Oscars: Why the Animation Race Is the Most Competitive in Years

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Courtesy of Films

It's a perfect storm, with three giant franchises — from Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks — all competing against one another for the first time, and a slew of other films (including Netflix's first original animated movie) aiming to earn a nomination slot.

When Disney's photoreal CG retelling of The Lion King opened in July and went on to earn $1.65 billion worldwide, many in the animation community wondered if the studio would put the film forward for the animated feature Oscar. But when the Academy released the list of a record 32 submissions for the category Oct. 16, it was made clear that Jon Favreau's film would not be in the running. Even so, the submission list did reveal what is sure to be one of the most competitive animated feature races in years — thanks to three sequels whose franchises are all competing against one another for the first time.

This trio are strong contenders for three of the five nomination slots. Disney and Pixar's Toy Story 4, which is directed by Josh Cooley in his feature debut, saw the return of fan-favorite characters Woody and Buzz Lightyear and introduced the new (and beloved) character Forky. Released June 21, it's earned $1.07 billion worldwide. The previous installment won the animated feature Oscar in 2010 (beating the first How to Train Your Dragon), and was also one of only three animated films ever nominated for best picture.

DreamWorks Animation's How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is the third and final installment in the fantasy coming-of-age series centered on a Viking named Hiccup and his dragon, Toothless. The Dean DeBlois-helmed film earned $520 million worldwide. Both the first and second movies were nominated for animated feature (neither won).

And six years after Disney's Frozen became a $1.3 billion phenomenon (the highest-grossing animated film of all time) and won two Academy Awards in 2014 (for animated feature and original song), Frozen 2 will open Thanksgiving weekend. Much of the original team is returning, including directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez and voice stars Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell, who play sisters Elsa and Anna.

While this triple threat of sequels are the clear frontrunners, there are several other studio features aiming to earn a nomination slot. It will be more of an uphill battle because their first installments didn't secure a nomination: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part ($191.3 million) is Warner Bros.' follow-up to its 2014 hit The Lego Movie; Illumination released The Secret Life of Pets 2, which didn't reach the heights of its $875 million predecessor (the sequel earned $429.4 million); and Sony Pictures Animation brought back its game-inspired material with The Angry Birds Movie 2 ($145 million).

In new properties, DWA has submitted Abominable, an adventure that follows a young girl who befriends a yeti; Laika has stop-motion yeti tale Missing Link; Blue Sky Studios (which was acquired by Disney as part of the Fox deal) made Spies in Disguise; and United Artists Releasing submitted The Addams Family, which includes a starry voice cast led by Charlize Theron.

And to make a crowded race a little more so, Netflix submitted its first original animated feature, Klaus, a Santa Claus origin story from Despicable Me creator Sergio Pablos. The streaming giant, which is known for its significant awards spends, also has the Jérémy Clapin-helmed I Lost My Body, which it acquired after the French film won the Nespresso Grand Prize (the first animated film to do so) at Cannes.

For the past few years, a nomination slot or two has gone to an independent animated film, many of them from indie distributor GKIDS, which since 2010 has scored 11 nominations in the animated feature category. It submitted 10 films this year, but Weathering With You, centering on a boy who meets an orphan girl who can manipulate the weather, is a strong contender. Also Japan's submission in the international feature film category hails from Makoto Shinkai, helmer of the 2016 body-swapping hit Your Name, the fourth-highest-grossing film ever in Japan.

Several other animated indies already have amassed early awards that might give them a boost, including GKIDS' Funan, a hand-drawn film that won top prizes in 2018 at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival and the Animation Is Film Festival. GKIDS' Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, which tells a story about surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, took the special jury prize at the 2018 Animation Is Film Festival, and Another Day of Life, which centers on the outbreak of civil war following Angola's independence from Portugal in 1975, earned the best animated feature prize at the 2018 Goya Awards, Spain's version of the Oscars.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.