Oscars Playbook: Inside the Animated Features Giving Pixar a Run for Its Money

THE PEANUTS MOVIE still 2 - H 2015
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox & Peanuts Worldwide LLC

It’s a rumble in the playground with the popular kid (Pixar) competing against itself for the first time with two contenders, the comeback kid (DreamWorks Animation) scoring a hit with 'Home' and the new student ('Peanuts') suddenly popular.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Pixar's back in the game. After a two-year absence from the animated feature category, Pixar Animation Studios returns to the Oscar arena with two original CG films: its wildly successful Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur, which opens Nov. 25. But there's an eclectic group of com­petitors among the 16 submissions that should give the Disney division a run for its money. Among them are a 3D version of the iconic Peanuts comic strip, a typically askew Charlie Kaufman-penned stop-motion dark comedy and even the globally recognized Shaun, the adventurous sheep from Aardman Animations' stable.

Pixar's Pics

Since the animated feature category was introduced in 2001, most of Pixar's movies have been nominated, and seven have won. But the John Lasseter-led studio didn't release a film during 2014, and its 2013 release, Cars 2, failed to make the cut. This year, though, the imaginative Inside Out — directed by Oscar-winning Up helmer Pete Docter — already is considered a front-runner. A box-office hit ($851 million worldwide) and critical darling, Inside Out goes inside a young girl's head, where five different emotions compete for control of the 11-year-old.

The Good Dinosaur — which Pixar pulled back from its original 2014 release date in order to retool the story — follows young dinosaur Arlo, who is lost in the wild and forms a bond with a grunting boy, Spot. It's a sort of boy-and-his-dog role reversal. It also features gorgeous landscapes inspired by research trips to Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. And it marks the feature directing debut of Pixar vet Peter Sohn, who turned out the 2009 short Partly Cloudy.

Aardman's Animal

The U.K.'s Aardman Animations, the world's most lauded stop-motion animation studio, also has a strong track record at the Oscars, with five wins — four in the animated short competition and one for a theatrical feature. One of its Oscar-winning shorts, 1995's A Close Shave, featuring its trademark team of Wallace and Gromit, was the project that introduced Shaun the Sheep, the hero of this year's Shaun the Sheep Movie. Co-directors and co-writers Mark Burton and Richard Starzak sent the Chaplin-esque Shaun, Blitzer the sheepdog, the Farmer and his flock on a trip to the Big City. Produced on a budget of $20 million, the movie has topped $100 million worldwide.

The Peanuts Gallery

When it comes to popular characters, The Peanuts Movie, from Fox and Blue Sky Studios (the makers of Ice Age), is full of them. Director Steve Martino brings Charles M. Schulz's wise-beyond-their-years kids to life in the 3D computer-animated film that has the look and feel of the venerable comic strip. After just two weeks of release, the $100 million movie has crossed the $100 million mark at the worldwide box office.

More Minions

Speaking of box-office breakouts, Universal's release of Illumination Entertainment's Minions tops this year's list. Directed by Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda and featuring a voice cast that includes Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney and Coffin as those gibbering minions, the movie has siphoned up $1.15 billion worldwide.

DWA's Home Play

Earlier in the year, DreamWorks Animation's Home, Tim Johnson's computer-animated tale about the unlikely friendship between a young girl (Rihanna) and the misfit alien Oh (Jim Parsons), attracted $386 million worldwide. And Sony Pictures Animation's release of director Genndy Tartakovsky's CG sequel Hotel Transylvania 2 has collected more than $420 million to date. Reprising the original's Looney Tunes-like animation style, the sequel finds Dracula growing anxious when his half-human grandson doesn't show vampiric traits. Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg and Selena Gomez are among the returning voice castmembers.

Other films that brought familiar characters to the big screen are Paramount's The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, a 3D animation/live-action comedy directed by Paul Tibbit and Mike Mitchell that is based on the Nickelodeon TV series and serves as a follow-up to 2004's SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, and J.Q. Quintel's Regular Show: The Movie, an animated sci-fi film based on the Cartoon Network original series Regular Show.

GKids' Indie Offerings

Voters also will be closely watching a trio of films from indie distributor GKids, which crashed the Oscar race last season when two of its movies — The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (from Japan-based Studio Ghibli) and Song of the Sea (Ireland's Cartoon Saloon) — earned nominations, in the process denying a nom for what had been the presumed frontrunner, The Lego Movie. Since 2009, GKids has scored six animated feature Oscar nominations — second only to Disney during that period. This year's GKids lineup includes producer Salma Hayek's passion project, Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, based on the collection of philosophical poems by the Lebanese author. Directed by Roger Allers (The Lion King), the film serves up both a framing story about a mischievous girl and eight of Gibran's poems, each animated with a distinctly unique look by a different animation director — among them, Academy Award nominees Tomm Moore of Ireland (Song of the Sea, The Secret of Kells) and Bill Plympton of the U.S. (Your Face, Guard Dog).

GKids also is handling distribution for Hiromasa Yonebayashi's When Marnie Was There, which, like Princess Kaguya, was created by Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, and The Boy and the World from Brazilian artist Ale Abreu.

An Adult Alternative

If the animation branch is looking for something different, it need look no further than Anomalisa, a stop-motion tale of alienation written by Oscar winner Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) and directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Featuring the voices of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan and David Thewlis, the Starburns Industries and Snoot Entertainment production was picked up by Paramount in September and is scheduled for a Dec. 30 limited release. The R-rated movie's protagonist is Michael Stone, a husband, father and respected self-help author who is crippled by the mundanity of his life.

Foreign Flicks

Rounding out the field are such foreign-produced submissions as Japan's The Boy and the Beast from writer-director Mamoru Hosoda; Finland and France's Moomins on the Riviera, a hand-drawn effort based on Tove and Lars Jansson's comic strips and directed by Xavier Picard and Hanna Hemila; and Japan's The Laws of the Universe — Part 0, an anime sci-fi story directed by Isamu Imakake and written by Ryuhu Okawa, founder of the controversial Happy Science religious group.