Quality In the Animated Feature Race

44 FEA Awards Rio H
Courtesy of Blue Sky Studios/20th Century Fox

Fox's "Rio" is fizzy but may be forgettable.

With Pixar a bit off course, eccentric contenders such as "Rango" and "The Adventures of Tintin" roar ahead.

Mirroring the situation among live-action features, there is no obvious front-runner in the world of animation this year, no roadrunner that has left its would-be competition in the dust. Another way of putting it is that, for the first time in a while, Pixar hasn't delivered one of its timeless classics that leaves virtually no room for argument.

Among the dozen significant animated releases of 2011 were four sequels, including Pixar's Cars 2, which was not as bad as some naysayers insist but lacks the heart associated with the company's best films and was sabotaged by too much hayseed humor. Falling alarmingly short of its predecessor is Happy Feet Two, which simply doesn't offer enough fresh ideas and narrative oomph, and even more excruciating was Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil, a lamentably cheap-looking undertaking so out of synch with current sensibilities that it seems to belong more to the pre-animation renaissance days of the 1980s. The one good sequel by some distance, then, was Kung Fu Panda 2, which takes the trouble to improve upon the original, even if only slightly, in every department, notably with a less generic story and more sophisticated visuals.

As for the rest, Gnomeo & Juliet and Mars Needs Moms merit little discussion, while Rio is a fizzy tropical party one forgets the next day. Disney's new rendition of Winnie the Pooh garnered significant praise in some quarters for the delicacy of its animation, but I found it very hard to make it even through the barely one-hour running time, so precisely aimed is it to a pre-literate public.

In a more irreverent vein, Arthur Christmas cleverly provides high-tech answers to the age-old question of how Santa distributes so many presents around the world. This is not Aardman Animation at its very best, as the climax becomes too protracted, but it's welcome for its non-Hollywood flavor. Similarly good but not great is Puss in Boots, DreamWorks' Shrek spinoff that boasts lively characters and ripping good action in a format that feels more familiar than fresh.

Which leaves two films at the top of the animation heap for 2011. After suffering through Robert Zemeckis' repeated attempts to jam a new bastard technology down our collective throats, I never wanted to see another motion-capture film in my life. But from the opening credits of Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin, I was entirely disarmed and remained so for the entire film. More than he ever did in the three Indiana Jones sequels, Spielberg has almost entirely recaptured the spirit of genuine adventure and retro insouciance that distinguished Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even though the characters retain a facial blandness and inexpressiveness compared to either live action or expert cartooning, they still come through with real personality, beginning with Tintin himself. The staging and choreography of the action sequences go beyond anything that could be done in live action, and it's exhilarating to discover that Spielberg is still as up for conceiving such exciting roller-coaster rides now as he was 30 years ago.

The great virtues of Tintin notwithstanding, the best and most entertaining animated film for me this year was Rango. A rambunctious, free-spirited mashup of countless cinematic references, this shows director Gore Verbinski making his escape from years in the Caribbean with the feel of a man liberated, putting a wonderful voice cast at the service of a cleverly madcap John Logan script that pushes into unexpected realms verbally and visually. Most immediately apparent is the film's pictorial richness, no doubt raised several notches by visual consultant Roger Deakins; the hyper-realism of the film's style bracingly tips over into surrealism at times but more often plays the trick of making you suspect the picture was actually shot with a camera rather than animated, so attentive is it to such cinematic niceties as framing, use of color, light and shadow and minute detail; visually, despite its confinement to 2D, the film is as stimulating and inventive as anything in 3D.

Rango absolutely has the feel of a film buff's lark, not unlike what Quentin Tarantino does, and was criticized by a minority on this basis. But a solid foundation and sufficient narrative progress keep the flights of fancy in manageable orbits, and virtually every scene evinces an intoxicating relish for cinema. To top it off, in the absence of any significant live-action contribution to the genre, Rango did its bit to keep the Western alive in 2011.


4 ANIMATED LONG SHOTS FROM OVERSEAS: These foreign-language charmers may have what it takes to steal a nom away from the front-runners

Wrinkles: Directed by Spanish helmer Ignacio Ferreras, Wrinkles chronicles the friendship between two elderly men as they live out their final days in a retirement home.

Alois Nebel: This noirish offering from the Czech Republic tells the story of an isolated train dispatcher who ends up in a sanatorium when recurring nightmares push him over the edge.

Chico & Rita: Spanish director Fernando Trueba teams with artist Javier Mariscal for this '50s-era romance that follows two musicians as they pursue their dreams in New York, Havana and Las Vegas.

A Cat in Paris: This quirky tale from France centers on Dino, a normal cat by day who, once the sun goes down, joins notorious thief Nico to stalk the roofs of Paris in search of another heist.