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At first glance, most of the big studio movies among the 25 contenders for this year’s feature animated Oscar are fronted by familiar faces. Fourteen years after they first appeared onscreen, the Parr family, Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl and their pack of super-powered progeny are back in Pixar’s Incredibles 2; six years after they first wrecked video games, Ralph and his sidekick Vanellope are returning to roam amid the circuitry of the online world in Disney Animation’s Ralph Wrecks the Internet; that green meanie, the Grinch — created by Dr. Seuss in 1957, he first appeared in an animated TV show in 1966 — has gotten a new lease on life in Illumination Entertainment’s The Grinch; and Spider-Man is spinning yet another web in Sony Pictures Animation’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Actually, it doesn’t feature the familiar Peter Parker version of Spider-Man, but the half-black, half-Latino Miles Morales incarnation of Spider-Man — who knew there were so many Spider-Men?
The studio animation units are simply taking their cues from live-action movies, where sequels, remakes and reboots rule. And so this year, SPA released the three-quel Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, in which Drac (again voiced by Adam Sandler) and the gang go on a cruise. Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, the CG comedy grossed $525 million at the worldwide box office. As for Paramount’s Sherlock Gnomes, a follow-up to 2011’s Gnomeo & Juliet, it collected a more modest $90.3 million worldwide.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the studios offered up only one truly original animated film: Warner Animation Group’s Smallfoot. Writen and directed by Karey Kirkpatrick, it turns the myth of Bigfoot upside down, imagining a world populated by yetis, and it met with $204.2 million worldwide.
But familiarity doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of creativity, these filmmakers insist. Incredibles 2 director Brad Bird says he actually had the idea for the new movie — Holly Hunter’s Elastigirl takes center stage, leaving Craig T. Nelson’s Mr. Incredible to care for the kids — while promoting the original movie. It just took him a while to get to it, but, he says, “I just thought it would put both characters in unexpected places and bring something out of them.” Moviegoers agreed as the movie soared to $1.24 billion at the worldwide box office.
In the case of the new wreckage-prone Ralph, which opens Nov. 21, Rich Moore, who directed along with Phil Johnston, saw an opportunity to explore “a huge, expansive world that feels digital and made by computers.” And with The Grinch — which has grossed more than $80 million worldwide since its Nov. 9 bow — while directors Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier stayed true to the beginning and end of the Seuss story, they also “expanded on the depth of the characters,” as executive producer Latifa Ouaou explains.
Peter Ramsey — who with Bob Persichetti and Rodney Rothman directed Spider-Man, which opens Dec. 14 — admits that when he was first approached about the project, his reaction was, “Why another Spider-Man?” But upon hearing that it had been developed by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (the duo known for Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and for their short-lived stint on Solo: A Star Wars Movie), he became intrigued, realizing that the Miles Morales version of the character hadn’t been seen onscreen before, “and that exploded my enthusiasm for the idea.”
On the indie side of the street, original concepts prevail. The always quirky Wes Anderson — whose 2009 stop-motion effort, Fantastic Mr. Fox, was nominated for the animated feature Oscar — returned this year with Fox Searchlight’s Isle of Dogs. With a voice cast that includes Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum and Scarlett Johansson bringing a whole pack of canines to life, it grossed $64.2 million worldwide.
Aardman Animations contributed another stop-motion feature, Early Man, a caveman-era-set comedy helmed by four-time Oscar winner Nick Park, best known as the creator of Wallace & Gromit. Distributed by Lionsgate in the U.S., it collected $54.1 million worldwide.
Meanwhile, indie distributor GKIDS is lining up its guns. While its films’ grosses pale beside those of studio fare, it’s a formidable awards-season competitor, having earned a remarkable 10 animated feature nominations since 2009. This season, its biggest hope among its five submissions is the hand-drawn Mirai. From Japan’s Studio Chizu and writer-director Mamoru Hosoda, the film, which premiered at Cannes in the Directors’ Fortnight section, is a time-travel story that follows 4-year-old Kun, whose life is turned upside down when his sister, Mirai, is born.
Another festival entry, Tito and the Birds from Shout! Studios, premiered in competition this year at the Annecy animation festival. The Brazilian production, directed by Gustavo Steinberg, Gabriel Bitar and Andre Catoto, follows Tito, a shy 10-year-old boy who lives in a world on the brink of pandemic.
And Sony Pictures Classics — which has successfully fielded such adult-oriented animated films as 2008’s Waltz With Bashir — is placing its bet on Milorad Krstic’s Ruben Brandt, Collector, a stylish English-language film from Hungary about a psychotherapist who is forced to steal 13 paintings from world-renowned museums and private collections to prevent him from having terrible nightmares. Certainly, nothing familiar or formulaic about that.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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