Oscars: The Battle to Be the Next 'Frozen'

How to Train Your Dragon 2 Still - H 2014
Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation

How to Train Your Dragon 2 Still - H 2014

Last year’s winner — which recently eclipsed 'Toy Story 3' as the highest-grossing animated film in history — has set an impossibly high bar for "Oscar-worthy" as a new crop of features fight for animation domination

This story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

This year's group of animated features will be hard-pressed to equal the success of Disney's Oscar-winning Frozen, which has collected $1.27 billion at the worldwide box office and has a ubiquitous Oscar-winning anthem, "Let It Go," that permeated the zeitgeist more than any pop song this year. But these near-impossible feats haven't stopped a diverse mix of 20 features — from studio tentpoles to indie fare, employing a range of animation styles — from tossing their hats into the ring, with frontrunners including Warner Bros.' The Lego Movie; DreamWorks Animation's How to Train Your Dragon 2, released through Fox; and Disney's latest, Big Hero 6.

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Although plenty of skepticism greeted the news that Warners intended to create a movie based on the popular Hasbro toy line, Lego Movie silenced the naysayers, becoming one of the year's highest-grossing films in North America, with nearly $258 million in box-office receipts ($468 million worldwide). Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who somehow found time between directing the live-action comedies 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street), the movie follows Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), an average Lego worker, who is mistakenly identified as "the special" and thus tasked with saving the world. Underscoring its success, multiple sequels already are in the works.

How to Train Your Dragon 2, the top-grossing animated movie worldwide with $619 million, is the sequel to the 2010 film based on Cressida Cowell's book series. Writer-director Dean DeBlois' film achieves what few sequels do well: advances the story and expands the scope of the first film, as the sequel follows protagonist Hiccup's journey into adulthood. The original likely would have claimed the Oscar for best animated feature had it not been released the same year as the juggernaut Toy Story 3. Can this Dragon installment grab the statuette that eluded the first film?

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Disney's Big Hero 6 opened Nov. 7 and has grossed $114.5 million domestic. Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams, it's based on a little-known Marvel comic. (Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment in 2009.) Its setting, the fictitious city of San Fransokyo, gave the movie's design team the opportunity to create a mashup of San Francisco and Tokyo, which becomes the back­drop as the movie's protagonist, Hiro, and his friends — including his loyal robot sidekick, Baymax — go into battle.

Some of the other contenders have adopted different techniques: The Boxtrolls is the third theatrical release from Focus Features and Laika, the stop-motion specialists behind previous nominees Coraline and ParaNorman. Arguably the most ambitious stop-motion film ever made, Boxtrolls pushes the envelope in blending century-old techniques with the latest digital tricks to address topics such as family and social class in an adaptation of Alan Snow's novel Here Be Monsters.

Additionally, several hand-drawn features hope to be among the expected five nominees: New York-based distributor GKIDS has a remarkable track record when it comes to scoring nominations — it sponsored 2014 Oscar contender Ernest & Celestine and 2010 nominee The Secret of Kells as well as double nominees from 2012, A Cat in Paris and Chico & Rita. GKIDS also handles North American distribution for Japan's Studio Ghibli, whose founder, Hayao Miyazaki, received an honorary Oscar on Nov. 8 at the Academy's Governors Awards. This season, Studio Ghibli's contribution is The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, directed by the studio's co-founder Isao Takahata. It's an adaptation of a 10th century Japanese folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, in which a bamboo cutter discovers a mysterious baby sent to Earth from the Kingdom of the Moon as punishment for a crime. GKIDS' other hopeful is Song of the Sea, from Ireland's Tomm Moore, director of previous nominee The Secret of Kells. In Song, Moore tells an original story inspired by the mythological selkies, who live as sea seals but become humans on land.

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On the studio side, there also is competition from Fox's The Book of Life, a CG feature produced by Guillermo del Toro, directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez and animated at Reel FX. (It was inspired by Mexico's Day of the Dead holiday.) CG Rio 2 is from Fox and Blue Sky Studios — the first Blue Sky sequel outside of its Ice Age franchise. Directed by Carlos Saldanha, the film moves Blu, Jewel and their family of Rio macaws to the Amazon.

Fox also is handling several other DWA titles beyond Dragon. Earlier this year, it released Rob Minkoff's Mr. Peabody & Sherman, based on characters from the '60s animated TV series The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. And on Nov. 26, it will unleash Penguins of Madagascar, an extension of the wildly successful Madagascar franchise whose three previous features have generated a combined worldwide box office of $1.9 billion. Disney's other contenders include the sequel Planes: Fire & Rescue and The Pirate Fairy, a computer-animated fantasy with Christina Hendricks as a fairy and Tom Hiddleston as Captain Hook.

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Among the other indie contestants is two-time Oscar-nominated director and animator Bill Plympton's Cheatin', which uses a hand-painted style to tell of a newlywed wife who employs magic to take the form of her cheating husband's mistresses. Earlier this year, the film won a special jury award at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. Also in the mix are Henry & Me, which centers on an 11-year-old cancer patient who learns life lessons from a stranger named Henry (voiced by Richard Gere); The Hero of Color City, director Frank Gladstone's story about a band of crayons, featuring Christina Ricci and Owen Wilson; and Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return, a journey starring Glee's Lea Michele.

There are several international contenders as well. Rocks in My Pockets — also Latvia's best foreign-language film submission — looks at how director Signe Baumane's family overcame depression in their home country. Giovanni's Island, a Japanese anime entry about two boys that is set in the wake of World War II, received a special distinction at Annecy. Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants is a France-Belgium co-production about a battle between ant colonies. Also a France-Belgium feature, Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart tells the tale of a boy whose heart is replaced with a clock. And, though it's not on the Oscar submission list, Russia's The Snow Queen 2 will try to enter the game as a Golden Globe submission.

Which of these will emerge as a threat to the studio blockbusters remains, as of now, as big a mystery as when we're all going to finally get "Let It Go" out of our heads.