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Dr. Toon: Handicapping the Oscars: Best Animated Feature

Dr. Toon acts the part of a Vegas bookie and casts the odds for each short listed film’s chances in the big Oscar race.

Martin Dr. Odds Goodman.

Martin Dr. Odds Goodman.

Theres no business like show business as it goes, and at the time of this writing the World Series of show biz, the Oscar Awards, is being planned. Ever since the Oscars began to include animated features as a category, yearly speculation about potential winners has been as intense as that concerning live-action features. There are early frontrunners, holiday spectaculars slipping in under the wire, and long shots that never broke a weekend record but still display enough artistic merit to put up a fight for the gilded statuette. The rivalries between some of the studios represented are as well publicized as the films themselves, as are the technological battles between 2D and 3D animation. It may be that the quest for Best Animated Feature is one of the most fascinating aspects of this years Oscars, and with the cost of producing and promoting animated films in 2004, one of the most pivotal for the future of animated features.

Eleven films are currently under consideration as this years title contenders. All of them will have been released by the end of November, and it is possible to actually begin handicapping the race for the Oscar. There will be some tight competition and last-minute politicking, to be sure, but part of the fun for animation fans is trying to guess what might transpire amidst the glitzy lights of L.A. Thus, my odds for Oscar night, in descending order of likelihood, to include the final three that will actually compete for the penultimate prize.

Cliffords Really Big Movie (1,000 - 1) Warner Bros. Cliffs cute and he commands kiddie creed, but unless the judging committee is made up of six-year olds, the colossal crimson canine has not a prayer. Starring in a 2D film up against some of the CG monsters prowling the Oscar scene, even a pooch bigger than Clifford would be dwarfed.

The Legend of Buddha (500 - 1) Pentamedia Garphics Ltd. Just curious: What kind of stuff do they give away at the press junkets? This feature from India is an admirable effort but the (2D) animation Ive been able to see is no better than that airing on, say, Toon Disney. Buddha saw very limited release and was virtually unseen in the United States. Never fear; the subcontinent that produced Bollywood is going to be a major player contending for Oscar, and soon.

Disneys Teachers Pet (100 - 1) Walt Disney Pictures. This isnt a bad little TV series, and the movie mainly follows suit. Its 2D animation at least has the virtue of not looking like anything else on all those other cable-based shows. Theres a plot that features genetic engineering (something you dont typically see outside of anime) but novelty alone wont put this film at the head of the class.

Home on the Range (75 - 1) Walt Disney Pictures. There is a goofy spirit to this flick, and its sprightly bovine heroines are fun to watch. The animation is mostly 2D and virtually spurts its udders at the CGI entries as if performing one last act of rebellion against going quietly into that good night. If the animation style were any flatter, you could slip this whole film under the door with room to spare. This a better film than its reviews indicated, but Disneys 2D days are done and so are their hopes for one last Oscar as the inkwells dry up for good.

Koreas biggest animated epic Sky Blue (aka Wonderful Days) is getting a late release in the U.S., which will really hurt its chances.

Koreas biggest animated epic Sky Blue (aka Wonderful Days) is getting a late release in the U.S., which will really hurt its chances.

Sky Blue (50 - 1) Tin House Productions. If nothing else, this Korean entry directed by Moon Sang Kim certainly gives audiences their moneys worth. Cel animation, live action, miniatures and CG are all featured against the backdrop of a romantic triangle set in a devastated (is there any other kind?) future. South Korea is known as a destination for Americas runaway animation, but the country has been steadily developing its own genre known as manwha youngwha for quite some time and its no surprise that an Oscar contender has arisen at last. There are some nice ideas here (a city that actually runs on pollution). The animation includes every known medium, but this film is a depressing downer; too many of its dreary, post-apocalyptic statements and themes concerning oppression have been played out in countless other anime features to much better effect. Cant anyone in Asia make an animated film in which humanity is not headed for a dark and violent future filled with nasty machines? This picture carries the alternate title, Wonderful Days, but it wont see any come Oscar night.

The Polar Express (30-1) Warner Bros. If budget alone determined a winner, this $270 million heartbreak would run the table. Disappointing box office, an inconsistent plot that pads the tiny source material, and the bizarre humanoids created by the mo-cap animation spell also-ran status for this train wreck. Director Robert Zemeckis and star Tom Hanks are luminaries lost in a very weird film. Look for Polar Express to come up big in the technical award categories; these are the only gifts that Oscar Claus will be handing out to Zemeckis movie. The Polar Express is not good enough, nor did audiences love it enough, to make it a foremost contender for Best Animated Feature. Motion (or, as Mr. Zemeckis would have it, performance) capture was put to far better use in the Tolkien film trilogy. The kids in this movie have an ethereal, spooky look; maybe Zemeckis should hire a few more of them and do a remake of Village of the Damned. More proof that technical virtuosity on its own does not a great film make, no matter how much money is thrown into it.

Ghost in the Shell 2 (top) and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (bottom) are the great 2D hopes.

Ghost in the Shell 2 (top) and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (bottom) are the great 2D hopes.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (25-1) Bandai. If youre looking for a true dark horse, this one undoubtedly qualifies. The heir and sequel to one of animes most complex animated features, GITS2 is a stylish opus that will have one specific problem: the movie features a preponderance of rambling, techno-philosophical conversations between the two main characters that jar against the admittedly thrilling action scenes and tend to slow the story to a crawl. This film might be called My Dinner With Andre in the Matrix. Oscar is not likely to give the film serious consideration due to its limited release, highly adult content and the mainstream moviegoers unfamiliarity with the first film. I could see GITS2 making the final three due to its sophistication and style, but I dont expect the little gold gentleman to come calling. Still, GITS2 features an engrossing fusion of 2D and 3D animation (watch for the stunning parade scene) that will delight fans of the original manga and the first film.

Shark Tale (20-1) DreamWorks SKG. This finny film is a perfect example of everything that is right and wrong with DreamWorks 3D features. The animation is lively, the rendering near perfect, the textures are wonderful, and light and shadow fall and ripple everywhere they ought to. Yet, the story is thin, the main characters are celebrities reworked as marine life, product placement is rife, and the humor is so up-to-date and hip, this movie will be ancient by next year. Design and technical execution A+, originality D+. Like other DreamWorks projects of late, the ability to reference cultural jokes and asides is the key to fully enjoying the film. Terrific box office, fair reviews. The lead character, Oscar, is not likable; he stupidly builds up an unbearable debt, hocks his girlfriends family heirlooms in order to clear it, and then wagers and loses the dough on a seahorse race. Oscar becomes a celebrity on the basis of a lie and once he does so, instantly dumps his long-suffering gal for a gold(fish) digger. Only when vengeful sharks show up to settle the presumed score is the truth revealed. This fish will be the only Oscar associated with this film.

Also killing this pictures hopes are strident protests by Italian and African-Americans over ethnic stereotyping; it may be 3D but it isnt PC. Worse, this movie follows up last years Oscar winner, which had something or other to do with piscines. To paraphrase Walt Disney, you cant top fish with fish.

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (20-1) Paramount. The porous yellow one has attained icon status and is one of the most heavily merchandised items in all of animation. The movie was inevitable due to SpongeBobs enormous fan base, but films based on animated TV shows are hit-or-miss at the box office and rarely garner killer reviews. If any film has a chance to beat the odds, its this one due to SpongeBobs immense crossover appeal to adults; perhaps no other show, save The Simpsons, can claim such status. Creator Steve Hillenburg had enormous control over this movie, keeping it true to its silly spirit, and his formidable voice cast is intact for the film. Still, there are major problems in adapting 10-minute cartoons into engrossing narratives nine times that length and no animated film with televised origins has truly succeeded in surmounting them. Experience with such films suggests a big opening week and then steadily diminishing returns. Also, the recent favoritism toward 3D over 2D animation may leave Bikini Bottom bereft of Oscar hardware. SpongeBob is unlikely to win but one has to admit hed certainly make a great presenter.

Shrek 2 (top) and The Incredibles (bottom) are the films to beat.

Shrek 2 (top) and The Incredibles (bottom) are the films to beat.

Shrek 2 (3-1) DreamWorks. Theres nothing like a good sequel, and there have been damned few of them in Hollywood history. Shrek 2 is actually one of them. This second outing was highly popular with audiences and reviewers as well as a real ogre at the box office. The first film gives this sequel an excellent pedigree, and enough new characters are introduced to balance the loss of Eisn - uh, I mean Lord Farquaad, the original villain of Shrek. Yet, its the loss of Farquaad that gives this film its problem. For those animation fans and insiders who enjoyed the anti-Disney stylings and in-jokes that powered the first film, there is an emptiness to Shrek 2 that is instead filled by what is becoming a standby under Katzenberg and Spielberg: reliance on audience knowledge of pop references and hip parodies of Hollywood culture, expensive brand names and stores, etc. This is animation for fans of Entertainment Tonight and it is no surprise that the recently released DVD has a parody of American Idol tacked on to it; its perfectly in keeping with the current humor at DreamWorks.

While Shrek 2 is nowhere near as guilty as Shark Tale, these devices are cute rather than imaginative, the humor forced rather than natural, and the laughs depend on an audiences capacity to recognize the jokes. This is the only flaw in the film, and the admirable animation covers it only in part. A possible win is not Far Far Away, but sequels typically have a tough time at the Oscars, and Shrek 2 will struggle against the super powered competition from Pixar.

The Incredibles (2-5) Disney/Pixar. The odds-on fave for Best Animated Picture and the probable winner. Director Brad Bird is increasingly a force to be reckoned with, and this is his best effort to date. The Incredibles utilizes a different set of references than DreamWorks Shrek 2 or Shark Tale. Where the latter films contain references to more modern cinematic entertainment and popular culture, Bird has constructed a film that references the 1960s Silver Age comics and the James Bond films of the same era. The difference is: the allusions in the DreamWorks films are simply pop adornments dressing up the underlying stories. Bird has actually written an original epic by recreating the comic books that inspired the film, as if he possessed the archetypal template. The spirit of those beloved pulps is inseparable from the story, which is as seamlessly crafted as anything devised by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in their heydays. The characters are extremely likable, the animation (courtesy of new software programs Bend-Bows and Squetch) is a marvel, and the reviews and box office are super heroic indeed.

Pixar will likely walk away with the Oscar this year, and it will be a well-earned win as well as a lesson for the technical wizards behind The Polar Express and the Beverly Hills hipsters behind Shrek 2 and Shark Tale. Great story has to be merged with great effects, and the coolest, most ironic in-jokes in the animated world will never be mistaken for originality. That being said, kudos to all films that qualified this year. To those whose mantels are empty after the Big Show, well, by all means try again. At the time of this writing the top three pictures being attended by audiences across the nations multiplexes are all animated; this is certainly the time to get new ideas to the big screen.


Final three nominees: The Incredibles; Shrek 2; Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence Winner for Best Animated Feature: The Incredibles

Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.