This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
A record 21 animated features have been submitted for Oscar consideration, which should result in as many as five nominees. Computer-animated films continue to dominate, generating big box office: At the moment, four of the year's top 10 highest-grossing films are CG creations. Stop-motion, which can be traced back to the 1800s, also had a big year -- for the first time, more than one of the nominees in the feature animation category could be a stop-motion pic. Indie producers at home and overseas served up traditional, hand-drawn fare. And, of course, stereoscopic 3D movies were everywhere.
Since Pixar's Toy Story became the first feature-length computer-animated movie to be released in 1995, CG has been used to produce a string of animated hits. This year, Disney offered Pixar's Brave and Disney Animation's Wreck-It Ralph; DreamWorks Animation fielded both Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted and Rise of the Guardians, opening Nov. 21; and Fox/Blue Sky Studio's Ice Age: Continental Drift, Universal/Illumination's Dr. Seuss' The Lorax and Sony Pictures Animation's Hotel Transylvania all hit it big.
The sequel titles in the mix demonstrate that once CG characters connect with moviegoers -- and their kids -- they have real staying power. A decade after the first Ice Age opened, its comedic prehistoric cast returned in 2012 with the third Ice Age, directed by Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier. With particular appeal abroad, it collected $874 million worldwide. As for the Madagascar 3 zoo animals, they have been trying to get back to New York since the franchise debuted in 2005. This year's trek across Europe, directed by Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon, grossed $734 million after its splashy debut at the Cannes Film Festival.
Brave, with director Mark Andrews picking up the reins from Brenda Chapman, found $534 million worldwide and was Pixar's first title to feature a female heroine -- a princess with fiery red hair. The movie's June premiere also marked the grand opening of the rechristened Dolby Theater, sporting the new Dolby Atmos sound system, where the Academy Awards will be handed out Feb. 24.
In March, the adaptation of eco-tale Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda, opened to $70.7 million at the domestic box office, marking the best opening ever for a non-sequel animated title, on its way to amassing $348.8 million worldwide. And Genndy Tartakovsky's monster tale Hotel Transylvania, with $271 million worldwide, quickly established itself as Sony Animation's biggest hit ever. Disney Animation also witnessed new vitality with its video-game-themed Wreck-It Ralph, directed by Rich Moore, which opened Nov. 2 to $49.1 million -- a record for that Disney unit -- and has already crossed the $100 million mark.
Next up is Peter Ramsey's Rise of the Guardians, based on William Joyce's The Guardians of Childhood book series, which teams Santa, the Easter Bunny, Sandman, the Tooth Fairy and Jack Frost in a battle against evil.
Other entries include Secret of the Wings, a new Tinkerbell tale from the Disney Fairies franchise; The Painting, from France; Adventures in Zambezia, which hails from South Africa; and Delhi Safari and Hey Krishna, both from India.
Reflecting the range of disciplines in this year's competition, A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman employed a mix of 17 different animation styles.
In this digital age, stop-motion animation can look almost quaint. The painstaking process of moving and photographing tangible objects such as puppets one frame at a time dates back to the late 19th century. Willis O'Brien's 1993 version of King Kong used the technique to memorable effect, and Ray Harryhausen's classics such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) are imprinted on the minds of a generation of fantasy film enthusiasts.
But even though many animators have moved on from the physical world to the cyber-realm of computer-assisted creations, there are still a few diehards focused on stop motion. In fact, it's quite conceivable that when this season's Oscar nominations for animated feature are announced, more than one of this year's 3D, stop-motion films could find itself in contention.
Among the hopefuls are Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, which to date has grossed $63.2 million worldwide for Disney. A remake of Burton's 1984 short about a boy who brings his dog back from the dead, it's told in black-and-white with a retro style that pays homage to classic monster movies.
Coraline producer Laika's sophomore feature, ParaNorman -- which has collected $97.3 million worldwide -- is an original story about a misfit who can talk to the dead and becomes a hero while learning that it is OK to be different. Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell, it is also credited as the first stop-motion movie to employ a 3D color printer to create replacement faces for its puppets, enabling a wider range of expressions.
Directed by Peter Lord, The Pirates! Band of Misfits set its stop-motion-animated pirate crew on a CG sea. The comedy was produced by Aardman Animations with Sony Pictures Animation and earned $121.6 million worldwide. Hugh Grant voiced the Pirate Captain, who aims to claim the Pirate of the Year Award.
Until computer animation took over more than a decade ago, animation was largely hand-drawn. And there is still plenty of love for the discipline, as evidenced by a number of the submissions in this year's Oscar race -- many of which come from smaller, independent producers or from animation houses outside of the United States.
This year, contenders include three hand-drawn features from GKIDS Films, the New York-based distributor that crashed the Oscar party one year ago with the surprise animated feature nominations for Chico and Rita and A Cat in Paris, grabbing slots that many expected to go to more high-profile contenders such as Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin. (GKIDS also has entered The Painting, which is about three groups of characters competing for dominance within a painting.)
GKIDS is putting up for consideration From Up on Poppy Hill from Studio Ghibli (the Japanese studio behind Spirited Away and Ponyo), which is set in Yokohama in 1963 and focuses on a high school couple's love; The Rabbi's Cat, based on the graphic novel by French artist and director Joann Sfar, which tells the story of a rabbi and his talking cat; and Zarafa, which follows a young boy and an orphaned giraffe.
Rounding out the contenders are Walter & Tandoori's Christmas, made in Montreal and based on the Walter and Tandoori characters in the Canada-based TV series, and the anime film The Mystical Laws.
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT: Three to five of the following 10 films will receive Academy Award nominations in the animated shorts category.
- Adam and Dog -- Minkyu Lee, director (Lodge Films)
- Combustible -- Katsuhiro Otomo, director(Sunrise Inc.)
- Dripped -- Léo Verrier, director (ChezEddy)
- The Eagleman Stag -- Mikey Please, director, and Benedict Please, music scores and sound design (Royal College of Art)
- The Fall of the House of Usher -- Raul Garcia, director, and Stephan Roelants, producer (Melusine Productions, R&R Communications Inc., Les Armateurs, The Big Farm)
- Fresh Guacamole -- PES, director (PES)
- Head over Heels -- Timothy Reckart, director, and Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly, producer (National Film and Television School)
- Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare -- David Silverman, director (Gracie Films)
- Paperman -- John Kahrs, director (Disney Animation Studios)
- Tram -- Michaela Pavlátová, director, and Ron Dyens, producer (Sacrebleu Productions)