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PATH TO THE OSCARS

Contest could color future of animation

Likely nominees present diversity in styles and media, and a possible boost for traditional drawn technique.

January 08, 2003|Charles Solomon | Special to The Times

Last year, it was clear that the first Academy Award for animated feature would go to one of two hit computer-generated films: "Shrek" (the eventual winner) or "Monsters, Inc." This year, the race for the animated feature is an open field that showcases a spectrum of styles, moods and media.

The consensus in the animation industry is that the four most probable nominees -- last year there were only three -- are "Spirited Away" and "Lilo & Stitch" (both released by Disney), "Ice Age" (20th Century Fox) and "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" (DreamWorks). Kevin Koch, president of the Hollywood Animation Guild, says, "The likely nominees form a much more eclectic group than last year and represent a nice mix of CG and hand-drawn, comedy and drama, American and Japanese."

In addition to studio bragging rights, this contest could help determine the future of feature animation in America. Animators agree that the poor box office showing of many recent features, such as Disney's "Treasure Planet," has been unfairly blamed on the medium of drawn animation, rather than on story problems and marketing mistakes. If a traditional animated film won the Oscar, it could boost the medium's sagging image.

Under the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' arcane rules, 17 features qualified for the category, which means there could be three, four or five nominees (see related story). Many of the films aren't serious contenders: No one expects the academy to honor the crashing vulgarity of "Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights" or the uninspired big-screen adaptations of "Hey Arnold! The Movie" and "The Powerpuff Girls."

Ironically, the most acclaimed contender made the least money. Hayao Miyazaki's fantasy "Spirited Away" was one of the most favorably reviewed movies of 2002. But Disney released it in only a few theaters, and it took in a paltry $5.4 million in the U.S. after breaking box office records in Japan. That raises a question: Would academy voters honor a brilliant film that (1) is foreign, (2) is unlike anything they're used to seeing in animation and (3) didn't make a lot of money?

The most successful animated feature of the year, "Ice Age" ($176.4 million), offered a cartoonier, less realistic approach to CG than "Shrek" or "Monsters." Sid the sloth looked like a frayed theme park walk-around figure; instead of rendering every individual hair, the filmmakers gave Manny the mammoth's pelt the texture of an old chenille bathrobe.

Writer-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois evoked and updated the traditions of classic Disney features by blending laughter with a tug at the heartstrings in the quirky "Lilo & Stitch." It charmed critics and audiences, taking in $145.8 million, the best return for a Disney animated feature since "Tarzan" (1999). A mixture of drawn and CG animation, "Spirit" received generally favorable reviews but was not a huge hit ($73.2 million). However, the animation was strikingly beautiful, and its vision of a politically correct American West (Native Americans as the good guys) may appeal to academy voters.

"I think you could make a good argument for any one of four very strong movies winning this year," says DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg. "Miyazaki, who is a real visionary, made a unique and very beautiful movie in 'Spirited Away.' 'Ice Age' is fresh, funny, acerbic and a great piece of storytelling. 'Lilo & Stitch' is an example of a beautifully told personal story in animation, and I think we created something unique and noteworthy in 'Spirit.' Each one of those films has something exceptional about it, which makes for an open and exciting competition."

When the academy released the slate of qualifying features, many artists were surprised to see "Stuart Little 2" on the list. Although the title character is computer-animated, most animators feel it's a live-action movie that doesn't belong in the category. That reaction is tied to concerns over the fate of drawn animation, which has been losing ground to CG. A win for a traditional film could bolster the image of drawn animation.

Many animators feel that Hollywood executives mistakenly credit CG for the recent success of "Shrek," "Monsters, Inc." and "Toy Story 2," rather than the excellence of the films.

" 'Monsters' would have been a hit if it had been done in drawn or stop-motion animation: It was a good film," notes one top Disney artist who requested that his name not be used. "The characters in a lot of recent traditional features haven't been interesting because the filmmakers have been trying so hard to make things 'real.' Instead of aping live-action, drawn animation should play to the warmth, humor and charm that have always been its strengths."

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