about teenage Elf brothers Ian and Barley (the MCU’s Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) on a road trip to resurrect their deceased dad using a 24-hour magic spell. It’s a vast world derived from fantasy fiction (also containing sprites, satyrs, cyclops, centaurs, gnomes, and trolls), which harnesses a unique visual language for the magic with special simulated effects in collaboration with the graphic pop of cinematographer Sharon Calahan.
In “Over the Moon” (co-produced by Shanghai-based Pearl Studio and animated by Sony Imageworks), 13-year-old Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) builds a rocket to Lunaria to meet the legendary goddess, Chang’e (Phillipa Soo of “Moana” and “Hamilton”). But her journey on the dazzling Lunaria (formed from the tears of Chang’e) forces an emotional discovery. Original songs were composed by Christopher Curtis (“Chaplin: The Musical”), Marjorie Duffield, and Helen Park (“KPOP”), and famed costume designer Guo Pei designed the lavish gowns for Chang’e, which required Imageworks to upgrade its cloth simulation.
With “Farmageddon,” the stop-motion sequel to the Oscar-nominated “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” four-time Oscar-winning Aardman couldn’t resist embracing sci-fi for the first time. And for rookie feature directors Will Becher and Richard Phelan, it was a rare opportunity to take a deep dive into the genre and pay homage to Steven Spielberg. When a cute yet free-spirited alien child, LU-LA, crash-lands near Mossy Bottom farm, Shaun, normally the troublemaker, becomes a responsible buddy on a quest to find Lu-LA’s lost spaceship and return home, fighting off a secret government agency bent on capturing the alien.
“Wolfwalkers” (Apple Original Films)
“Over the Moon” (Netflix)
“A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon” (Netflix/Aardman)