Contest could color future of animation

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."

Many animators also complain that the expense of various forms of animation has been misrepresented in press reports that have placed the cost of drawn animation as high as twice that of CG. Animation professionals insist that neither medium is inherently cheaper and that differences in film budgets reflect studio overhead, the complexity of the visuals and pre-production planning.

They say the high cost of many recent animated films is due not to increases in artists' salaries, but to stories put into production before they're ready, resulting in weeks or months of wasted effort and downtime. Former guild President Tom Sito says, "I can name at least four major features that burned through more than $40 million each before a single production artist was at work on the film."

Koch adds, "The idea that CG animation allows you to work with a much smaller crew on a much shorter production schedule is not borne out by the facts. If you watch the credit roll after a CG film, you'll see as many people worked on it as on a traditional film."

"There's been a rush to judgment that some movies failed because of their technique," Katzenberg says. "I don't believe that 'The Road to El Dorado' didn't succeed because of its technique, any more than 'Titan A.E.' or 'Treasure Planet' failed because of their techniques. To blame our animators for 'El Dorado' not working would be nonsense. The idea and the way in which we told the story simply were not compelling enough, and I think the other movies share those shortcomings. It hurts to have to accept that responsibility, but that is the reality."

Within the industry, discussions about technique and cost inevitably lead to Disney's handling of "Treasure Planet," which qualifies for the feature animation category but which most animators feel won't be nominated. A top DreamWorks animator, who also requested anonymity, said, " 'Treasure Planet' may not be a great movie, but it's not a terrible movie: It's certainly better than 'Atlantis' or 'The Emperor's New Groove.' The studio released it on a bad weekend -- it was in competition with 'Harry Potter' and their own 'Santa Clause 2' -- and mounted a bad publicity campaign, but the artists are being blamed. I wish Disney would support 'Treasure Planet' for an Oscar nomination, but I doubt they will. They wrote it off as a failure less than a week after it opened." Disney executives declined to comment for this story.

The animation industry continues to debate whether the academy created the animated feature category in recognition of the quality and popularity of the work -- or to keep an animated film from competing for best picture, as "Beauty and the Beast" did in 1992. "Spirited Away" has appeared on many critics' top 10 lists (including those of the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan and the New York Times' Elvis Mitchell), and has been mentioned as a possible candidate for best director, score and picture.

"I think the new category provides some much-deserved recognition, but in a perfect world, animation would freely compete with every other kind of film for best picture," Koch says. "When 'Beauty and the Beast' was nominated, I remember being surprised at the resentment from the live-action world that a lowly animated film could take one of the coveted spots for the best picture, and realizing that it was probably not going to happen again."

Katzenberg, whose studio won last year for "Shrek," sees the category differently: "In the lobby of this building is the first Academy Award ever given for an animated movie in competition -- that's a dream fulfilled for me. It's impossible to feel somehow that it's something less than what it is because it's not in some other category."

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Charles Solomon, who has written books about animation, writes regularly about the subject for The Times.

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