In the competitive world of feature animation, it takes more than an entertaining yarn and a bit of slapstick comedy to cut through the noise. To make an impact at the box office in 2018—and at the Oscars, heading now into its 91st go-round—filmmakers are called upon to pursue a new standard of excellence, going back to the drawing board with each new effort, and finding exciting ways to break the mold.
Leading the charge as regular contenders for Best Animated Feature since the category was created in 2001, Walt Disney Studios, and its Bay area subsidiary Pixar, once again enter the field of 25 films, with two projects that embody the category’s ideals. First, there’s Incredibles 2, Brad Bird’s return to the groundbreaking superhero world he established in 2004. Sending the Parr family off on new adventures (with Elastigirl out chasing runaway trains, and Mr. Incredible taking a backseat), the film easily achieved hard-to-get hit sequel status, setting a record for best debut for an animated film—with a gross of $182.7 million in its opening weekend—on the way to becoming the second highest-grossing animated pic of all time, second only to Disney’s own Frozen, in fact.
Bowing just a few weeks ago, Ralph Breaks the Internet transcended that same sequel challenge. A follow-up to the beloved Wreck-It Ralph, this iteration from Phil Johnston and Rich Moore (the writer and director behind the Oscar-winning Zootopia) capitalizes on the boundless world the original set up, following compelling video game characters (and best friends) Ralph and Vanellope into the Internet. Impeccably designed, the film visualizes the web as it’s never been seen before, offering up thoughtful satire on the culture embedded within the information superhighway, with a timely critique of Disney princess tropes and the ideas about gender that have circulated for as long as stories have been told.
Bearing in mind that Disney-produced offerings have won the Animation Oscar in 10 out of the last 11 years—in an unprecedented stretch—competing studios are working tirelessly to up their game, in hopes of breaking the behemoth’s spell. The top candidate to do so this year would have to be Fox Searchlight, with Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. The second stop-motion outing from the critically praised auteur, the film follows a Japanese boy living in the retrofuture, on a quest to find his missing dog. Lovingly crafted by hand, the film features an astonishing assortment of environments and gorgeously sculpted characters, pushing the medium of stop-motion and bending towards Anderson’s signature stylings. It opened the 68th Berlin International Film Festival, where its director was awarded the Silver Bear.
Another pillar of stop-motion—behind such classics as Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit—Nick Park has won four Oscars to date, and looks to compete again with Aardman Animations’ Early Man. Set at the dawn of time, the comedy takes an altogether new angle on history, following a group of cavemen as they face off against the powers of the Bronze Age in a football match, with life as they know it at stake.
Four other studios are also making a run at Oscar. A major presence in the animation conversation since its inception in 2007, Illumination Entertainment is back with Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch, directed by Yarrow Cheney and first-timer Scott Mosier. The third adaptation of a classic 1957 tale by the beloved children’s author, this version sees Benedict Cumberbatch tap into the withered spirit of the iconic green curmudgeon, setting out to ruin Christmas for those poor Whos of Whoville yet again. Also featuring the voices of Rashida Jones, Kenan Thompson, Cameron Seely and Angela Lansbury—with narration by Pharrell Williams—Illumination’s film sought to pay reverential homage to Seuss’ work, while making it feel fresh, introducing the Grinch to a new generation of viewers.
From Sony Pictures Animation, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse really shakes things up. A postmodern take on Spidey—and the first-ever animated film centering on Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s iconic creation—the immersive, action-and-laugh-packed flick brings the style of vintage comic books to CG animation, playing with form, and employing meta-level self-awareness. From innovative producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, this Spider-Man film is the first to star Miles Morales—an Afro-Latino version of the character existing within a Marvel multiverse. The film introduces the viewer to parallel dimensions and several Spider-people, demonstrating that there’s no single definition of a superhero. Anyone can wear the mask, so long as they’re willing to stand up for what’s right.
Also on the Sony slate is Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, the latest installment in a franchise from Genndy Tartakovsky, which takes Dracula away from the comforts of his hotel, and out onto the sea, where new characters including Van Helsing (voiced by Jim Gaffigan) emerge.
At Paramount, John Stevenson brings his skill to Sherlock Gnomes, a sequel to 2011’s Gnomeo & Juliet. It sends a band of garden gnomes out into a different genre and setting, as Sherlock Gnomes investigates the mysterious disappearance of garden ornaments in contemporary London. Executive produced by Elton John, the film even features some captivating Elton originals.
Rounding out the studio offerings this year is Warner Bros., with Smallfoot—centered on a Yeti who is convinced humans don’t exist—and Teen Titans Go! To The Movies, based on a popular television series, involving the exploits of DC superheroes.
On the international front, it can take even more craft to draw Oscar’s attention—and yet in 2018, the animation shortlist is as diverse as it’s ever been, with submissions from Mexico (Ana y Bruno), China (Have a Nice Day), and Taiwan (On Happiness Road). One of three particular stand-outs is Ruben, Brandt Collector, Sony Pictures Classics’ R-rated art and cinema pastiche from 66-year-old first-time director Milorad Krstić, who weaves a tapestry of all of the works of art that have consumed him over the years. From GKIDS, MFKZ is based on a comic series of the same name and follows one of many deadbeats making his way through the violent Dark Meat City. Also on the dystopian front, Shout! Factory’s Tito and the Birds (Brazil) paints a picture of a world where fear manifests as a disease, and a villain (inspired by President Donald Trump) weaponizes mass hysteria for his own malevolent purposes. Notably, this season’s list features a record eight films produced in Japan, many of which strive to take anime to new heights. These include Fireworks, The Laws of the Universe – Part I, two films from Masaaki Yuasa (Lu Over the Wall, and The Night is Short, Walk On Girl), Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms from first-time director Mari Okada, and Liz and the Blue Bird from Naoko Yamada.
Completing the list of contenders this year are Tall Tales, coming out of France, and Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero, from director Richard Lanni. Providing some resolution in a season with an overabundance of solid works, the Oscar nominations will be announced on January 22, 2019.