The Best Animated Feature Oscar Race Just Got Even More Crowded

Henry & Me Film Still At Bat - H 2014
Reveal Animation Studios

Henry & Me Film Still At Bat - H 2014

This year's best animated feature Oscar race, which is already jam-packed with as many as 17 eligible contenders — having just 16 automatically triggers an increase in the number of eventual nominees from three to five — is about to get even more crowded. That's because Barrett Esposito's Henry & Me, a simply animated but charming and inspirational children's film that features the vocal talents of Richard Gere and many other big names, including quite a few members of the New York Yankees organization, is in the process of being qualified for Oscar eligibility by its independent distributor, Reveal Animation Studios.

Henry & Me tells the story of a 11-year-old Yankees fan stricken with cancer (Austin Williams) who is transported by a guardian angel named Henry (played by lifelong Yankees fan Gere) from his hospital bed to meetings with various Yankee legends who teach him important lessons about life and survival. The 67-minute film just had a weeklong engagement in Los Angeles (it played at the Regent Theatre in Westwood from Sept. 5-11), qualifying it for Oscar eligibility, and will soon have a comparable run in New York (at Quad Cinemas starting this Friday). It also had an official HFPA screening on Sept. 11.

In addition to Gere and Williams, the film's voice cast includes Oscar nominee Chazz Palminteri, Cyndi Lauper, Danny Aiello, Paul Simon, Lucie Arnaz, Joseph Gian and Luis Guzman — plus Yankees part-owner Hank Steinbrenner (who voices his late father George Steinbrenner); general manager Brian Cashman; manager Joe Girardi; announcers John Sterling and Michael Kay; former stars Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Willie Randolph, Goose Gossage, Jorge Posada, Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson and Hideki Matsui; and current stars CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira.

(Alex Rodriguez originally voiced a heroic version of himself in the film, but his scenes were re-shot with Matsui's voice after he became embroiled in his latest steroids scandal, for which he is currently under suspension. Esposito explains, "We finished [the film] last year, but Alex was in the movie and that was a little bit of a stumbling block. It's a movie about empowering children and whatnot, and with all that had come to pass we had to take a left-hand turn at the last minute. That extended the production by about four or five months. He was in about two and a half minutes of the film.") 

Esposito, who worked exclusively on live-action films before Henry & Me, became involved with the project at the urging of his longtime friend, the producer Joseph Avallone, who owns Reveal Animation Studios. Avallone wanted to make an animated film based on the best-selling children's books about baseball written by Ray Negron, who has worked with the Yankees organization for more than 40 years, ever since George Steinbrenner caught him spray-painting Yankee Stadium and put him to work as a batboy to pay off the damages. Years ago, Negron spearheaded an effort to bring Yankees players to visit sick children in hospitals, and those moving encounters inspired his books, which David I. Stern, the screenwriter of numerous animated features, including the Annie Award-nominated Free Birds, adapted into a script.

Many of the big-name actors were lured to the project, on which they worked for minimal salaries, with the guarantee that two dollars of every unit of it that is eventually sold will go to a pool of charities chosen by the cast. As for the Yankees' participation, Negron reached out to George Steinbrenner, who, along with his family, appreciated the way the Yankees were depicted in the story and the film's charity component, and therefore began encouraging members of the organization to provide voice cameos, most of which were shot during one-hour sessions. "They were very generous with their time," says a grateful Esposito.

"When my dad got sick," Hank Steinbrenner told The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday, "my dad actually asked me to do the voice, and that was really the whole start of it." After George Steinbrenner's death in 2010, Hank's experience of bringing him to life for the big screen became all the more poignant. He recalled, "I know that people look at my father as an iconic figure, but I was looking at him more as my father. It was something that I knew I could do, and I was actually really excited to do it. I knew that no one else could bring out the gist of my dad and no one knew him like me." He added with a laugh, "And I always considered myself a pretty good actor in my own right."

Having now seen the completed film, which he described as "something that was near and dear to both Ray and my Dad," how does Hank think George would have felt about it? "He would have loved it," he stated emphatically. "He would have loved the whole aspect of how the Yankees are perceived, because that is who the Yankees are." As for himself? "I can only say I thank God for this project, because it's been a tough year," he said in reference to a season in which it appears all but certain the Yankees will not make the playoffs. "I'm happy that I was able to have a distraction like this film to keep me going in a very positive way."

Can Henry & Me hold its own against big studio competition like Warner Bros.' The LEGO Movie, DreamWorks Animation and Fox's How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Disney's Big Hero 6? Says Esposito, "This movie is kind of like a little engine that could. It's smaller than those films and it doesn't have a lot of the VFX of them or the epic scope of some of them. But it's driven by heart and it's driven by emotion, and I think that's kind of what makes it stand out."

The film will be released directly to DVD, On Demand, and digital download on Tuesday, Sept. 30.

Sept. 17, 1:00 p.m. Updated with comments from Yankees part-owner Hank Steinbrenner.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg