OSCARS: Indies Stake A Claim On Animated-Feature Category

A new trend has begun to take hold in a category that’s been mostly major-studio territory since its creation a decade ago. The animated-feature lineup is seeing more independent distributors finding their way into the Oscar race and enjoying real success in winning those coveted nominations.

In fact, since the animated-feature category was created in 2001, the list of winners — from DreamWorks Animation’s Shrek through last year’s victor Paramount’s Rango — has been dominated by the major studios, particularly Disney/Pixar, which won four of the past five animated-feature Oscars and six overall. Last year’s Cars 2 was the first time a Pixar entry failed to make the cut, even with five nominations in the category. Even the two independent productions that have won, Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2002) and Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), were distributed by major studios, Disney and DreamWorks Animation, respectively. But it’s clear that indie distributors are making headway in the animation race and potentially causing big trouble for the majors and their expensive tentpole toons.

Chief among these indie players is tiny New York distributor GKIDS, which is also the producer of the New York International Children’s Film Festival, an Oscar-qualifying event. The company scours the world for titles appropriate not only for the festival but also for distribution. Now a big part of that process is picking films that might be Oscar-friendly, as well. GKIDS first received surprise Oscar recognition for its 2010 entry, The Secret of Kells, and then really hit paydirt last year by becoming the first indie distributor to land two nominations, for Chico & Rita and A Cat in Paris, over a lot of heavyweight contenders, including Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s The Adventures of Tintin. This year, GKIDS leads the indie charge with four qualifying movies (From Up on Poppy Hill, The Painting, The Rabbi’s Cat, and Zarafa), and the company has already announced two more for the 2013 awards year.

Eric Beckman, founder of GKIDS and artistic director of the NYICFF told me after earning those two noms last season, “for us, our whole purpose is to help expand the market for what I find artful and thoughtful, sophisticated animated films for adults and kids. (It’s) an art form that exists with more economic success outside the U.S. than inside.” He says he doesn’t have nearly the budget of the majors but still finds a way to compete. “Our challenge is just getting the film into the hands of the Academy and getting them to put the damn thing in their DVD player. We’re an indie film company; we’re not going to spend a half-million dollars on an awards campaign. We can’t.”

Those who can, though, likely will, especially in this year’s hotly contested race. Disney finds themselves in the ticklish situation of having three genuine contenders in Pixar’s Brave, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, and Wreck-It Ralph possibly dividing votes and putting a burden on the studio to support all three equally. That’s something DreamWorks Animation’s Jeffrey Katzenberg is trying to avoid by putting most of his company’s Oscar strategy toward the holiday release, Rise of the Guardians, rather than the summer hit Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, which has turned out to be the biggest film in that franchise. Still it makes sense. Neither previous Madagascar got a nomination, and it’s unlikely the third film in the franchise will change the trajectory, despite being generally acknowledged as the best in the series. Last year, surprisingly, DWA got nominations for both their entries, Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss In Boots, which likely split the vote, allowing Rango a clear path to victory. With hit toons from Universal (The Lorax), Sony (Hotel Transylvania), and Fox (Ice Age: Continental Drift), there is a strong studio presence to fight off the new wave of indie love the nominating committee seems to have. The animated field sports 21 titles that have been entered into the competition, meaning it is virtually certain there will be five nominees for only the fourth time in the history of the award. Here is a snapshot of the contenders for those five slots.

Adventures In Zambezia
From South Africa, this story about a naïve falcon who flies to bird-friendly Zambezia might remind some viewers of last year’s Rio, but with its likable protagonist and a good voice cast led by Abigail Breslin, Jeff Goldblum, and Samuel L. Jackson, it could be a sleeper.

This Disney/Pixar entry was a summertime hit for the studio and a welcome return to some critical enthusiasm after last year’s Cars 2 detour. It has meticulous animation but didn’t seem to generate the same level of enthusiasm as many past Pixar winners. However, artistry just might be enough here to make the grade.

Delhi Safari
The first Indian 3D animated film, in which a bunch of jungle animals team up to save themselves from human intervention, could remind some of the Madagascar franchise, but the Bollywood flavor sets the tone and sets the film apart. Christopher Lloyd and Jane Lynch are among the voices in the English-version indie to be released in the U.S. by Applied Art Productions.

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax
Another in the successful transformation of Dr. Seuss from book to animated smash, this huge spring hit with a strong pro-environment message came from Christopher Meledandri, who is turning out to be Universal’s most reliable hit maker. Critical indifference won’t help gain awards traction here, though, making its Oscar prospects a little cloudy.

Tim Burton’s most personal film is adapted from a live-action short he made at the beginning of his film career and turned into a black-and-white 3D animation wonder. Boxoffice reception was chilly, but Burton might have enough aficionados on the animation committee to serve up a second nomination for him in the category after first hitting paydirt with 2006’s Corpse Bride.

From Up On Poppy Hill
GKIDS distributes this Japanese entry from legendary Studio Ghibli and Oscar-winning director Hayao Miyazaki and Goro Miyazaki. The 1963-set love story centers on a young couple hellbent on saving their high-school clubhouse from destruction. Never underestimate animators’ love for the Miyazaki brand.

Hey Krishna
Yet another entry from India, this one is touted as India’s first fully animated stereoscopic film and is a grand epic adventure tracing the exciting journey of its title character as he battles the forces of evil. Could it be Bollywood’s year in this category?

Hotel Transylvania
One of several horror-themed entries, Sony Animation’s fall hit features Adam Sandler as Dracula, who operates a plush resort that caters to the monster crowd and is designed to keep humans away. Sony Animation hasn’t been in the race since Surf’s Up, but this is one of the more high-profile films on the list — though critics didn’t bite.

Ice Age: Continental Drift
The fourth film in the wildly successful series from Blue Sky and Fox was a cash cow for the studio, but generally was perceived to be a by-the-numbers entry that wasn’t distinguished by any “wow” factor that would help gain it entry into the golden circle of five. A case of been there, done that, as far as Oscars go this year.

A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story Of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman
A 3D animation romp through the late, great Graham Chapman’s life as seen through the eyes of his fellow Monty Python gang. It is one of the most distinctive entries this year, and Python fans should spark to the storytelling.

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted
Three is the charm, as this not only became the most successful and critically admired edition of the zoo gang’s tales but also the series’ biggest hit. Nevertheless what movie with a “3” in the title gets Oscar recognition here besides Toy Story?

The Mystical Laws
This Japanese sci-fi entry envisions a world where Asia has become the Earth’s superpower, against a weakened and powerless United States. This type of action anime rarely wins nominations, and that’s unlikely to change this year.

The Painting
GKIDS is qualifying the original French-language version of this beautifully animated piece from auteur Jean-Francois Laguionie. The film is almost painterly in nature and, therefore, the artiest entry of all 21 films in contention. With animated worlds inside of each painting, Laguionie creates a unique visual look. A real threat to grab an indie slot and steal a spot from a major.

From Focus and Laika, the groups responsible for past nominee Coraline, comes the tale of Norman, who fights off zombies, parents, and other distractions to save his town in this clever horror spoof that is one of the best reviewed animated films of the year. Can lightning strike twice for Laika?

The Pirates! Band Of Misfits
Aardman strikes again with the fiendishly clever and engaging pirate saga. It was not a box office smash for Sony in the U.S., but its distinctly British sensibility and hip script make it one of the year’s most entertaining toons, one that could surprise pundits who might have written off its chances.

The Rabbi’s Cat
Another GKIDS product from France, this 1930s-set trifle concerns a rabbi and his talking philosopher of a cat, who gains the power of speech by dining on the family parrot. Clever, but weird. Last year, the company scored with a Sam Spade-like cat in the noir takeoff A Cat in Paris, so why not turn to the felines again?

Rise Of The Guardians
It’s The Avengers of animation, and DreamWorks can only hope to grab a fraction of that box office. Bringing together childhood icons the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost, and Sandman to fight the evil boogieman Pitch, this is gorgeously animated stuff from William Joyce’s books. Expect DreamWorks Animation to really make a play for the gold.

Secret Of The Wings
Yet another in the direct-to-video Tinker Bell series for Disney. The company played it for a week in Hollywood to qualify, just to make sure there would be enough entries in the category to have the maximum five nominees. Disney’s money is on their other three films, not this one.

Walter & Tandoori’s Christmas
With a nice message and a holiday spirit, this entry from Sylvain Viau concerns the pair’s efforts to save their town from an ecological disaster just before Christmas. If Arthur Christmas couldn’t make the cut last year, don’t expect Walter Christmas to do the trick, either.

Wreck-It Ralph
A terrifically funny and clever toon about videogame villain Ralph trying to become a good guy for a change. Great voice work from John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman, plus a really amusing script, make this one for the hip crowd and a potential spoiler in the race for the triumphant return of the Disney Animation label.

GKIDS’ Belgium-produced French boxoffice hit centers on a true story of a giraffe given as a gift to France’s King Charles X from the Pasha of Egypt. Shown in the original French-language version, this film has at least one awards consultant worried that it could charm its way into contention. A possible sleeper?

  1. Mystical Laws was quite an excellent film, and I’m really not that big of an ‘anime’ fan. It certainly deserves a nomination at least, but the American critics will be to afraid to do this due to how the US is portrayed in the film. It’s a real shame because it was certainly one of the three best animated films I saw this year.

    Liar’s Biography should win, hands down and Hey Krishna was the kind of film you want to watch over and over again. These are my top three picks for the year.

  2. Why do I get the feeling that there will be no surprise indie nominees in this catagory? It’s probably gonna be from the 6 highest-grossing animated films this year: Brave, Madagascar 3, Lorax, Ice Age 4, Wreck-It Ralph, and Hotel Transylvania. Ice Age 4 is the most likely to be ousted.

  3. vighorois: The nominating committee in this category tends to try to mix it up so it’s not all CG films. And as the article states, lately the field has included entries few mainstream theatergoers have ever heard of (e.g., The Secret of Kells, Chico & Rita), all in the name of acknowledging artistry over commercial appeal. So it’s anyone’s race.

    My guesses for the final 5 nominees? Frankenweenie, Wreck-It Ralph, Brave, From Up on Poppy Hill, and the last slot is up for grabs.

    1. AMEN TO THAT!

      If only the last spot were to be filled by Pirates! Band of Misfits, I would be a very happy camper!

    2. I’m on the nominating committee (and have been for 5 years) and I can tell you that there is no interest in ‘mixing it up’. What there is on the committee is a fair number of non-animation professionals mixed in with a bunch of us Feature Animation Branch members. The result is a pretty diversified group of people with different sensibilities and experience. The older animation industry folks do have a soft spot for drawn animation (as most of them/us spent a good part of our careers in 2D), and as such look any opportunity to support it — some perhaps with the mistaken hope that it will somehow help bring about a 2-D renaissance. Unfortunately the films have to be worthwhile or at least interesting which too often they are not. ‘A Cat in Paris’ was not a good film last year, but benefited quite a lot from some nice design and frankly the fact that it was hand drawn. So far this year there have been no 2-D animated films about which the committee have been enthusiastically chatting during dinner or break. There has been talking about stop motion however which obviously inures to the benefit of ‘Frankenwheenie’ and ‘Paranorman’.

      End of the day I think we collectively are trying to find the best ‘films’ out of the submissions and we all bring our biases and experience into the process. It is too big and diverse a group to conclude that we are consciously trying to ‘mix it up’.

      Prediction (for what it’s worth):

      Para Norman
      Wreck it Ralph
      The Painting
      Brave (though I am least confident about this)

      1. I meant no disrespect with my comment. Coming from animation myself, my statement was more or less informed by what you have just written: that many members of the committee have a special apreciation for the increasingly rare art form of hand-drawn animation, as well as for stop-motion. They know that there is a great difference in the craft behind films like these, and the all-CG features. Of course there have been all-CG years, but not since 2008. And there’s no reason to think that 2012 will be an all-CG year, since Frankenweenie is such a strong contender (as is ParaNorman, though I suspect the two films’ shared genre might push ParaNorman out of the running – even though it’s better animated).

        If you’re still reading, Tooner, I’d like to know your thoughts on my theory that the committee also favors “auteur”-driven films, where the winner is usually the (perceived) vision of one filmmaker (Miyazaki, Bird, Docter, even Gore Verbinski). Which would tip the scale hugely in Burton’s favor this year. The messy director-switching and thus lack of a single coherent voice in Brave and Hotel Transylvania may be detrimental to their chances of nomination.

  4. Except FROM UP ON POPPY HILL, the GKIDS crop doesn’t live up to the hype, but they seem to have a couple of passionate supporters in the anim. branch, so I would advise voters to watch and grade ALL eligible films to make sure none of them ends up being overrated…

    My own faves are FRANKENWEENIE, PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS and FROM UP ON POPPY HILL. Three amazing and stylish films.

  5. i think its gonna be: Brave, ParaNorman, Wreck-It-Ralph, The Painting, and either Frankenweenie or From Up on Poppy Hill.

  6. Animated Feature has become the most laughable category in the Academy Awards. This year if you released an animated movie you have a ONE IN FOUR chance of being nominated. When you kick out the films the studios throw in to boost the chance of five noms instead of three (I’m looking at you Tinkerbell) the chances are even better. Consequently, a lot of mediocre work ends up being deemed Oscar worthy (Puss in Boots? King Fu Panda 2?). Can you imagine if one in four of the live sction folms that got released were nominated? The Academy needs to take a long hard look at this IMHO, and at the very least limit the number of nominations to two or three a year.

    1. How many films get turned out every year that are in no way potential Best Picture films? Transformers, MIB3, Twilight, every single studio tentpole film… The majority of them I would argue are just crappy commercial fare made with no regard to creating something worthy of an Academy Best Picture Oscar. The number of serious pictures made each year that could conceivably be considered worthy of Best Picture is well below 40, and yet we now have 10 films nominated every year for that award. So by your logic (and math), then Best Picture is an equally laughable award.

      Lets be frank, the Academy Awards are NOT about rewarding ART. There have been plenty of Oscars given to lousy pictures (I’m looking at you ‘Titanic’), so to suggest that the Best Animated Feature is somehow a less viable award simply because the number of qualifying submissions is lower than the number of submissions at large, for other more worthy award is just plain wrong.

      1. The problem we’ve had for a long while was after Titanic and the LOTR trilogy opened in December (just in time for the Academy to remember them) made lots of money (making them very popular), and secured BP nominations, lots of indie studios have tried to get in on the act and as a result you get shit like The Queen, The King’s Speech, The Decendents and Sideways getting nominated off the strength of theyr late year release dates.

      2. Shelley, my math is good. I included ALL the released animated features to get my 1 in 4 statistic. Your arbitrary use of the number 40 to describe the possible Oscar worthy films to arrive (conveniently) at my 1 in 4 number is a different equation. For example, there were 607 films released in 2011. With ten best picture nominees that is a 1 in 60 chance of being nominated. There are 21 animated features released, giving each one a 1 in 4 chance of being nominated.

        If you want me to do the math your way and whittle the numbers down to “Oscar worthy” then I would say that out of the 21 Animated Features released this year perhaps three deserve to be nominated. Five will be. THAT is the problem.

  7. Really want to see the indies, but for big studio i dont see how Madagascar 3 isnt the best for any animation fan. And i hated the first two. The voice acting was incredible and the circus scene was high art. One of Dreamworks best ever

  8. As much as I loved FRANKENWEENIE and WRECK-IT RALPH, PARANOMRAN is the most deserving of the Oscar. Yet, I am yet to see the indie or foreign films that are listed.

  9. Having seen all but Walter and Tandoori, my faves (not necessarily my prediction) are:

    Wreck-It Ralph
    The Pirates
    The Painting
    Hotel Transylvania

    Just for the record, the description of The Mystical Laws isn’t accurate. (You walked out of it, didn’t you.) It’s a totalitarian movement, in a single unidentified East Asian country, that takes over the entire world, with the movie’s focus being on Japan. The USA barely merits an occasional passing mention. All academic though … The movie, produced by a Japanese religious sect, is too slow and preachy to be considered a contender, despite having a wonderfully bonkers action climax.

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