Start your engines, folks, it's that time of year again -- Rick DeMott takes a lap around the Oscar buzz arena to uncover who's ahead and who hasn't even left the starting line.
Each year AWN takes a look at the Oscar buzz to see what films are leading the pack and which ones are falling behind. For 2006, 16 films were ruled eligible, which means there can be five nominated features. With the studios pushing for five nods, I doubt the Academy will only pick three.
As always, Pixar has the frontrunner with Cars. The studio has had three nominated films before and two wins. DreamWorks' mega-hit Shrek was the only film to keep Pixar from going three for three with a Monsters, Inc. win in the first year for the animated feature category back in 2002.
DreamWorks also has two wins in its past for the previous mentioned Shrek and last year's Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. This year, the studio that Katzenberg built has two films -- Over the Hedge and Flushed Away -- in the running for nods. Both films have a very good shot of being nominated. Over the Hedge is fun and funny, which the Academy likes in its animation. And a good box office performance doesn't hurt either. Flushed Away is also fun and funny, but lacks the box office punch. The x factor also hinges on whether Academy members will embrace Aardman two years in a row, especially when they aren't working in their native form of stop motion.
So who else has the ability to put a wrinkle in DreamWorks' Oscar hopes this year? Well the folks at Warner Bros. sure have the strongest case. And I'm not talking about The Ant Bully. I mean didn't that film come out in 1998, anyway? If there is any other film that's a lock for a nomination outside of Cars, it's Happy Feet. The photoreal penguins have danced to the top of the box office two weeks in a row and have been gaining solid word from the critics and audiences. This is really the one film Cars has to look in its rearview mirror for come awards night.
If those are four of the top contenders, whose legitimately in the running for the fifth and final slot? Sony has two pictures in the running as well. Ironically, its first foray into complete CG -- Open Season -- actually looks like a long shot at the moment. Sony's hopes most likely lie in Monster House, which is pretty close to a lock, but does still have some points against it. The well-scripted film creeped audiences out, but not in the same way that Sony's The Polar Express did last year and that's a good thing. But will the whole performance capture issue still be a sore spot with more hard-line animation members? Its okay box office won't help it either. However, it's a surprisingly good movie. And, in that fact, many of the folks crying for Polar Express' demise have changed their tune.
So who's left to play spoiler? The original Ice Age was nominated in 2003 -- the only other year with five nominations. Fox and Blue Sky's sequel -- Ice Age: The Meltdown -- seems to be leaving Academy voters with the same question as the studios' Robots did last Oscar season -- did that come out this year? Fox will have to ramp up an advertising push to get The Meltdown back in the minds of Academy members. Its advantages are that it recently arrived on DVD and its $195 million box office performance not only makes it the second highest grossing animated film of the year behind Cars ($244 million), but the sixth highest grossing film of the year period.
If last year was the year for non-CG films, this year looks like CG will most likely capture all five nods. As for spoilers with the remaining CG contenders there isn't very much of a threat. Paramount's Barnyard lost it with utters on male cows, IDT Ent.'s Everyone's Hero was never up to bat and Disney's The Wild lost the chance last year when it was released as was Madagascar. Therefore, the only other CG film to have the slightest chance to slip into the top five is The Weinstein Co.'s Arthur and the Invisibles from live-action director Luc Besson. However, whether enough people will see it in time and whether it's good enough are still questions unanswered until it starts screening later in the year. Moreover, no film with live-action elements has ever been nominated before.
The last four eligible films -- Renaissance, Curious George and Paprika -- are the only threats to CG's dominance this year. If Monster House still has the performance capture/ rotoscoping stigma working against it then Warner Independent's A Scanner Darkly and Miramax's Renaissance don't even have a slim chance of getting over that hump toward an Oscar nod. Historically, the younger skewing a film is the less likely it is to get nominated, so that leaves Universal's Curious George pretty much out of the race. So what about Paprika? Sony Pictures Classics' release of Madhouse's anime film from Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfather director Satoshi Kon is an out-of-the-blue entry. Word is that if people see it; it will be nominated. However, anime without Hayao Miyazaki's name attached to it hasn't done well is the past.
As always, buzz on the animated shorts is at a minimum until at least the short list is announced. However, the clear frontrunner at this point would have to be Joanna Quinn's Dreams and Desires -- Family Ties, which won a prize at Annecy and took home the top award at Ottawa, as well as the Cartoon d'Or among a multitude of other festival honors. Likewise, Annecy winner Tragic Story Happy Ending by Regina Pessoa is still a top contender even though it hasn't been collecting awards at the same rate as Dreams and Desires.
However, this year seems to be a potentially big year for studio produced shorts. Pixar seems to be always a lock in any animated category as long as it enters something, so its alien abduction short, Lifted, looks like a shoo-in too. Blue Sky has another Scrat short with No Time For Nuts, while DreamWorks launched into the shorts business in a big way with First Flight. And lets not forget Disney's much-debated 2D short, The Little Matchgirl.
Smaller studios also have big 3D shorts in the running as well. Blur Studios' returns with A Gentleman's Duel, a slick, gag-filled short that skews a bit older than its previously nominated short Gopher Broke. Additionally, Charlex Film has its nearly photoreal SIGGRAPH-winning short film, One Rat Short, directed by Alex Weil.
There are also some big names in animation with new shorts. Bill Plympton has the sequel to his Oscar-nominated Guard Dog, titled, Guide Dog. Patrick Smith's Puppet could give the veteran New York animator his first nod. Don Hertzfeld, who was nominated for Rejected, has put out Everything Will Be OK.
Falling into the "hope they're not too dark for their own good" category are several films. Multi-festival-winner Milch fell into this category last year and didn't get an Oscar nod too. First on the list this year would have to be Andreas Hykade's brilliant film, The Runt, which is a delicacy that many Academy members may find too hard to swallow. Next might be Jonas Odell's equally brilliant Never Like the First Time. At the Quinte Hotel from Bruce Alcock also deals with dark subject matter, but its literary link to Charles Bukowski may help its chances a bit. It's quite disheartening to think that three of the clearly best animated shorts of 2006 might not make the Oscar cut simply because they are too challenging.
Other films to watch out for include: Adam Parrish King's The Wraith of Cobble Hill, which screened at Sundance; Torill Kove's The Danish Poet, which was made at the NFB; Geza Toth's Maestro, which made big impressions at festivals like Anima and Zagreb; and Osbert Parker's Film Noir, which was nominated for a 2005 British Academy Award.
As with every year, all the talk is only talk until the nominations are announced. The Academy will let us know what it thinks on Jan. 23, 2007. Until then hopefully this piece helps sort out some of the true contenders from the real pretenders.
Rick DeMott is the managing editor of Animation World Network. In his free time, he works as an animation writer for television. His work on the new series, Growing Up Creepie, can be seen on Discovery Kids. Previously, he held various production and management positions in the entertainment industry. He is a contributor to the book Animation Art as well as the humor, absurdist and surrealist short story website Unloosen.