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When the Oscar nominations are unveiled Jan. 23, animation fans could be in for a surprise. Traditionally, the nominees have included a mix of high-profile, CG-animated studio films such as Pixar's Inside Out and Disney's Frozen along with acclaimed indie fare — often hand-drawn and submitted by indie distributor GKIDS, which has earned nine animated feature Oscar noms since 2009, second only to Disney/Pixar's 11.
But this year, there's a new rule: In the past, the nominating committee was composed of specially invited Academy members — half from the animation branch, half from other branches. Now, any Academy member willing to put in the time is welcome to join the committee. Will a more inclusive committee opt for bigger studio movies? In the past, committee members who favored traditional animation snubbed the popular The Lego Movie in favor of delicate fables like GKIDS' Song of the Sea. With a bigger pool of voters, could that situation now be reversed? GKIDS CEO Eric Beckman remains optimistic: "I don't see this rule change as dramatic, but it might be harder and more expensive for a smaller film to get attention."
In terms of sheer box office, some of the big players are formidable. Illumination/Universal's Minion-populated Despicable Me 3 topped $1 billion at the worldwide box office (including $264 million in North America) and is hoping to follow in the footsteps of 2013's Despicable Me 2, the only Illumination movie ever to score an animated feature Oscar nom.
Currently, the other animated pics sitting in 2017's top 25 at worldwide box office include DreamWorks Animation/Fox's The Boss Baby ($498.9 million), Pixar/Disney's Cars 3 ($382.8 million) and Warner Bros.' The Lego Batman Movie ($312 million).
The year's other studio submissions include DWA's Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, the superhero movie based on Dav Pilkey's children's books; Warners' second Lego movie of the year, The Lego Ninjago Movie; and a trio of films from Sony Pictures Animation: Smurfs: The Lost Village, The Emoji Movie and The Star.
Two upcoming high-profile CG tentpoles could shake up the studio landscape further: Coco, Pixar's Day of the Dead-themed film from Lee Unkrich (an Oscar winner for Toy Story 3), opens Nov. 22, and Fox/Blue Sky's Ferdinand, based on Munro Leaf's children's book about a peace-loving bull, opens Dec. 15.
On the indie front, GKIDS is definitely looking to do battle with several contenders that already have established themselves as award winners, chief among them The Breadwinner, directed by Nora Twomey of Ireland's Cartoon Saloon and executive produced by Angelina Jolie, which should pique the interest of voters. Based on the young adult novel by Deborah Ellis, the film follows an 11-year-old girl growing up under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In October, it won the Grand Prize and Audience Award at the fledgling Animation Is Film Festival in Hollywood.
Additionally, the jam-packed GKIDS lineup includes, among other films, The Girl Without Hands, a hand-painted retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale that won the Jury Prize at the 2016 Annecy Animation Festival; The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales, a farm-set comedy helmed by Benjamin Renner and Patrick Imbert, who served as co-director and animation director, respectively, on the 2012 Oscar-nominated Ernest & Celestine; Mary and the Witch's Flower, the inaugural feature from Japan-based Studio Ponoc, started by alums from Hayao Miyazaki's famed Studio Ghibli; and Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, the Goya Award winner for best animated feature from Alberto Vazquez and Pedro Rivero.
Additional indies looking to make a mark include the Annecy Audience Award winner Loving Vincent, which uses 65,000 frames of oil painting to recount the life of Vincent van Gogh, and Annecy Jury Award winner In This Corner of the World, from Japan's Sunao Katabuchi, which follows a young woman living through World War II.
Below, a look at 20 notable films eligible for the best feature animation Academy Award.
The Big Bad Fox & Other Tales
A lively trio of cartoons that are wacky, heartwarming and wise, The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales (Le grand mechant renard et autres contes) showcases an animal farm like no other: The titular fox is far less cunning than he is both kind and nurturing, a duck has no idea how to actually swim, a lizard shows up out of nowhere and starts speaking Mandarin and a stork is far too lazy to deliver the baby in its beak.
Those are just some of the characters populating this second feature from director Benjamin Renner (working here with animator Patrick Imbert), whose Ernest & Celestine was one of the more memorable animated movies to come out of France a few years back, earning a Cesar Award and an Oscar nomination. This time the source material is different, with Renner adapting his own best-selling comic book in a tone that’s equal parts Tex Avery and Dr. Seuss, with a bit of Adult Swim thrown into the mix. The result is lots of fun, if less compelling and cohesive than the last film, which should make it a shoo-in with Gallic tykes as they head into the summer vacation.
The Boss Baby
Words like "inventive" and "inspired" are very rarely applied to the parade of cookie-cutter animated features that pass through the multiplex each year, but The Boss Baby proves a refreshing exception.
Based on the 36-page picture book by Marla Frazee and featuring the pitch-perfect voice of Alec Baldwin as a onesie suit-wearing, corporate-minded blessed arrival, this DreamWorks Animation effort is a delightful blend of clever and tender that's certain to tickle audiences of all ages and stages.
It's one that delivers the entertaining goods while addressing universal truths about family bonds and the fertile, limitless boundaries of a child’s imagination that, like those emotional touchstones in the Toy Story films, feel honest and organic to the storytelling. Even the obligatory bodily function jokes are tastefully executed.
Movies are filled with scrappy kids who weather tough situations, but Parvana, the 11-year-old Kabul resident at the center of The Breadwinner, is a particularly memorable survivor. In a story that's as vibrant as it is harrowing, the Afghan girl steps into the vacuum left by her father's arrest and, disguising herself as a boy, ventures into the Taliban-controlled city in order to keep her family fed.
In her first solo stint at the helm of a feature, Nora Twomey, who co-directed the dazzling Secret of Kells, sugarcoats nothing about Parvana's story, even while layering it with a touch of enchantment. She and screenwriter Anita Doron, adapting Deborah Ellis' book, maintain the child's point of view in both strands of the narrative: the brutal day-to-day challenges that Parvana faces and the magic-tinged fable she spins to soothe and entertain her baby brother.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
In what amounts to the equivalent of a 90-minute sugar rush, Dav Pilkey's wacky kids' superhero book series makes the leap to the big screen with its trademark potty humor and offbeat zaniness very much intact in the computer-animated Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. Unfortunately that's about all it amounts to — in the absence of a sturdier storyline and more dimensional characters, the manic, rapid-fire delivery, while yielding some well-deserved laughs, proves more exhausting than inspired.
The end result is still admittedly less painful than a wedgie and should give Fox a payoff closer in line to The Boss Baby than its recent Wimpy Kid disappointment. For those unfamiliar with the any of the 12 titles in Pilkey's popular series, the saga concerns the misadventures of George (voiced by Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch), a pair of trouble-making fourth-graders at Jerome Horwitz Elementary who prefer hanging out in their treehouse creating Captain Underpants comic books.
In the wake of the noisy misfire that was 2011's Cars 2, the Pixar pit crew ran the diagnostics and were able to pinpoint the winning formula of humor, heart and action (along with an added dose of Route 66-informed nostalgia) that made the 2006 original such a sweet ride.
They all make a welcome return in Cars 3, but, while visually dynamic, Lightning McQueen's newest challenge still feels out of alignment with a languid end result that lacks sufficient forward momentum.
Cinderella the Cat
The classic fairytale gets an unexpectedly dark and adult update in Cinderella the Cat (Gatta cenerentola), a strikingly animated tale from the Italian directorial foursome Ivan Cappiello, Marino Guarnieri, Dario Sansone and Alessandro Rak (all newcomers except for Rak, who earlier directed European Film Award winner The Art of Happiness).
Set almost entirely aboard a retro-futuristic ship in the harbor of Naples, the story re-imagines Cinderella as a 17-year-old, vaguely emo-punk chick who's about to be married off to a megalomaniac drug dealer who wants to turn Naples into the crime capital of the world. Of course, there's an evil stepmother who's raising her own children as — what else? — cabaret dancers, and also a heroic policeman who might be able to give this crazy, music-filled and intentionally somewhat chaotic ride a happy ending.
Dia de los Muertos, the multi-day Mexican-originated holiday honoring dead family members and friends, proves to have a remarkably revitalizing effect on Pixar, as evidenced by the truly resplendent Coco.
Not only does the Disney outfit's 19th feature, co-directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, emerge as Pixar's most original effort since Inside Out, it's also among its most emotionally resonant, touching on themes of belonging common to Finding Dory and the Unkrich-directed Toy Story 3.
Delivering a universal message about family bonds while adhering to folkloric traditions free of the watering down or whitewashing that have often typified Americanized appropriations of cultural heritage, the gorgeous production also boasts vibrant visuals and a peerless voice cast populated almost entirely by Mexican and Latino actors.
Despicable Me 3
Repeating a formula that worked like gangbusters in the last installment, which became the most profitable film in Universal history, Despicable Me 3 offers up more of the same: more Gru — actually Gru times two if you count his twin brother, Dru; more Minions (though thankfully less than in their own exhausting 2015 spinoff); more Looney Tunes-esque sight gags; more pop-culture references, with an emphasis on the 1980s this time; and more catchy Pharrell Williams songs on the soundtrack.
It's an if-it-ain't-broke-then-don't-fix-it approach that works just fine if you're simply looking to take another ride on the rollercoaster, with Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig returning to voice a pair of lovey-dovey superspy parents out to rid the world of evil yet again. Indeed, the original film's enticing premise, about a bad guy who can't help turning good, has been somewhat forgotten, even if series creator Pierre Coffin (working here with Kyle Balda and co-director Eric Guillon) tries to insert a bit of pathos and family matters into the action. Otherwise, this rather clever, breakneck-paced cartoon gives fans exactly what they want: Like the new nemesis voiced by Trey Parker, it shoots multiple machine-gun bursts of bubblegum at the audience, asking them to chew and enjoy.
The Emoji Movie
Here's what you tell yourself when you accept an assignment to review a cartoon about emoji: "Remember what you thought when you heard about The Lego Movie? That it was the most shameless bit of advertising-as-entertainment you could imagine, the nadir of Hollywood's intellectual-property dependence, and couldn't possibly be worth seeing? Remember how incredibly wrong you were?"
You were wrong then. Given the right combination of inspiration, intelligence and gifted artists, any dumb thing can be turned into an enjoyable film. But Tony Leondis' The Emoji Movie, a very, very dumb thing, comes nowhere near that magic combination. It is fast and colorful enough to attract young kids, but offers nearly nothing to their parents. If only this smartphone-centric dud, so happy to hawk real-world apps to its audience, could have done the same in its release strategy — coming out via Snapchat, where it would vanish shortly after arrival. But even that wouldn't be fast enough.
Ethel & Ernest
It's commonly thought that artists seldom make stories about happy, stable marriages because where's the drama in that? Ethel & Ernest, a deeply affecting feature-length animated film, disproves that assumption by unfurling an emotionally rich story about the lifelong marital love affair between two kindly, modest people living in an inconspicuous corner of suburban England.
Adapted from the illustrated book author-artist Raymond Briggs (The Snowman) wrote about his own parents, this quiet, dignified work shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a niche audience domestically given Briggs’ near-saintly reputation in the U.K., especially among older viewers. Families willing to think outside the usual cartoon boxes may also be drawn in.
The Girl Without Hands
A Brothers Grimm tale is given a rather grim if beautifully rendered makeover in The Girl Without Hands (La Jeune fille sans mains), which marks the feature debut of French animation director Sebastien Laudenbach. Composed of broad, colorful brushstrokes and minimalist figuration, this seldom-told story can be a bit slow on the plot side but makes up for it with exquisite artistry and a welcome sense of gloom. Voiced by real-life couple Anais Demoustier and Jeremie Elkaim, the low-budget production premiered in Cannes' ACID sidebar and played Annecy's competition section, with more fests and Francophone art houses on the horizon.
Any story about a young woman who gets her hands chopped off by her father is bound to be a bit of a downer, so it's nice to see that Laudenbach doesn't sugarcoat the nastiness that has always been a major part of the Brothers Grimm oeuvre and that has often been whitewashed so that kids don't walk away with too many nightmares.
In This Corner of the World
The quotidian hardships and horrors of WWII are seen from the perspective of a young Japanese woman living close to Hiroshima In This Corner of the World (Kono sekai no katasumi ni), a compelling third feature from anime writer-director Sunao Katabuchi (Princess Arete, Mai Mai Mircale).
Adapted from Fumiyo Kono's manga, this impressionistic chronicle of the war is, at first, more concerned with household chores and family matters than it is with soldiers on the battlefield, but its harrowing third act reveals what can happen when civilians become targets as well.
The Lego Batman Movie
Watching The Lego Batman Movie, the follow-up to the wildly entertaining The Lego Movie, is sort of like reassembling the Lego Star Wars Ultimate Collector's 5,197-piece Millennium Falcon: The achievement just doesn't convey the sort of triumphant, giddy satisfaction that it did the first time.
Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that Will Arnett's hilariously egotistical Caped Crusader has been promoted from mightily effective scene-stealer to the role of all Batman, all the time — which can prove to be too much of a good thing.
Whatever the reasons, although there is still much to enjoy here, this DC Comics-fueled Lego adventure fails to clear the creative bar so energetically raised by co-directors and writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller back in 2014.
The Lego Ninjago Movie
The product of three credited directors, six credited screenwriters, five editors and one executive producer who helmed two of the most uninspired trilogy enders in recent memory (Brett Ratner, of X-Men: The Last Stand and Red Dragon), The Lego Ninjago Movie is, finally, more or less the kind of advertainment observers expected from the first big-screen adventure featuring Lego toys.
A perfectly adequate family film for kids who love watching things they've seen many times before (which is to say, most kids), it offers plenty of chuckles for their parents but nothing approaching the glee of that first Lego Movie.
There have already been quite a few films about Vincent van Gogh, ranging from the heroic (Lust for Life) to the dramatic (Vincent & Theo) to the enigmatic (Maurice Pialat's masterly Van Gogh). All of them offer up their own interpretations of the artist's brief and tumultuous life, which ended abruptly from suicide at the age of 37, after he had completed roughly 800 paintings in the span of less than 10 years.
While such movies attempted to portray the painter through his actions and words, none have quite been able to reveal the man through his work. Such is the unique feat of Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman's entirely hand-painted biopic Loving Vincent, a film that uses van Gogh's canvases as both form and function, animating them into a saga tracing his last days in Arles, where he made his greatest artist breakthroughs, to his stay in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he died in 1890 after shooting himself in the torso.
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea
High school can be a brutal time for the teenage outsider, with moments of terror that can feel like being caught in an earthquake, burnt alive, drowning or swimming in a pool of sharks. All those factors are represented literally in graphic novelist Dash Shaw's first animated feature, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, a sweetly subversive dig at the constricting codes of teen hierarchies, the sheep-like mentality of youth and the failures of the education system. Loaded with a name voice cast often playing amusingly against type, this droll toon comedy should provide kicks especially for hipsters whose high school years are still vividly imprinted recent memories.
Shaw's crazy-quilt collage style blends naive crayon and pencil drawings with acrylic abstract-expressionist daubs and more articulated gouache paintings, hard-edged comic book sketches, silhouettes, psychedelics and snatches of photorealism. That expressive visual mix is well suited to the emotional turbulence of high school, as is Rani Sharone's manic carnival music. If the film, even at a fleet 82 minutes, loses some steam once the initial novelty wears off, its witty comedy, funny characterizations and adherence to the classic disaster-movie template keep it engaging.
The Napping Princess
A sleep-deprived teen learns that conking out is a superpower in The Napping Princess, Kenji Kamiyama's fantasy about family secrets and self-driving cars. Kamiyama, a vet of the Ghost in the Shell franchise, brings plenty of sci-fi genre ingredients to what at times might look like a Miyazaki coming-of-age adventure. Though occasionally lopsided, the mix works well, and should play best to teens raised on Japanese 'toons.
Mitsuki Takahata voices the eponymous heroine, who is only a princess in her dreams. When awake she is Kokone, daughter of Jersey, an auto mechanic and part-time inventor. Raised knowing nothing about her mother's side of the family except that mom died in an accident long ago, she's something of a caretaker for the absentminded Jersey, who is perfecting a guidance system for autonomous vehicles.
A Silent Voice
The ripple effects of bullying come back to haunt a high school student years later — and over the course of two ambitiously overstuffed hours — in A Silent Voice (Koe no katachi), which was adapted from the popular manga series by Yoshitoki Oima.
Packed with drama, laughter, tears and at least two suicide attempts, this third animated feature from director Naoko Yamada (Tamako Love Story) does its best to condense a seven-volume series into one feature-length film, though it tends to suffer under the weight of so much material.
Smurfs: The Lost Village
Sony Pictures Animation has gone back to the well and unapologetically left adults behind for the third entry in their Smurfs franchise. Discarding the combination of live-action and animation that marked the first two efforts, Smurfs: The Lost Village is strictly animated and geared only for younger viewers. The reboot directed by Kelly Asbury (Shrek 2) should please its target audience while providing little entertainment value to any adult chaperones who appreciated Neil Patrick Harris and Hank Azaria's enjoyably over-the-top turns in the first two films.
Co-scripter Pamela Ribon introduces a pronounced feminist theme into the story similar to that of her most recent credit, Moana. Set entirely in the Smurfs' fantastical village (no trips to New York City here), it revolves around Smurfette (Demi Lovato), the only female of the species. Upon discovering a mysterious map, she sets off with her fellow Smurfs Brainy (Danny Pudi), Clumsy (Jack McBrayer) and Hefty (Joe Manganiello) — no extra points for guessing these characters’ personality traits — through the Forbidden Forest in search of answers.
More sitcom than sermon, The Star revisits the story of the first Christmas from the perspective of the nonhuman critters, with quality time for Mary and Joseph. The very young Sunday-school set and their grownups will flock to the holiday offering, which combines spirited voice work and a soundtrack by Christian and secular pop acts in a mildly irreverent, suitably non-flashy package that's more serviceable than inspired.
It's up for debate whether processing a Bible story through movie formula reduces or expands its appeal, but as directed by Timothy Reckart from a screenplay by Carlos Kotkin (Rio 2), the adaptation emphasizes the humanist-mystical rather than the explicitly religious, delivering a Christian story in a way that's generic enough to entertain beyond the choir. It isn't likely to convert unbelievers, though — those who question whether the three-act story structure is life's all-encompassing answer.
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