Dozen animated features vie for Oscar's shortlist

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While most years find Oscar prognosticators asking if there will be enough quality animated features to activate the category and attract voters, this year animation is riding high. Although there are fewer qualifying features than last year, the projects that made it to the big screen have more engaging story lines and A-list talent producing, directing and giving voice to characters.

"Any year that you can see (DreamWorks Animation's) 'Shrek the Third' and (Fox's) 'The Simpsons Movie' in the same year you can see a movie from Bob Zemeckis, Brad Bird and Jerry Seinfeld, it's a good year," says Bill Damaschke, DreamWorks Animation's head of creative development and production.

Although several animated features released this year escaped major notice, 12 creatively and technically innovative films are likely to qualify for this year's animated feature category, with three of those garnering actual nominations. According to the Academy's rules, it takes eight or more eligible films to warrant a category at all (a sure thing for 2007), and when there's between eight and 15 qualified features, a maximum of three nominations is allowed (16 or more films engender five nominations).

Jumping out of the pack are "Shrek the Third," "The Simpsons Movie," Disney/Pixar's "Ratatouille," DreamWorks Animation's just-released "Bee Movie," Paramount's Friday release "Beowulf" and Sony's "Surf's Up." Animators are united in their enthusiasm for "Ratatouille," the tale of a French rat with unique culinary skills and aspirations of becoming a chef. Animators point to the film's exquisite design and animation as well as its character development and performances. "It looked like a billion-dollar movie," enthuses animation historian and author Jerry Beck. "I'd be shocked if 'Ratatouille' didn't get nominated," says Acme Filmworks executive producer Ron Diamond. "A lot of animation artists love 'Ratatouille' and consider it one of the best animation films this year," agrees animation director Tom Sito, president emeritus of the Animation Guild.

What "The Simpsons Movie" lacks in sophisticated design and animation, say some animation experts, it makes up for in writing and storytelling. "'The Simpsons' is funny and entertaining," says Diamond. "Will there be a sympathetic vote for a movie everyone loves but may not have the attributes that the other pictures have? The TV origins of 'The Simpsons' can help or hinder. It's hard to say." Sito notes another reason why animators -- and perhaps voting branch members -- gravitate to "The Simpsons Movie," which was animated by Film Roman and Rough Draft Studios and overseas by Rough Draft Korea and Akom Prods.: "Traditional animators are looking at the 2-D hand-drawn 'Simpsons' as the great white hope," he says. "It's the idea that hand-drawn animation isn't dead and buried."

"Shrek the Third" is another popular choice, although the fact that it's a sequel could hinder it as much as it might help. "I think people love the characters and love to see them continue their adventures," DreamWorks' Damaschke says. "If you tell a great story with heart, people will see that. That's where 'Shrek the Third' fits in." Animation critics also praise the film. "I think being a franchise gives it an edge," says Animation Guild president Kevin Koch. "I'd be surprised if 'Shrek the Third' wasn't nominated," adds Diamond.

Animators are high on "Surf's Up," which featured some creative and technological breakthroughs, giving an emotional value to water and waves -- always difficult to animate -- and adding a great deal of subtleties to the character animation. "The animators went deeper than character animators have done in CG," says "Surf's Up" producer Chris Jenkins. "It has the subtlety and flair of classic animation from the 1930s."

The buzz over "Bee Movie" -- which Jerry Seinfeld wrote, produced and stars in -- is strong. "The advantage the film has is that it's a Seinfeld movie," says Beck. "If you love his humor, this movie's got it. If it charms people and does well, Academy members may be moved to put it in the third-position slot." DreamWorks' Damaschke says it has been exciting working with Seinfeld. "He really took to working in animation," he says. "The TV process of working in a collaborative environment is similar to animation. He was unstoppable in his pursuit of telling a great story and making sure the characters were funny, the world was unique and the sensibility he brought to animation was his, funneled through the new media."

Although Robert Zemeckis' "Beowulf" is hotly anticipated, some animators question whether or not it can actually be considered animation. Like 2004's "Polar Express" and 2006's "Monster House," "Beowulf" is animated via motion capture, a real-time process at odds with the Academy's definition of animation as "movement and characters' performances created using a frame-by-frame technique." Past motion-captured films have qualified for the animated feature category by proving that enough frame-by-frame animation was done to the raw motion-captured footage, which often requires substantial tweaking. A Sony Animation Studios spokesperson categorically states that this is also the case with "Beowulf." But not all animators are placated. "'Beowulf' is the big mystery of the year," says Beck. "The debate we've had for a few years about motion capture will come to a head with 'Beowulf.' I'm sure there are some scenes that aren't motion-captured, but it's stretching the definition of animation." "It's an ongoing debate," adds Antran Manoogian, president of ASIFA-Hollywood. "The Academy is constantly considering what's animation and what isn't."

Of course, the precedent of other motion-captured films qualifying for a nomination would seem to indicate that "Beowulf" will have no problem; the film will also most likely qualify for the visual effects and best picture categories. Distributor Paramount declined to comment for this story.

This year's dark horse is "Persepolis," a black-and-white adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel about her coming-of-age in Islamic Revolutionary Iran, co-directed by noted French animator Vincent Paronnaud. Sony Pictures Classics plans a Dec. 25 limited release in New York and Los Angeles of the film, which won the jury prize at the Festival de Cannes this year and the best animated feature prize at the Ottowa Animation Festival. Beck is a stalwart advocate for the film. "This film has something to say," he says. "It's a very strong, interesting, important film and should be recognized."

Other category hopefuls include Disney's "Meet the Robinsons," which never garnered enough critical acclaim to give it traction; Warner Bros.' "TMNT" ("Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"); Cartoon Networks' "Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters"; Lionsgate's "Happily N'Ever After"; and Destination Films' "Tekon Kinkurito," which had a limited release in July. It's worth noting that not all of these films may be submitted for qualification. Even so, only one or two (depending on the fate of "Beowulf") will have to qualify to ensure the viability of the category this year.

Acme Filmworks' Diamond looks ahead to the 2008-09 season and sees a new wave of animated features on the horizon. "We'll see far more films reaching into the commercial realm that will make this year really appear to be an anomaly," he says. "We'll see more independents, because people are recognizing that the pipeline can be streamlined and studio overheads aren't as necessary on animated features. Although everyone still recognizes that kids are king, I think we're going to see a broader range of content that will appeal to more adult audiences."
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