'Toy Story 4' Sets Up Most Competitive Oscar Animation Race in Years

With Pixar’s Toy Story 4 opening to critical success while breaking the record for the biggest global opening for an animated movie with $238 million, the toon world can anticipate what might be the most competitive Oscar animation race in years.

While it's only June, it's no surprise that numerous insiders already expect that nominations will likely go to Toy Story 4 as well as Dreamworks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, which opened in March to critical and box office success with the emotional final chapter of Hiccup’s coming-of-age story. And many also find it hard to imagine that Disney’s wildly anticipated Frozen 2, the sequel to Disney’s Oscar-winning 2014 juggernaut, which opens Thanksgiving weekend, won't be a strong candidate.

Assuming those three movies are likely to advance, that leaves two more nominations up for grabs in a crowded field of contenders.

Additionally, there's a potential variable in the blurring of the lines between live action and animation, which in particular has generated discussion around Jon Favreau's The Lion King for Disney. This was made using virtual production techniques with the result being a CG movie; it may not be viewed as an animated movie in the traditional sense, though it would qualify for consideration under the Motion Picture Academy's definition of an animated feature. The question is, will Disney enter it in the category, and while the studio hasn’t made an official statement, many believe the answer will be "no." The studio hasn't been positioning the movie as animation — and it didn’t enter its 2016 hit The Jungle Book, which was also a virtual production that was largely CG, in that race. The Jungle Book won an Oscar for VFX, and The Lion King is already viewed as a leading contender in that race.

Still, a blurring of the lines between live action and animation continues in Hollywood. At last year's Annie Awards for animation, Mary Poppins Returns — which combined live action and animation — earned nominations in both a live action feature category as well as an animated feature category, which did raise some eyebrows.

Meanwhile, the influence of Netflix is likely to factor into the Oscar animation race. Later this year, the streaming service is planning an Oscar-qualifying theatrical run for its first original animated feature, Klaus, directed by Despicable Me creator Sergio Pablos. A Santa Claus origin story, Klaus is being produced at Pablos’ Madrid-based The Spa Studios, using techniques that effectively bring hand-drawn creative techniques into a computer-based pipeline to create a hand-drawn look.

On the studio side of the equation, DWA will have a second movie in the race, Abominable, which opens Sept. 27. Written and directed by Jill Culton, the story follows a young girl who befriends a magical Yeti.

Others set to open later in the year include Wallace & Gromit creator Aardman Animations's A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, based on its globally popular Shaun character; and The Addams Family from United Artists Releasing, with a voice cast including Oscar Isaac (Gomez), Charlize Theron (Morticia) and Bette Midler (Gandmama). The Shaun the Sheep character was introduced in Aardman’s 1995 Oscar winning short A Close Shave, and its follow-up feature, Shaun the Sheep Movie, earned an Oscar nomination in 2015.

Additional contenders that have already opened include Missing Link, a Yeti tale from stop-motion animation studio Laika (Kubo and the Two Strings); and Illumination's The Secret Life of Pets 2, the sequel to its 2016 comedy about what pets do when their owners are not at home.

On the indie side, distributor GKIDS is always a force. Since 2010, the company has scored 11 best animated feature Oscar nominations with acclaimed titles including The Breadwinner, Ernest & Celestine and The Secret of Kells. It will have several 2019 releases in the running including Funan, a moving animated drama that won top prizes in 2018 at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival and the Animation Is Film Festival. Based on first-time director Denis Do's own family story, the hand-drawn animated film follows a family living in 1975 Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Additional 2019 GKIDS releases that have previously been honored at animation festivals include Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, which tells a story about surrealist filmmaker Buñuel; and Another Day of Life, which is based on the book by journalist Ryszard “Ricardo” Kapuściński and examines the chaos of war by a telling of the outbreak of civil war following Angola’s independence from Portugal in 1975.