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‘Giant’ Towers Over Its Rivals

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was as if animation gave a party, and everybody came but Disney.

When the 27th annual Annie Awards were presented Saturday night in Glendale, the big winner was “The Iron Giant,” the much lauded Warner Bros. feature about a boy and his 50-foot robotic pal. Directed by Brad Bird, the film was nominated for 15 Annies and took home nine, including best animated feature.

Once the sole player in feature animation, Disney won only two of this year’s Annies--one for technical achievement, the other for “The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride,” made for home video.

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Every time the audience heard “And the winner is ‘The Iron Giant,’ ” many jumped up and cheered. The film’s sweep of such important categories as best character animation and outstanding voice acting was even more remarkable in light of the Goliath-like competition.

The other contenders were Disney’s highly regarded “Tarzan,” the Disney/Pixar collaboration “A Bug’s Life,” DreamWorks’ ambitious “The Prince of Egypt” and Paramount’s “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.”

“We were kind of the sad-sack, ‘Bad News Bears’ team,” Bird said as he accepted the award for best animated feature. A boyish-looking man in his 40s, Bird had been mentored by Disney animation legend Milt Kahl and was briefly a rebellious young animator at Disney.

If Bird was the star of the Annies, its darling was 13-year-old Eli Marienthal, who won for his voice acting as Hogarth, the boy who finds and nurtures the Iron Giant.

“Talk about beginner’s luck,” said Marienthal, an eighth-grader in the Bay Area. Like every other winner who worked on the picture, he thanked and lauded director Bird.

“I’m so glad you saw something in my scratchy little voice,” Marienthal said.

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Steve Markowski won the character animation award for creating the Iron Giant, mostly on computer. His competitors included Disney’s Glen Keane for “Tarzan” and two of his “Iron Giant” colleagues, Jim van der Keyl and Dean Wellins.

Despite glowing reviews, “The Iron Giant” received little promotion from Warner Bros. and quickly slipped in and out of theaters. Like the older members of the team, Marienthal said he was glad “this wonderful movie is finally getting some recognition. . . . Everybody who saw it loved it, but not enough people saw it.”

Animators are known for their independence, not for their sartorial splendor. But the Annies have evolved into a formal affair, and there seemed to be less green hair than in years past. The crowd of 800 or so gathered at the historic Alex Theatre favored tuxes and black dresses, though Mark Andrews wore a kilt to accept his Annie for storyboarding on “The Iron Giant.”

Other “Iron Giant” winners included Allen Foster for effects animation, Michael Kamen for music, Alan Bodner for production design, and Brad Bird and Tim McCanlies for writing.

The evening was co-hosted by Rob Paulsen and Maurice LeMarche, who provide the voices of Pinky and the Brain in the animated TV series “Steven Spielberg Presents Pinky, Elmyra & the Brain.”

Paulsen, who recently won an Emmy for his voice work as the slow-witted Pinky, said he loves working in animation because it allows him to play everything from “a lab rat to a talking farm implement.” In animation, he said, “I’m not limited to things that I’d be limited to as an average-looking white guy” in live action.

When you are a voice actor, he said, “it’s not about how tall you are or how straight your teeth are, it’s what you bring to the party.”

Paulsen, who won the 1999 Annie for voice acting in a TV series, praised the people who make cartoon characters come alive using only their wit and their voices. “Pound for pound--and I’ve done a lot of stage--I’ve never worked with more talented actors.”

Annies were given in 23 categories. An animated TV commercial featuring a soulful condom was a winner. “The Simpsons” took home the prize for best animated television program, just as it had last year. Tim Long, Larry Doyle and Matt Selman won for writing the episode “Simpsons Bible Stories.”

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Disney received the evening’s top honor for technical achievement when Eric Daniels won an Annie for the “deep canvas” process he developed for “Tarzan,” which allows unprecedented depth effects. The process was illustrated with scenes of Tarzan swooping at bobsled speed along the branches of the jungle.

On and off the podium, nominees thanked the other members of their teams, not surprising, given the collaborative nature of animation. Composer John Powell was nominated for his work on “Antz,” a DreamWorks feature. Powell said he worked so closely with fellow composer Harry Gregson-Williams that “at the end of the movie, we couldn’t remember which person did which piece of music.”

Powell recalled how the team solved the problem of getting the neurotic ant voiced by Woody Allen to sing “Almost Like Being in Love.”

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At first, Allen was given a backing track, but his voice went awry when he tried to sing along with the tape. Instead, the filmmakers taped Allen singing the song a cappella and then built a track around his performance.

“When he was singing with the track, he was very impeded. You could hear it in his voice. But when he sang alone, he bloomed.”

Powell is currently collaborating on the music for “Chicken Run,” in which Mel Gibson will voice the Lone Free Ranger. The first animated feature from Peter Lord and Nick Park (the team that made “Wallace and Gromit”), “Chicken Run” is already generating a buzz. Brad Bird predicted that it would be the talk of next year’s Annies.

An animator since 1930, Ray Patterson received the Winsor McCay Award for Lifetime Achievement for work that included getting Jerry the mouse to dance with Gene Kelly in 1945’s “Anchors Aweigh.”

The Annies were founded in 1972 by June Foray, who thought animation should have awards as prestigious as the Oscars, the Emmys and the Tonys. (The awards are sponsored by ASIFA-Hollywood, the local branch of the International Animated Film Society.) Foray is best known as the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel, “and Natasha and Nell and all the fairy godmothers and all the princesses” in the classic Jay Ward TV series.

Proudly wearing a gold Rocky pendant, Foray said she is thrilled at how far the field has come.

“Animation is just exploding now and rightfully so,” she said. “It is such a wonderful art form. It has no limitations.”


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