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This year's race for Best Animated Feature Film is a bit of a full one. After only 15 titles qualified last year (yielding just three nominees), the total number of qualifying films in the hunt this time around is 19, meaning we'll have a set of five contenders when the nominees are announced in January.
And yet, I can barely think of five films worth being included. It's a rather weak year in general for animation (despite two animated contenders popping up in my top 10). I've been pushing through the ones I've missed along the way, as well as those that came from the fringe. So it seems to me a good enough time to really set the field.
An interesting note on this year's field of contenders is the presence of live action filmmakers and outsider animation teams in the mix. And two key entries in that light both come from Paramount: Gore Verbinski's "Rango" and Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin."
Interestingly enough, these might be considered the two frontrunners for spots in the line-up by many. But while I certainly consider "Rango" the one to beat in the category, I still have my doubts that the animators will even bring themselves to nominate "Tintin" (as wonderful as it is and as deserving as it may be in areas outside this field). The films racked up eight and five Annie Award nominations each.
Aardman's "Arthur Christmas" did very little for me. But it's the only film outside of "Rango" and "Tintin" to have won an award in the field this year, and it's beautifully animated, so I expect it to have an easy enough time landing a spot (and potentially competing with "Rango" for the win). It only managed six annie nominations (where other films landed nearly twice as much), however. Maybe that's worth noting, I don't know.
Speaking of the Annies, the awards were dominated once again by DreamWorks Animation, which landed 11 nominations for "Kung Fu Panda 2" and nine for "Puss in Boots." I think both are wonderfully animated (particularly the former), but I also find them quite forgettable. Nevertheless, I expect both of them are actually in. If you take the pulse, you'll find more being rallied behind "Puss in Boots," as I don't think the studio expects both to make it. But I would say the odds are pretty good.
Fox's "Rio" made a big splash earlier this year, even if it seems mostly memorable for an Angry Birds tie-in at this point. I was, again, not a big fan, but the animation was striking and its a lively, colorful film that landed eight Annie nominations, so its well-loved in the field.
Disney's "Winnie the Pooh" also scored eight Annie nods, but somehow was subbed for organization's top award. The film isn't as unique in the fray as it probably hoped it would be, seeing as a couple of other films, like Ignacio Ferreras's "Arrugas (Wrinkles)" (the surprise entry of the bunch) are also the result of traditional hand-drawn animation. Nevertheless, the studio will be pushing hard on that front for recognition as a classic alternative. It's a delightful movie, but it's barely 70 minutes long and could register a bit thin against the competition (as could be the reasoning for its Annie miss).
Speaking of "Arrugas," I caught the film earlier in the week and found it to be odd and mildly depressing. It's a very humanistic story about a man taking up residence in an assisted living home. It has a lot of nice moments and is probably the most adult-oriented film of the bunch, so perhaps that could work in its favor.
Also on the fringe are two efforts from distributor GKIDS, which saw an unexpected nomination two years ago for "The Secret of Kells." I caught the colorful "Chico & Rita" at Telluride in 2010 and thought it was a delightful blend, uniquely animated and pulsating with the spirit of music. I could easily see it finding a place, but there is a lot of stiff competition from the other alternative hopefuls.
"A Cat in Paris," meanwhile, is a swift (65 minutes) mystery yarn animated with a colorful palette on simplistic sketches. It's a bit lightweight to compete, I think, and certainly doesn't have the richness of the other GKIDS entry.
Rotoscoping hasn't really been embraced as an animation technique by the animation branch of the Academy. And it's been there all along, going way back to the first year of the category a decade ago when "Waking Life" was eligible in 2001. Three years ago, "Waltz with Bashir" was also eligible. But neither was nominated by the branch.
So things aren't looking good in that regard for "Alois Nebel," which is pulling double-duty this year as it is also the foreign language film submission from the Czech Republic. The film is stark and rather beautiful in black and white, but it's an uphill climb given the technology bias.
If you were a big fan of George Miller's "Happy Feet," which won this award in 2006, then I imagine you'll be on board for "Happy Feet Two." I, on the other hand, just could not stand the film (after being quite down on the first entry). I suppose it could find room to maneuver into the field, but it doesn't exactly expand on the first installment.
"Hoodwinked Too!: Hood vs. Evil," "Mars Needs Moms," "The Smurfs" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked" might as well be chalked up to filler and insurance that the field will allow for five nominees, because they're all just forgettable and not at all worthy of the other films in play. "Gnomeo & Juliet," meanwhile, is like a step above those entries, but it doesn't have much muscle to stand out amid the rest of the field - though I'm glad I know what Elton John as a garden gnome would look like.
I'll close by talking about "Cars 2," which is already infamous this season for its lowly critical assessment and accusations of being purely a merchandising play. I don't count the film out of the race by any stretch. A Golden Globe nomination this morning doesn't exactly mean a lot but it does keep the film alive in the season. But at the end of the day, I wouldn't be shocked if it made it or missed, frankly.
Be sure to keep up with the Best Animated Feature Film category throughout the season via its dedicated Contenders page here. And feel free to speculate on how you see the category turning out in the comments section below.
For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.
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