Waiting for a heavyweight in the animated Oscar race

Posted by · 8:55 am · June 14th, 2013

Yesterday’s Variety story about “Despicable Me 2” receiving a standing ovation at its world premiere at the Annecy Animation Festival in France on Wednesday evening didn’t seem especially noteworthy. At any film festival, a standing ovation is just as often a polite formality as it is an acknowledgement of exceptional achievement, and as reporter John Hopewell noted, the French-crafted film was always likely to be warmly received at a local fest.

Perhaps I’m just having a hard time imagining a follow-up to 2010’s perfectly agreeable, perfectly unremarkable slice of family silliness being all that spectacular: beyond more cute minion antics, it’s hard to see much room for growth in the slight (albeit hugely popular) original. Still, I’d welcome the possibility of being pleasantly surprised, since the 2013 animation landscape thus far has been distinctly flat.

Spring turned up DreamWorks Animation’s “The Croods” and Fox’s “Epic” — both reasonable hits with the undiscriminating family market, but both paint-by-numbers works on any artistic level. And the fight for the biggest animated hit of the summer doesn’t look much more inspiring, with a sequel (“Despicable Me 2”) facing off against a prequel (“Monsters University”) that isn’t looking to be one of Pixar’s more beloved efforts. Reviews for the belated follow-up to 2001’s “Monsters Inc.,” which opens next week, are more polite than enthusiastic, marking the third straight year that the animation house, following an uninterrupted streak of critical and commercial smashes from 2007’s “Ratatouille” to 2010’s “Toy Story 3,” has failed to master the formula.

Perhaps DreamWorks Animation’s summer offering, the snail-race comedy “Turbo,” might surprise, though it doesn’t look too promising from afar — and the company has had a wobbly record of late. DisneyToon’s “Planes” awaits in August, but as a spin-off of Pixar’s profitable but widely disliked “Cars” franchise that was once slated for a direct-to-video release, it’ll have its own critical preconceptions to overcome.

All of which means we might have to wait until the colder weather sets in for the Best Animated Feature Oscar race to begin in earnest. That’s par for the course in all other Oscar categories, of course, but for the last six years running, the winning animated feature has been a pre-July release in the US — and in all but one of those cases, the film practically walked to victory. If that’s the case this year, it’ll be a sorry race indeed.

Of course, as we learned earlier this year, you underestimate Pixar in this race at your peril. Since “Monsters, Inc.” lost the inaugural animated feature Oscar to DreamWorks’s “Shrek” nearly 12 years ago, the only Pixar productions to lose this race have been, tellingly, “Cars” and “Cars 2” — the latter failing even to secure a nod. Many thought last year’s amiable Highland fling “Brave” — liked by many, but widely agreed to be one of the studio’s less inspired efforts — would join the talking cars on the Oscar sidelines, but it ended up winning the mostly hotly contested race in the category’s uneventful history, beating Disney’s hipper, more acclaimed (and many might say more Pixar-esque) “Wreck-It Ralph” in the process.

“Brave”‘s come-from-behind victory proved that the lure of the familiar can be a key factor in this race, but can that voter complacency really extend to “Monsters University?” The only sequel to take the award to date has been “Toy Story 3” — but there can be no doubt that its two predecessors would also have won the Oscar had it been there for the taking in 1995 and 1999, respectively. Is the Academy will to hand the gold to a sequel to the film they passed over?

Meanwhile, “Despicable Me 2” and, later this year, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2” are looking to take the question even further: in a field this seemingly weak, will the animators’ branch be forced to include sequels to films they didn’t even nominate? We don’t yet know if the 2013 animation slate will be large enough to force a five-wide nominee field, but if it does, that’s that distinct possibility. (“Despicable Me,” it’s worth remembering, would surely have been nominated in a field of five back in 2010, but despite a healthy precursor showing, it was rightly kept out of the final three by Sylvain Chomet’s arthouse underdog “The Illusionist.”)

If the Academy does indeed decide (for the first time since “Happy Feet” took the 2006 Oscar) that the year’s spring and summer releases aren’t up to snuff, it could finally be Disney’s year in the category. Kris recently discussed the possibility of the buried Mickey Mouse short “Get a Horse!” being a force in the Best Animated Short race, but we could be in for a package deal: the short will released in theaters in November alongside the studio’s elaborate feature fairytale “Frozen,” which might emerge as the one to beat.

“Frozen,” the Mouse House’s long-mooted adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Snow Queen,” has rather a lot riding on it, and the first trailer will be eagerly scrutinized when it land next week. Like 2010’s Rapunzel riff “Tangled,” it’ll be looking to match the studio’s classic storytelling sensibility to the demands of a 21st-century kiddie audience — it’s no coincidence that both films opted for snappy, past-participle title changes in an attempt to sound more contemporary (and, sadly, disguise the female focus of their narratives).

The inordinately expensive “Tangled” succeeded to a degree, grossing $200 million in the US — though it missed out on an Oscar nod. (Like “Despicable Me 2,” it was a victim of 2010’s three-wide field.) Other late-year options include Relativity Media’s Thanksgiving comedy “Free Birds,” while GKIDS’s delightful “Ernest and Celestine” — a critical hit at Cannes last year that has yet to set a release date — should be a welcome specialty option in the mix. But if “Frozen” doesn’t deliver, we could be in for a less-than-animated race.

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