Feature toon nominees ready for their close-ups
EmptyFor animators, it's never about the technique; it's always about the artistry: the appeal of the characters, the richness of the details, the whimsy of the animation, the strength of the story. The three Academy Award nominees for best animated feature film -- Sony Pictures Classics' "Persepolis," Disney/Pixar's "Ratatouille" and Sony's "Surf's Up" -- embody that artistry and epitomize the variety of ways that animation can hit the mark.
Critics, animators and civilians alike have praised "Ratatouille" for its combination of endearing characters, indisputable attention to detail and its powerful, classic animation. Perhaps only Pixar, and writer-director Brad Bird, could turn an unlikely tale about a rat in the kitchen into a film so thoroughly enjoyable for adults and children that many have said "Ratatouille" is Pixar's best effort in years. This is the film to beat.
French-language 2-D "Persepolis" might possibly pull that off. From a technical standpoint, this out-of-left-field entry couldn't be more different than the 3-D CGI "Ratatouille." The coming-of-age tale about a young Iranian girl is hand-drawn, in black and white, and presented to American audiences with subtitles. "Persepolis" proves what U.S. animators have been saying for years: Animation isn't just for kids.
And the nomination of penguin-populated "Surf's Up," which didn't draw huge crowds (perhaps because they were weary of stories about the flightless birds), gives this extraordinarily charming and well-done film the recognition it deserves but failed to receive at the boxoffice.
Here's a closer look at the Oscar nominees for best animated feature.
"Persepolis," which became the surprise success of 2007, is "a little film," says animation author-historian Jerry Beck. "It's the complete opposite of 'Ratatouille' and (is in) a total David and Goliath (situation)." Beck also thinks "Persepolis" stands out for another reason. "It's important for the animation community because it's an adult film," he says. "'Persepolis' is about real people and real events and even has a few dirty words. It's going to give 'Ratatouille' a run for its money."
In "Persepolis," writer-director Marjane Satrapi (with co-director/co-writer Vincent Paronnaud, a figure in the underground comic world) details her life, first in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War and later as an exile in Vienna, where her parents send her so her outspokenness won't land her in prison. "Persepolis" has won the jury prize at the Festival de Cannes and has been beloved by critics who ordinarily don't go into raptures about animated features. (The Los Angeles and New York film critics organizations have both named "Persepolis" the best animated feature of the year.)
The film's unpretentious, hand-drawn imagery has also gained advocates. Whether it's 3-D CGI fatigue or a vote for hand-drawn animation, the simplicity of the film's style largely seems to be a point in its favor, among animators and non-animators alike. "It's good to be reminded that animation is rooted not in any particular technique, but in the impulse to bring static images to life," says the New York Times critic A.O. Scott. "And 'Persepolis,' austere as it may look, is full of warmth and surprise, alive with humor and a fierce independence of spirit. Its flat, stylized depiction of the world ... turns geography into poetry."
In fact, Satrapi drew all 600 character figures and acted out the scenes for a 100-person team that drew the scenes by hand. The power of the pencil comes through in a style that translates the story's graphic novel roots to the big screen. "It certainly helps to sell the idea that 2-D animated movies can be very successful," says Acme Filmworks executive producer Ron Diamond, who also points out the appeal of the film's "unusual story." "It's historical and personal, and people respond to movies that are about a personal experience."
If "Persepolis" does win the best animated feature prize, this truly will be a David and Goliath story.
The House of Mouse has set standards in animation success, but with "Ratatouille," a rat is likely to bring the Oscar home. This film is the odds-on favorite for animators and non-animators alike. The fact that it's the work of Pixar spells "winner" for many animation fans, and "Ratatouille" is largely hailed as Pixar's best effort yet.
"It's unparalleled in its craftsmanship," Diamond says. "It's gorgeous to look at, and the story is seamless. It's also furthering the technology of 3-D animation, and Pixar is on the forefront of that."
The story -- always one of Pixar's strong suits -- doesn't disappoint: a would-be chef who happens to be a rat, a gawky youth in love with a fellow cook and a food critic longing for a taste of childhood. Director Brad Bird, who took over from Jan Pinkava, says "Ratatouille" is based on "a magnificent idea." "There are chunks of the movie where the Linguini character is surrendering his motor skills to a rat," Bird says. "It's a preposterous idea, but one that animators really love. It's very physical, akin to silent film comedy more than anything else. This surrender of control to another's wishes is just a dream assignment for an animator."
Though the setting -- a Parisian restaurant kitchen -- and the story of love and longing are catchy, the choice of characters in "Ratatouille" is risky: Most people aren't very fond of rats -- and even less fond of them in the kitchen. Not everyone loves the idea of being up close and personal with a pack of rats, which skitter in an all-too realistic manner. "People don't have the same reaction to mice as they do to rats," Bird admits. "Only after (the movie) was done, I realized the extent to which people have a revulsion to rats. I can't tell you how many people said, 'I had to be dragged to this movie' and then (went) on to tell me it was their favorite movie of the year."
In wide release, "Ratatouille" succeeded at the boxoffice, coming in at No. 9 for 2007's top-grossing U.S. films. It also did spectacularly in Europe and elsewhere, with $619 million in worldwide grosses. Is there any downside to the film's chances? Animation Guild president Kevin Koch notes that Pixar has already won two animated feature Oscars. But he brushes that off as insignificant. "'Ratatouille' has done tremendously well here and overseas," he says. "And you can't argue with the artistry."
Bottom line: The smart money is on "Ratatouille" to bring home the cheese.
If you didn't see it, you're not alone. The Sony Animation feature came and went fairly quietly, coming in at No. 41 in 2007's list of top-grossing pictures.
But that doesn't mean the movie went unnoticed by animators and the Academy's animation branch. Although "Surf's Up" didn't gross anywhere near what the year's big animated features did, Beck sings the small movie's praises. "It's funny, clever and well-made," he says. "It shows that Sony Animation is a real contender, and they haven't gotten that recognition yet."
It's also got some technological innovation with the ocean waves. Water has always been difficult to create digitally, and "Surf's Up" takes realism a step or two further as we watch old surfer Big Z/Geek, hero Cody Maverick and the other surfers ride the curls.
Sony Pictures Animation utilized a vast amount of detail to create each wave, manipulating the throw of the lip, the trough depth, the wave face height, the slope of the shoulder of the wave, how much the wave collapses, the height of the wave back, the thinness of the lip, the noise on the lip, and the height and width of the wave.
"We took the waves and made them into an emotional value as well as something beautiful to look at," says "Surf's Up" writer-producer Chris Jenkins. "We set out to make the water another character."
The story -- another coming-of-age tale -- is sweet and perhaps a tad typical in that Cody Maverick learns about friendship and finding himself (or as the movie puts it, "finding his own wave"). The surfers are all penguins, of course, which, in the wake of 2006's "Happy Feet," might have been off-putting to some viewers and critics. But the story is framed as a mockumentary, a unique twist that cuts the sentimentality, adds laughs and generally elevates the entire proceedings.
The critics largely liked "Surf's Up," noting its mix of adult-oriented and child-friendly humor, along with the rousing music of 311, Pearl Jam, Incubus and others. Just as the movie's main character, Cody Maverick, doesn't win the surfing contest, so "Surf's Up" will not win the Oscar for best animated feature. Its charm just won't stand up to the powerhouse of "Ratatouille" or the charisma of "Persepolis." But, also like Cody, "Surf's Up" has found its own wave and probably has a long ride ahead in the post-theatrical market.