In this the 90th Oscar race, 26 features have been approved to duke it out for the Best Animated Feature award. This year, there are several obvious frontrunners. Never count out Pixar, which has Day of the Dead themed Coco and its variety of original songs; Warner Bros. is in the fold with The Lego Batman Movie, a well-received follow-up to the massively popular Lego Movie; and 20th Century Fox has Ferdinand, a tale of a Spanish fighting bull who refuses to fight.
Among this year’s slate, several lesser-known distributors have surprised audiences and received love from the critics—primarily, Good Deed Entertainment with Loving Vincent, the first fully-painted feature in history, which depicts Vincent Van Gogh’s final days in the painter’s own visual style.
Meet the likeliest of contenders this year.
Conceiving of his story way back in 2011, Lee Unkrich has long been fascinated with Mexican culture and the Día de Muertos celebration, longing to bring the vibrant color and texture of Mexico to the screen. Recognizing that he had a lot to learn in order to depict Mexican culture honestly and accurately, Unkrich traveled to Mexico, intermingled with multi-generational families and “took hundreds of thousands of photographs.”
Filled with gorgeous original music sung by newcomer Anthony Gonzales and company, Coco takes place in two worlds—contemporary Mexico and the Land of the Dead, the latter of which posed the greater challenge. This unearthly space’s design was ultimately modeled on the city of Guanajuato. “Guanajuato is a city that rests in a bowl-shaped valley, and the buildings are all encrusted into the hillside and they’re all painted very bright, vivid colors,” Unkrich explains. “There is nowhere else like it in the world.”
Amongst the most likely contenders of several GKIDS entries this year, this adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ best-selling novel tells the story of Parvana, a young girl in Afghanistan who is forced to dress as a boy to provide for her family after her father is unjustly imprisoned. A tale of female empowerment in desperate circumstances, The Breadwinner is also a testament to the power of storytelling, as Parvana goes into her head to escape her circumstances, with her imagination represented through cut-out animation, in contrast to the main storyline’s hand-drawn, 2D style.
Of her art director, Reza Riahi, director Nora Twomey says, “In one sense, it’s very simple, the way he draws. He manages to evoke so much character in so few lines. I knew that this was going to be something that was wonderful for our animators, to take those designs and add a subtle animation to that work.”
The LEGO Batman Movie
A fan of Batman since childhood, director Chris McKay dove into his own interpretation of Bruce Wayne’s world in this follow-up to The Lego Movie. Working with a Gotham dream cast including Will Arnett as Batman and Zach Galifianakis as the Joker, McKay aspired to be faithful to “the history of Batman,” while presenting a collision of tones, juxtaposing colorful silliness with the somber brooding of Batman lore.
One of the inspirations McKay pitched to his collaborators early in his Lego Batman journey was Basil Gogos, an American illustrator who did cover art for famous movie monsters. “I wanted a style where you could pull the camera back and mistake our movie for one second with Ben Affleck’s Batman,” McKay explains, “or the Tim Burton stuff.”
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
“Stumbling into a book store 20 years ago,” David Soren came upon the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey and was immediately enamored. Given the series’ huge popularity, it’s surprising that it’s taken two decades to get a film adaptation made, but Soren has made up for lost time. Gaining Pilkey’s trust—unlike many suitors who had come before him—Soren faithfully translated the illustrator’s visual style to the screen, which relieved him of the burden of a blank slate.
Like the book series, Captain Underpants is irreverent and bursting with color, mixing as many visual styles and taking on as many visual gags as possible. “The movie is filled with lots of unconventional mixed media,” the director says. “Really, it’s all designed to feel like it’s the boys’ imaginations being brought to life in different ways.” Stylistically, the film incorporates “little bells and whistles” like flip book art and a truly original sock puppet sequence.
The Boss Baby
Like David Soren’s Captain Underpants, Tom McGrath’s The Boss Baby is much smarter than it looks. Based on a picture book by Marla Frazee, the film sees Alec Baldwin portraying a baby who is wise beyond his years, inexplicably clothed in a suit and tie from infancy as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “We thought if we put the baby in the suit, the logic of it is that it could all be this kid’s imagination,” McGrath says. “It could be like Inception for kids”.
Like Coco, The Boss Baby exists in two distinct worlds—Timothy’s world and that of Baby Corp., which gleefully reinvents the concept of where babies come from. “I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s,” the director says. “For Baby Corp., we had great images of the Johnson Wax building of the ’60s, and these huge columns.”
Despicable Me 3
Working his way up the animation ladder with the Minions and Despicable Me franchises alongside Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda picked up the thread with the third installment of the latter series, with evil genius Gru (Steve Carell) meeting his long-lost brother Dru and hatching a criminal plan together. “We’re always trying to find a combination in the Despicable Me universe between something that’s relatable in a familial way, but then taking it into this villain’s ridiculous universe,” the director says. “[We’re] always looking for the humorous twist that we can play with, with the villains, to give them a more colorful edge.”
Despicable Me 3 also entails minions singing opera—of course—with the voices and ideas provided by Coffin. “Pierre loves Broadway musicals and Gilbert-and-Sullivan-type themes, so he’s very often experimenting and playing with what the minions can be doing,” Balda says.
Of the animated films this year, there is perhaps none with a more relevant message than Ferdinand. The slogan: “Built To Fight, Born To Love.” Based on a children’s book published in 1936 which was previously adapted into an Oscar-winning Disney short, Ferdinand follows a Spanish Fighting Bull (John Cena) who is a pacifist, avoiding confrontation and drawing out the ire of those around him, whose expectations weigh him down.
While director Carlos Saldanha didn’t necessarily intend to focus his career on animal-led animated features, that’s what he’s done with films like Ice Age and Rio, giving animals a human spirit to reflect our world back to us. “Animation is about exaggerating, about creating characters, about playing with the imagination,” the director says, “and I find that you can really empathize with animals. You can really connect to them. You see yourself in there, so it’s a good way to project.”
Mary and the Witch’s Flower
Another GKIDS film in the running, Mary and the Witch’s Flower comes from Japanese director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the mind behind The Secret World of Arrietty and the Oscar-nominated When Marnie Was There. A gorgeous 2D anime starring Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent (in the English version), the film follows Mary, a young girl who stumbles upon a world of witches and harnesses their power. “I wanted to have it be a feature with an energetic, acts-before-she-thinks kind of heroine. I wanted to be able to draw animation with a lot of dynamic movement,” the director explains of his first endeavor with Studio Ponoc.
Mary is split between the young girl’s life in the English countryside, rendered as faithfully as possible by Yonebayashi and his collaborators, and the gothic style of the world of witches, which the director compares, aesthetically, to the world of Harry Potter.
While this feature from Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman seems to have come out of nowhere, it may give Coco and other frontrunners a run for their money this season, being the first fully-painted film in cinema history. Following Vincent Van Gogh in his final days—viewed through the lens of those who thought they knew him—the film is composed entirely of oil paintings in the style of Van Gogh’s works, created by a team of over 100 painters. In point of fact, a great number of Van Gogh’s works were actually recreated by these artists and integrated seamlessly into the context of a narrative feature.
“Vincent painted his shoes, painted his bedroom, painted his food, his letters,” Welchman says of the choice of Van Gogh as their subject. “You can actually get a picture of his world in a way that’s not really possible with other painters.”