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Animated films big ('Finding Dory') and small ('The Red Turtle') draw on all aspects of life

Animated films big ('Finding Dory') and small ('The Red Turtle') draw on all aspects of life
"Finding Dory" is one of several animated films in contention for awards this years. (Associated Press)

Although smaller films ("Fantastic Mr. Fox," "The Secret of Kells") often get nominated for animated feature at the Oscars, they don't tend to win. Since the category began in 2001, the lowest-grossing awardee has been "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit," and that made $193 million worldwide.

One reason is the megabuck behemoths — like this year's "Finding Dory," "Zootopia," "The Secret Life of Pets" and "Moana" — are often quite good. Another is the lesser-known contenders are just that: Lesser known. "Kubo and the Two Strings," "The Little Prince," "Miss Hokusai" and "My Life as a Zucchini" (a rare animated entry for foreign-language film from Switzerland) are all worthy of consideration. Here are six top contenders.

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'Finding Dory'

Disney's hotly anticipated follow-up to one of the most honored animated films ever, "Finding Nemo." It managed to duplicate the original's success with both critics and audiences (more than $1 billion globally). So why did it take 13 years for the origin story and continuing adventures of Ellen DeGeneres' beloved Paracanthurus hepatus Dory to get here?

"'Nemo' was a personal story and all these characters I wrote became like my kids," says "Nemo" and "Dory" co-writer and co-director Andrew Stanton, noting he hadn't been searching for a way to make a sequel over the years. "In truth, it was because I had not watched 'Nemo' in over eight years, and when I did, I suddenly saw objectively how 'unfinished' Dory was. She needed to be resolved. She deserved to be at peace. So it was a parental obligation that motivated me to go back to that world one more time."

'The Red Turtle'

"The Red Turtle" directorMichael Dudok de Wit shares why he chose to tell a story about a castaway on a desert island for his first animated feature.

The lovingly hand-drawn fairy tale is original – though if comparisons had to be made, it might distantly echo Odysseus and Calypso.

Director Michaël Dudok De Wit, an Oscar winner for his heartbreaking short "Father and Daughter," said, "I was deeply inspired by many, many fairy tales I read as a child. I mean, hundreds and hundreds. Just when I started working on this, Studio Ghibli in Japan sent me a book called, "Kwaidan" by Lafcadio Hearn, full of Japanese fairy tales, ghost stories. I didn't use any of the existing stories, but I was impressed by the deep connection with nature in the stories."

"Red Turtle" could be taken as a chronicle of how a castaway interacts with nature to first survive, then thrive. It's told entirely without spoken language.

"It was not my big ambition to make a dialogue-free feature, but my short films are without dialogue, which is very common in short films. I like the idea that the spectator completely gets everything from film language and body language."

'Sing'

"Sing" trailer (Universal)

Directed by Garth Jennings ("Son of Rambow"), Universal's "Sing" concerns a vocal competition among animals in the grand old theater that an optimistic koala (Matthew McConaughey) struggles to keep open.

Jennings says he loved movies such as " 'The Commitments,' where songs are part of the story as opposed to, like, a musical – and how those songs can lift the characters out of the situations they're in." "Sing" is ultimately not about the contest, but "how music can change people's lives … it was that drama we were interested in, and not pitting one character against another. We weren't interested in making a movie about the judges on those shows or anything like that."

The dozens of songs that appear in the film range from Rat Pack-Sinatra to a recent Taylor Swift hit, with a couple of originals thrown in.

"Almost all the songs tell a story, even in the auditions," says Jennings. The catalog of hits "was already in my brain from years of over-saturation in pop music, but also … you can't chase [musical] trends in animation because you're working on a shot that might not be done for two years."

'Trolls'

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Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, James Corden andZooey Deschanel voice characters in "Trolls." (20th Century Fox)

This jukebox musical from DreamWorks follows peppy Princess Poppy's (Anna Kendrick) quest to save her fellow trolls from death by mastication at the teeth of the monstrous "Bergen" species. The notion of another movie based on toys (Thomas Dam's Troll dolls) may cause a reflexive recoil, but like "The Lego Movie," it manages to amuse – mainly by choosing attitude over heroine's journey.

Co-writer Jonathan Aibel says co-writer "Glenn [Berger] and I tend to prefer a little more complicated plots, and that's one of the things we had to stop ourselves from doing with this movie. It lives on the emotions it's conveying to the audience. Sometimes when your plot is 'plotty,' if you will, the audience spends time puzzling it out and that takes away from the emotional experience."

Co-director Mike Mitchell agrees: "We were going to make a fun, irreverent, silly musical. And we really wanted it to be about happiness."

'My Life as a Zucchini'

Switzerland's official entry for foreign-language film, also a contender for animated feature, finds a traumatized boy placed in a group home. "Zucchini" doesn't shy from some pretty hideous back stories, though there's nothing graphic in the delicate stop-motion animated film.

"We wanted it to be real; stop-motion animation usually has more fantasy in it than reality," says director Claude Barras. "Instead of trying to re-create a realistic picture in stop-motion, we tried to represent [the protagonist's] reality. It also brings some sort of poetry to the story.

"Conveying the story in a realistic way that's a little bit dark and sad but finishes in the light in this beautiful way, gives hope to the kids."

'Your Name'

"Your Name" is masterful storytelling by rising director Makoto Shinkai. It starts with the delicate comedy of teens who have never met switching consciousnesses, and leads to a life-or-death crisis. The twists are surprising and details memorable.

The animated film feels as if it were shot with real cameras -- and that's a good thing. Shinkai's camera movement, use of focus and gorgeous composition help root the viewer in the film's idiosyncratic reality. Relationships feel honestly developed. The emotion is earned.

"Your Name" has been a phenomenal success – it's now the fifth-highest grossing film ever in Japan – and Shinkai wonders if its disaster storyline has something to do with it. "Sadly, this is something that Japanese people have grown very familiar with imagining since 2011" after the earthquake and tsunami, he says by email. "So the story may have especially struck a chord with Japanese viewers for that reason."

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