Oscar watch: Animation

A flurry of animated releases in 2006 almost guarantees five nominated films. But are there enough original stories to impress the Academy?

It's been a nutty year for animated features, which has been good for the bears, penguins and rodents populating the films but not such good news for the animation studios whose movies are trying to break away from the pack. From Buena Vista's "The Wild" and Sony's "Open Season" to Paramount's "Barnyard" and Paramount/DreamWorks Animation's "Over the Hedge," hordes of cute, furry animals have set up housekeeping on the silver screen, in movies that share themes (the importance of friends), plots (escapes and hijinks), characters and even gags.

"This was an oddball year," says Jerry Beck, editor for animation industry blog CartoonBrew.com and an animation historian. "The problem was that many of the films had a similar plot: animals on an adventure."

The sameness of many of the films might have confused audiences. "I think part of the reason these films haven't done well is that people thought they'd already seen it," Animation Guild president Kevin Koch says. "Another factor is that there's a relatively small community of creative people who move from studio to studio.

"But the bigger factor," Koch continues, "is that we've got some new studios wanting to jump into the game, and they've carefully studied what the successful studios -- like DreamWorks and Pixar (Animation Studios) -- are doing and have tried to follow that model. They've tried to make their films similar to what they've seen succeeding, so the films feel less from the heart, less individual and a little more calculated and corporate."

The result? Many films yet few that are certain nominees. "There's more quantity than originality or fresh ideas," CartoonBrew.com co-editor Amid Amidi says. "There's so much out there, and yet nothing is standing out and jumping ahead of the pack."

No one can deny that the number of animated features released in 2006 is impressive. End-of-the-year entrants such as "Open Season," Paramount/DreamWorks Animation's "Flushed Away" and Warner Bros. Pictures' "Happy Feet" (set to open Nov. 17), plus lesser-known entrants such as Indican Studio's "Captain Sabretooth" (from Norway) and Sony's Japanese anime offering "Paprika," will most likely tip the number of qualified features over 15, the cut-off point for five nominations rather than three. That's great news for the genre, but some animation experts are hard-pressed to name five animated features they deem worthy of the Oscar nom.

"We're in a transitional time with regard to content," Acme Filmworks executive producer Ron Diamond says. "With an eye toward cutting costs and being competitive, the movies aren't that visually exciting. The films coming out are well-written, well-directed and interesting to look at. But they're not breaking the mold, and they're not coming up with a new visual style."

It's noteworthy that the lion's share of 2006's eligible features were animated in 3-D computer-generated imagery, with the exception of Universal's "Curious George" (2-D hand-drawn) and Sony's "Monster House" (motion capture), as well as the adult-themed "A Scanner Darkly" from Warner Independent and Miramax's "Renaissance" (see related story on page S-3). "There's always been variety in the past, and this year, a remarkable number are fairly high-profile CG films," Koch says.

"I think there's a fear of trying new things right now," Amidi adds. "Everyone is caught up in the CG craze, but no one really knows what to do with the medium. All the studios know they have to make a CG film, but they don't know what to do beyond that."

Regardless of the relative lack of excitement over the films this year, Koch and others interviewed for this report are still up to the task of handicapping the best of the crop. It's no surprise that the second-biggest boxoffice hit of the year, Buena Vista's "Cars," is frequently mentioned as a shoo-in for the nomination.

"It's a Pixar (-produced) film, so everyone agrees that it's good," Koch says, "though it seems to have the least enthusiasm of any Pixar film, at least since (1998's) 'A Bug's Life.'" Although numerous animation aficionados don't agree with Koch's tepid thumbs up, everyone says that the Pixar film is a no-brainer for a nomination. "'Cars' is the big fish," Diamond says.

For Tom Sito, animation director and author of "Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions From Bosko to Bart Simpson," Pixar is "always in the running," and he's enthused about several other prospects. "(Fox's) 'Ice Age: The Meltdown' did well and was well-received," he says, "and 'Over the Hedge' was a clever story with good character animation."

Sequels always are a hard act to pull off successfully, but other animators note that "Meltdown" was a quality effort that could be rewarded with a nomination. "The general consensus was that it was a good sequel (to the 2002 boxoffice winner), and it did very well," Beck says. "It wasn't a (1999's 'Toy Story 2') where people said it was better than the first, but it was a well-made, competent sequel to a very successful franchise."

Amidi says the animated features coming out at the tail end of 2006 will garner more attention than those released earlier in the year. "'Open Season' is probably a shoo-in," he says. "It's a quality effort and the first from a new (animation) studio (Sony), so the nomination will be a welcoming to the pack. That and 'Cars' are the only sure bets." Amidi also thinks "Happy Feet" and "Flushed Away" have a good shot at earning an Oscar nomination, both of them coming out at the end of the season and preceded by good buzz.

"Monster House" also is mentioned as a real contender for a nom. "I really enjoyed it, and the film has merit," Beck says. "It's a very good film that uses this motion-capture technique."

However, the motion-capture technique -- as good as it is -- might not help its odds, some animators say. "Despite high quality and a good story, many animators just don't like the motion-capture process and may hold it against the film," Sito says.

If members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences consider domestic boxoffice success, they will be looking at some of the same films: "Cars" is in the lead, at $244.1 million, followed by "Meltdown" at $195.3 million and "Hedge" at $155 million. Other films with respectable boxoffice numbers include "House" at $73.4 million and "Barnyard" at $72.1 million.

But it's not all about the dough-re-mi. The Academy has been known to cast its votes for true dark horses, often favoring either cutting-edge technologies pulled off to great effect or quirky stories with a unique look: 2003's "The Triplets of Belleville" and 2005's "Howl's Moving Castle" come to mind.

This year's dark -- perhaps very dark -- horses include "Curious George," Fox's "Everyone's Hero" and "Renaissance." "George" is, for now at least, Hollywood's last traditionally drawn animated film. "It has sentimental value among Academy members who might want to send a message that pencil animation is not dead," Sito says. "Hero," about a young boy's journey to help the New York Yankees win the World Series, hits a soft spot for baseball lovers, and it could be Hollywood's way of honoring the legacy of Christopher Reeve, who served as the film's director. Finally, "Renaissance" pushes the envelope with a stark black-and-white graphic-novel look and some new tricks with motion capture.

While animation lovers debate the merits and handicap the odds, the committee's decisions, set to be announced Jan. 23, could surprise us all.