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Oscars: A Look At Contenders In Competitive Best Animated Feature Race

Deadline logo Deadline 2/15/2017 Matt Grobar
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Has the Animated Feature race ever been more competitive? With the nomination ballots tallied, Walt Disney Animation Studios, LAIKA, GKIDS and Sony Pictures Classics will duke it out in phase two, each of them offering standout work ranging stylistically from the 3D formats that have ruled the day in recent years to the equally painstaking, hand-drawn 2D and stop-motion processes.

The films selected include a Pacific Islander adventure, with original songs by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda (Moana), the passion projects of three first-time feature filmmakers (My Life as a Zucchini, The Red Turtle, Kubo and the Two Strings), and a walking, talking animal film exploring issues of prejudice and stereotyping (Zootopia).

From award-winning Swiss director Claude Barras, My Life as a Zucchini tells the story of a young boy who has the amazing misfortune to accidentally kill his own mother. From there, young Courgette—or “Zucchini” in French—winds up in a foster home, meeting a group of warmhearted ragtag kids and finding family in unexpected places.

Based on a novel by Gilles Paris, Zucchini has been warmly received by festivals around the world, earning a Golden Globe nomination, and netting Barras a Golden Camera nod at the Cannes Film Festival.

While the film contains adult themes and situations, in the end, Zucchini was made as a tribute to children around the world, in whatever circumstances they may find themselves. “I knew I wanted to make this film because it’s a gift for all these kids that start wrong in life,” producer Max Karli says. “They don’t have the same cards. They don’t have a normal family, whatever normal is. The whole film is really for them.”

With The Red Turtle, director Michael Dudok de Wit saw the opportunity to collaborate with Studio Ghibli, and seized it. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, the gorgeously hand-drawn film is almost entirely silent, relying on the support of strong sound design throughout.

A parable of sorts, involving occasionally absurd situations, The Red Turtle begins as a sort of lush, animated iteration of Cast Away, following a man stranded on a deserted island where there is no volleyball to comfort him. Per the title, the moment the man has a run-in with a giant red sea turtle is the moment things get interesting.

Though de Wit doesn’t ascribe any one style to his filmmaking, he has mentioned certain Eastern influences, as he attempts to find simplicity in his work. “In the far East, like in Japan, they know this very well, in their culture, the simplicity of their gardens, the way the food is prepared, the architecture, their art, of course,” he explains. “That’s a fun, obvious thing to explore even further in this film.”

The fourth feature from Travis Knight’s LAIKA, Kubo and the Two Strings marks Knight’s directorial debut, following decades of work in animation in various capacities. With parts voiced by Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey, the “stop-motion David Lean film” is a celebration of Japanese art and culture, and a poignant meditation on family.

One of the longest stop-motion films ever made, Kubo is a technical marvel, featuring the the medium’s largest puppet creation, and harnessing innovations on the Rapid Prototyping process, allowing the film’s animators to conjure millions of potential facial expressions for their characters.

“We wanted the thing to look and feel almost like it was a living, breathing woodblock print,” Knight says of the film’s aesthetic, noting references like graphic artist Kiyoshi Saito, whose influence is felt in the film’s texture and color palette. “That was the prism by which we looked at everything.”

From legendary Disney directors Ron Clements and John Musker—the helmers behind such 2D Disney classics as Aladdin and The Little Mermaid—comes Disney’s latest, Moana, which bowed in late November and has grossed over $565 million to date.

Starring Dwayne Johnson and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, Moana tells of an island in ancient Polynesia that is haunted by a curse, which only the Chieftain’s daughter can undo. With the help of Demigod Maui, young Moana sets out to make things right.

One of the most-discussed aspects of its Moana is its soundtrack, featuring several original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda,Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina. Producer Osnat Shurer approached Miranda in the pre-Hamilton days, on the strength of the Tony Award-winning In the Heights, alone. “Talk about lucky, right?” Shurer exclaims.

Grossing over $1 billion worldwide, Zootopia’s focus is Judy Hopps, a bunny who moves away from home in pursuit of a place within the Zootopia Police Department, even as her colleagues insist rabbits have no place on the force. “We dove into about a year of research, and during that year, we figured out that this predator/prey thing was really interesting,” director Byron Howard explains. “That led us really quickly into the idea of using the film as a way to talk about bias, and people’s misunderstanding of each other, because as you can see from the news, it’s been a crazy couple years.”

With the leaps and bounds in animation technology since Bolt—one of Howard’s last projects, for which he received his first Oscar nod—Howard and his fellow director, Rich Moore, were able to create the fictional Zootopia, a visually elegant cityscape inspired by a number of metropoles.

So how will the first-timers fare against the established firmament? Since the inception of the Best Animated Feature category in 2001—just 16 years ago—there have been many repeat contenders, and only three first-time feature directors going home with gold, usually accompanied on stage by a veteran co-director. But as this year’s crop of Oscar nominations certainly reveals, anything can happen.

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