Oscar's Animation Race: Big-Studio Offerings vs. Small-Scale Indies

2:18 PM 11/22/2016

by Carolyn Giardina

From Disney's 'Zootopia' to GKIDS' 'My Life as a Zucchini,' here are 10 films highlighting the big-budget differences among the record pack of 27 films vying for the best feature animation Academy Award.

Zootopia and My Life as a Zucchini - Split - H - 2016

Move over, Pixar and Disney Animation, DreamWorks Animation and Universal/Illumination Entertainment. This year, a record 27 movies have been submitted for consideration in the Oscars race for best animated feature and, as a result, the big-studio offerings could face stiff competition from the idiosyncratic indie world. Read the full story ...

And here's a look at five of the big boys and five of the little darlings vying for the top prize.

  • Sing

    Illumination Entertainment’s upcoming musical comedy Sing, a Universal release from writer/director Garth Jennings (Son of Rambow, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and Illumination founder and CEO Chris Meledandri, uses more than 65 hit songs to tell the story of koala Buster Moon — voiced by Matthew McConaughey — who tries to produce a hit singing competition in the hopes of using it to restore his theater to its former glory.

    Lending their voices as contestants are the likes of Reese Witherspoon, as an overtaxed mother; Seth MacFarlane, as a mouse who croons; Scarlett Johansson, a punk-rock porcupine struggling to shed her arrogant boyfriend; Taron Egerto, a gangster gorilla; and Tori Kelly, an elephant with stage fright.

  • Moana

    Moana — Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Thanksgiving release — is helmed by Disney’s veteran directing duo of Ron Clements and John Musker (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid) in their first primarily computer animated feature. Moana is an adventurous, tenacious 16-year-old, voiced by newcomer Auli‘i Cravalho, growing into the role of leader for her village. When her island is threatened by a terrible darkness, she sets sail on an adventure to save her people — and learns about herself along the way.

    Moana also must team up with Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, a larger-than-life demigod. The musical film includes original music from Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, Grammy-winning composer Mark Manchina and Opetaia Foa‘i, the founder and lead singer of Te Vaka.

  • Zootopia

    From directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore, Disney’s Zootopia is set in a world full of anthropomorphic animals who live in districts such as Tundra Town, Sahara Square and Little Rodentia. The film centers on a surprising friendship that develops between two natural enemies: Nick Wilde, a slick fox (voiced by Jason Bateman), and Lt. Judy Hops, a rabbit who want to be a police officer (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin).

    But behind this colorful metropolis — a melting pot of animals who co-exist in harmony — is the film’s antagonist who cunningly uses fear to turn prey and predators against one another, in order to ascend to a position of power. With this story, the filmmakers aimed to create a highly entertaining and moving contemporary film that also tackles the socially relevant issues of discrimination, bias and fear mongering.

  • Trolls

    Dreamworks Animation’s colorful crowd pleaser, Trolls, is an original story based on the well-known doll franchise introduced in 1959 by Danish woodcutter Thomas Dam. Directed by Mike Mitchell and co-director Walt Dohrn, the musical computer animated feature tells the story of Poppy, voiced by Anna Kendrick, a wildly optimistic princess who becomes the Trolls Village leader.

    When the Bergens threaten Troll Village, Poppy must team up with pessimistic Branch, voiced by Justin Timberlake — who was also the film’s executive music producer and worked on songs for the movie, including the chart-topping "Can't Stop the Feeling!” Says Dohrn, “We decided it was time to start spreading some joy again.” The voice cast also includes the likes of Gwen Stefani, James Corden, Christine Baranski and John Cleese.

  • Kubo and the Two Strings

    Kubo and the Two Strings from Laika/Focus is a Japan-set fantasy that follows young Kubo (Art Parkinson), who accidentally summons a spirit from his past. He joins forces with Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) to defeat the vengeful Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and evil twin sisters (Rooney Mara). “We were trying to do a Kurosawan myth and miniature David Lean film,” says first-time director Travis Knight, president and CEO of Laika.

    While built around stop-motion, the “hybrid” film bridges the stop-motion process with digital tools and visual effects to tell its story. The work includes Laika's first 3D printed puppet and its largest stop-motion puppet yet, weighing 400 pounds and standing 16 feet high from head to toe (the lower and upper half were filmed separately in most shots).

  • April and the Extraordinary World

    April and the Extraordinary World (GKIDS) is a hand-drawn film based on the work of graphic novelist Jacques Tardi and produced by Je Suis Bien Content, the animation studio that made the Oscar-nominated 2007 animated feature Persepolis.

    Set in 1941 Paris, April introduces an alternate steampunk world where progress has been stinted by the disappearance of the world's great scientists. Protagonist April, voiced by Marion Cotillard, comes from a family of scientists and is secretly carrying on her parents' research while on the run from the government. Said Christian Desmares, who directed with Franck Ekinci, "The themes that are dealt with are interesting, the race toward progress. ... 'Science without conscience is nothing but the ruin of the soul' is Rabelais’ famous maxim in Gargantua."

  • My Life as a Zucchini

    My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette), also from indie distributor GKIDS, is a French-Swiss co-production about a boy who moves to a foster home after the sudden death of his mother and finds a new life.

    Also the official Swiss submission for the Academy Awards’ best foreign-language category, the stop-motion adaptation of Autobiography of a Courgette by Gilles Paris is the debut feature from Swiss director Claude Barras, who describes the film as an "homage to neglected and mistreated children who do the best they can to survive and live with their wounds."

    It runs 66 minutes and was made for just $8 million with models created by Gregory Bossart in Geneva, Switzerland and animation completed at Studio Pixel near Lyon, France.

  • Long Way North

    Long Way North is a hand-drawn 19th century-set story of Sacha, a determined young girl from the Russian aristocracy who dreams of the Great North and anguishes over the fate of her grandfather, scientist and explorer Oloukine. While Sacha’s parents make arrangements for her marriage in Saint Petersburg, she flees her home and sets out to the Great North in search of Oloukine and his ship.

    Distributed stateside by Shout! Factory, the France-Denmark co-production marks the directorial debut for Remi Chaye, who was first assistant director and head of storyboard for the 2009 Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells. He says his drawing style is "rather realistic" and he wanted to simplify it for animation, so he found the look by removing the outline of his drawings and only keeping the color fills.

  • The Little Prince

    The Little Prince is an adaptation of the 1943 classic by Antoine de Saint-Exupery from director Mark Osborne (who co-directed Kung Fu Panda).

    The director initially turned down the film, which was released through Netflix. "I had a very deep connection to the book, so I said, 'You can’t make a movie out of this book. … Everyone has their own version in their imagination,' " he says. "Then I realized there was an opportunity to make a movie about how this book lives in the imagination of the reader, and how this story can be in someone’s life and can actually change the course of their life."

    This mostly CG version of The Little Prince uses a framing story about a Little Girl whose mother is preparing her for the world when her neighbor, the Aviator, introduces her to the story of the Little Prince, who inhabits an alternate (stop motion) world where anything's possible.

  • The Red Turtle

    The Red Turtle, a Wild Bunch and Studio Ghibli presentation released by Sony Pictures Classics, uses the story of a man shipwrecked on a tropical island inhabited by crabs and birds — and turtles — to recount the milestones in the life of a human being.

    Written and directed by Michael Dudok de Wit, the film was made at Prima Linea Productions in Paris and Angoulême. The director relates that the filmmakers used a digital pen technique that allows you to draw on a tablet that is also a monitor. "For the backgrounds, we chose a different process," he says. "The drawings were made with charcoal on paper, very freely, with broad strokes smudged with the palm of the hand. This artisanal quality was very important and gave the image a lovely, grainy texture. Only the raft and turtles were digitally animated."