Midyear Awards Report: Disney/DreamWorks/Pixar (Analysis)
Disney boasts not only the year's biggest box-office success ("The Avengers") but also top contenders for best picture ("Lincoln") and animated feature ("Brave").
NOTE: Throughout July and August, The Hollywood Reporter's lead awards analyst and blogger Scott Feinberg will analyze each studio's 2012 awards outlook. He will then post his first "Feinberg Forecast" of the season -- featuring ranked projections for every major Oscar category -- on Sunday, Aug. 12.
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Disney, Pixar (which Disney acquired in 2006) and DreamWorks (whose films are released by Disney's Touchstone Pictures banner, which handles all of the studio's more mature fare) collectively account for a considerable number of awards contenders season after season. Last year, the Academy strongly embraced two DreamWorks films (The Help and War Horse, which both earned best picture noms and received a total of 10 noms), two very different sorts of Disney films (Reel Steel was nominated for best visual effects, and The Muppets was nominated for and won best original song) and one Pixar film (not the studio's big feature Cars 2 but rather its short La Luna, which was nominated for best animated short). Even if the studio's 13 collective noms produced only one Oscar, virtually all of the films on their slates were well-reviewed and performed very strongly at the box office.
2012 SO FAR
Speaking of the box office, these guys all but owned it during the first half of the new season -- save for the expensive bump in the road that was March's John Carter -- with two of the top five highest grossers.
Things got off to a historic start with the May 4 release of Joss Whedon's The Avengers, the culmination of Marvel's series of comic book films over the last five years. The earlier installments -- Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011) and Captain America (2011) -- set the stage for this final piece of the puzzle. The unprecedented rollout for this 3D film about a diverse group of superheroes who unite to try to save the world from disaster -- played by Oscar nominees Robert Downey Jr., Jeremy Renner, and Mark Ruffalo, plus Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Scarlett Johansson, with support from Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow and Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson -- paid off in spades: it scored the biggest opening weekend in history ($207.3 million), reached $500 million domestically faster than any other film, and has now grossed $612 million domestially and $1.5 billion worldwide, more than any other film save for Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009). More importantly, in terms of awards, it has been widely cheered by critics and the public (scoring 92% and 96%, respectively, on RottenTomatoes.com).
Then, in mid-June, Pixar released its big awards hopeful -- it always puts out one feature a year, the release of which is always a hotly anticipated event -- Brave, directed by Brenda Chapman (Pixar's first female director) and Mark Andrews (who replaced Chapman following creative disagreements). The studio's first fairy tale and first film centered around a female protagonist, it is set in ancient Scotland and focuses on Merida (voiced by Boardwalk Empire's Kelly Macdonald), a young princess and tomboy who refuses to be told whom she should marry, causing a falling-out between her and her mother that leads her to take an action that she spends the rest of the film trying to rectify. It's certainly not Pixar's most ambitious or entertaining effort, but it is, like all of their films, a profitable one: it cost $185 million, but has already grossed $211 million domestically and more than $281 million overall.
One week later on June 29, Disney released a live-action drama, People Like Us, the directorial debut of Alex Kurtzman, who co-wrote the recent reboot of Star Trek. It features that film's star, Chris Pine, as a slick businessman whose professional life is falling into disarray (the FTC is on to him) when he learns that his long-estranged father has passed away, prompting him to return home to visit his mother (Oscar nominee Michelle Pfeiffer) and learn about his father's estate -- which, it turns out, has bequeathed him virtually nothing but left a considerable amount to a half-sister that he never even knew he had (Elizabeth Banks). The tear-jerker, which cost $16 million to make, has received mixed reviews and grossed less than $12 million, thus far.
2012 STILL TO COME
Things will kick off in August with Disney's The Odd Life of Timothy Green (Aug. 15), a fantasy dramedy written and directed by Peter Hedges, who received a best adapted screenplay Oscar nom a decade ago for co-writing About a Boy (2002). The film revolves around a couple who, realizing they are unable to have a child together, write down and then bury a boxful of wishes about what their child would be like and then awaken the next morning to discover a 10-year-old boy (C.J. Adams) who fits that very description and claims them as his parents. Naturally, they are thrilled, but complications ensue. The film also features Oscar winner Dianne Wiest, Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo and Rosemarie Dewitt.
Then, the fall will bring two very different sorts of animated films from the studio.
First up is Frankenweenie (Oct. 5), Tim Burton's adaptation of his own 1984 sci-fi/comedy short, which has been made into a feature using stop-motion animation, is in black-and-white and will be released in 3D and IMAX cinemas (making it the first stop-motion and/or black-and-white film to appear on their supersized screens). Owing a great deal to the horror classic Frankenstein (1931), it revolves around a young boy whose beloved dog is killed by a car but who manages to bring the charismatic pet back to life through a scientific invention, inadvertently creating a "monster" that he can no longer control and that causes a panic in the community. Among those voicing characters in the film: Oscar winner Martin Landau, two-time Oscar nominee Winona Ryder, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short and Christopher Lee.
Then, just under a month later, comes Wreck-It Ralph (Nov. 2), a computer-animated film directed by Rich Moore (one of the principal creative forces behind television's The Simpsons and Futurama) from a truly original screenplay by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee. Set in a video game arcade, the film revolves around Wreck-It-Ralph (voiced by Oscar nominee John C. Reilly), who for more than 30 years has played the bad guy in a video game titled Fix-It Felix Jr., in which the good guy is Fix-It Felix (voiced by Emmy nominee Jack McBrayer). Ralph, tired of doing the same thing year after year and envious of Felix's popularity, decides to escape from his video game and seek another in which he can make a better life for himself. What he discovers, though, is that life outside of Fix-It Felix Jr. isn't necessarily better -- modern games feature meaner characters and greater violence than anything he has encountered before -- and it is only with the help of one of the many strange characters that he encounters (voiced by Sarah Silverman) that he manages to navigate the new terrain and mount an effort to save the arcade. (This terrific concept for an animated film is being promoted with a trailer that is as good as any that I've seen for an animated film in quite some time.)
Finally, a week later (and, not coincidentally, three days after the U.S. presidential election), DreamWorks will unload its big gun, which -- on paper, at least -- looks to be the one to beat: Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (Nov. 9), which stars two-time best actor Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis as the man who is widely regarded as the greatest American President, Abraham Lincoln. The film, which was shot from a script by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner that was derived from the later chapters of Doris Kearns Goodwin's acclaimed book Team of Rivals (2005), will focus on how Lincoln, during the latter part of the Civil War, masterfully interacted with his Cabinet and the U.S. Congress to build support for the abolition of slavery, a cause that not even he had fully embraced just years earlier. I have been forcefully told that this is not a traditional biopic -- in other words, it doesn't feature a highlight reel of the subject's defining moments -- but is, instead, a study of the nature and character of a man who changed history, for a race and a nation, forever. The film's supporting cast -- which includes two-time Oscar winner Sally Field, Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones and Oscar nominees Jackie Earle Haley, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook and David Strathairn, plus Joseph Gordon-Levitt -- is hard to beat. Of Day-Lewis, Jones has said: "He's read his history, he's read his books -- Daniel has -- and his Lincoln is a country boy who also happens to be a brilliant lawyer and a poet. This is not a Lincoln that's just stepped off the dollar bill or just arisen from the Lincoln Monument. This is not the icon or the hero and he's not the joke of the old 'Honest Abe' nonsense. This is a real man, and I don't think Lincoln has ever been done as well."
Lincoln, on paper, is unquestionably one of the year's most promising contenders. Just think about its source material (the most celebrated book by one of the most venerated living historians, adapted for the screen by one of the most venerated living playwrights), subject matter (a drama about one of the most influential politicians and some of the most consequential events in history), director (a legendary two-time best director Oscar winner), below-the-line talent (Spielberg's unequaled regulars) and onscreen talent (which collectively accounts for 12 Oscar nominations and five Oscar wins)! But, while it might seem helpful to be labeled the presumptive "frontrunner," history has shown that it really isn't, since it raises expectations so high, for so long, that they become almost impossible to meet. This is something that Spielberg himself has experienced, as a director and/or producer, several times in recent years -- with Amistad (1997), The Terminal (2004), Munich (2005), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), The Lovely Bones (2009) and, most recently, War Horse (2011) -- which is, at least in part, why DreamWorks has been relatively quiet about the film thus far. Whether or not the film wins best picture, it's very hard to imagine it not being nominated for it, and even harder to imagine Day-Lewis not being nominated for best actor. (Some are already quibbling about a Brit playing an iconic American, but they shouldn't forget who American Meryl Streep played en route to winning her third Oscar, or the fact that Day-Lewis has literally never been bad.) What will be most interesting, in a way, will be to see which members of the huge ensemble, if any, score supporting noms. I've heard that Field (as Lincoln's wife Mary) and Jones (as a powerful Pennsylvania congressman) will be in the mix, and based on my reading of the book, suspect that Strathairn will as well for his performance as William Seward, Lincoln's presidential rival-turned Secretary of State-turned confidante-turned fellow assassination target.
The Avengers has a lot going for it. It not only was very entertaining and made a fortune at the box office, but also features a ton of respected actors from across the spectrum (age, race, gender, experience, etc.), and, as we've seen time and again over the years, films with large casts of this sort benefit from their actors having a lot of friends who are voters. Still, I think it's ultimately unlikely that the film will crack into the best picture race, since the Academy is still dominated by older folks who, by and large, dismiss summer popcorn movies as unworthy of such an honor. Even if such a film is somehow able to crack into the category this year, I would put my money on it being the culmination of another franchise, The Dark Knight Rises, which comes from a more widely revered director and series of films (although the Academy has not deemed it fit to recognize either in the past with best picture or best director noms).
It's too early to make much of a guess about the prospects of the three animated films. Brave is the best-made and most entertaining animated film released so far this year, but its competition has been minimal, and a horde of animated films have yet to be seen. For Pixar, the good news is that the number of animated releases will almost certainly trigger the category to expand to five slots, but the bad news is that there could very well be five other films that go over better -- quite possibly including one or both of the two from Disney. Burton has shown up in the category before, scoring a nom seven years ago for Corpse Bride (2005), of which Frankenweenie reminds me quite a lot. And, frankly, Wreck-It-Ralph looks even better than Frankenweenie. So only time will tell.
Meanwhile, People Like Us and The Odd Life of Timothy Green will both face uphill climbs due to their early release dates and lack of scale/gravitas -- they're basically entertaining, escapist films -- but the studio has expressed some hope that People's Banks might contend for a best supporting actress nom, even if that has to be considered a long shot.