Oscar's Animation Throwdown: Big Studios Battle Small Indies for the Gold

'Finding Dory,' 'Zootopia' and 'The Secret Life of Pets' are box-off behemoths, but with a record 27 films jockeying for the feature animation Academy Award, tiny hand-drawn and stop-motion gems matter.
Courtesy of Studios (8)

Move over, Pixar and Disney Animation, DreamWorks Animation and Universal/Illumination Entertainment. This year, a record 27 movies have been submitted for consideration in the Oscars race for best animated feature and, as a result, the big-studio offerings could face stiff competition from the idiosyncratic indie world.

No one is discounting the dominance of the big boys: Pixar's Finding Dory currently is the top-grossing animated film of the year, with $1.025 billion worldwide, followed closely by Disney Animation's Zootopia ($1.024 billion) and Illumination's The Secret Life of Pets ($873 million). But when it comes to securing a nomination from the Academy's animation branch, bigger isn't always better. Last year, while Pixar's Inside Out was the ultimate victor, studio films such as The Good Dinosaur, also from Pixar, and Fox/Blue Sky's The Peanuts Movie were denied nominations, which went instead to the quirky stop-motion films Shaun the Sheep Movie and Anomalisa, as well as two hand-drawn films, Brazil's Boy and the World and Japan's When Marnie Was There, both released by New York-based indie distributor GKIDS.

There are a number of reasons for the increased competition. Frank Gladstone, executive director of the International Animated Film Society, which produces the annual Annie Awards celebrating animation, says that technology has democratized the medium. And, he adds, indies have the ability to "handle topics that big pictures can't if they are to appeal to a wider audience. They can tell niche stories, because they are less expensive."

Consider one such example: GKIDS' My Life as a Zucchini — which also is Switzerland's entry in the best foreign-language film Oscar race. The story of a young boy learning to adjust to life in a foster home after the sudden death of his mother, the France-Switzerland co-production, a stop-motion animated film made for less than $8 million, already has won accolades including the grand prize and the audience award at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival.

"It's a beautiful and powerful movie that deals with some difficult subject matter in a way that's authentic to what children experience in the world," says GKIDS president Eric Beckman. "Animation is an art form, and we are just starting to scratch the surface."

Another factor benefitting the indies, Gladstone suggests, is that many are either hand-drawn or stop-motion, as opposed to the CG animation favored by the studios, and that appeals to Academy traditionalists who appreciate tried-and-true techniques.

For example, Netflix's The Little Prince, a Mark Osborne-directed adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's classic book, uses a blend of stop-motion and CG to differentiate between its two worlds. And hand-drawn submissions include Sony Pictures Classics' The Red Turtle, from Japan's award-winning Studio Ghibli, and Shout! Factory's Long Way North, the directorial debut of Remi Chaye, who was first assistant director on the 2009 Oscar-nominated film The Secret of Kells.

Not that the studios are ready to cede the fight. Big holiday offerings include DWA's Trolls (which has grossed more than $227 million in its first two weeks of release) and the upcoming Moana from Disney (Nov. 23) and Illumination's Sing (Dec. 21.) Earlier in the year, DWA released Kung Fu Panda 3, Sony gave flight to The Angry Birds Movie, Fox opened Ice Age: Collision Course, Warners had Storks and Universal's Focus label sponsored Laika's stop-motion, Japan-set Kubo and the Two Strings. And, as if to prove that a studio could handle more than just family fare, Sony also released Seth Rogen's rude, raunchy and R-rated Sausage Party, produced by Megan Ellison's Annapurna.

On the indie side is a raft of smaller titles that includes Bilal, Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, Monkey King: Hero Is Back, Mune, Mustafa & the Magician, Phantom Boy, Snowtime!, 25 April and Your Name.

If there were a Venn diagram of this year's studio and indie offerings, though, the point of intersection between the two would be the increasing number of female protagonists.

GKIDS' April and the Extraordinary World, a hand-drawn contender based on the work of graphic novelist Jacques Tardi, follows April (voiced by Marion Cotillard), who, after her family of scientists disappear, secretly carries on their research while on the run from the government. And the distributor's Miss Hokusai is a hand-drawn, feminist coming-of-age story about O-Ei, the daughter and artistic collaborator of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.

Moana, the young woman in the movie of the same name, and Poppy, the most optimistic character in Trolls, both set about saving their respective peoples. And Zootopia's Judy Hopps proves that a girl rabbit can defy detractors to become a tough police officer. Says veteran animator John Musker, who co-directed Moana with Ron Clements: "Women protagonists are changing."

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WHEN PREFACE SETS PRECEDENT WITH SHORTS

Inner Workings
Debuting with Moana, this Disney short from first-time director Leo Matsuda shows the internal struggle between a man's pragmatic and more adventurous halves. It blends CG and hand-drawn animation.

The Master: A Lego Ninjago Short
This Warner Animation short based on the Lego Ninjago series features the voices of Jackie Chan and Abbi Jacobson. Justin Theroux narrates the pic, which debuted ahead of Storks. Jon Saunders directed.

Mower Minions
Illumination Entertainment brought back its popular Minions in this short helmed by Bruno Chauffard and Glenn McCoy. It played in 2D and 3D before The Secret Life of Pets.

Piper
Pixar's computer-generated short, which debuted ahead of Finding Dory, is about a hungry sandpiper hatchling who ventures from her nest for the first time. "This is a story about overcoming your fears, as well as the parent aspect of wanting your kids to stay confident," says helmer Alan Barillaro. 

This story first appeared in the Dec. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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