Waiting for a heavyweight in the animated Oscar race
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.