By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist November 12, 2013 at 2:19PM
The last week or so has seen the animation branch of the Academy start to crystallize their contenders: a list of 19 features have been announced as the submitted films for the Best Animated Feature category, along with a list of 10 shorts. This year sees a fairly major change in the category, with voters on the nominating committee now able to watch the films on screeners, rather than attending special in-theater screenings. They also only have to watch two-thirds of the eligible films (twelve and a half, which we're assuming rounds up to thirteen), rather than the 80% which was the case in previous years.
It's a bit of a shame that the rule changes take place in a year that's weak even in comparison to last year's slate (where Pixar's undervalued "Brave" triumphed over "Frankenweenie," "ParaNorman," "The Pirates!" and "Wreck-It Ralph"). With Pixar pushing out their second sub-standard sequel in three years, and none of the other major studios putting out especially memorable work, this is looking like a two-horse race, though with the big movies proving weak, there's potentially room for a smaller picture to surprise.
Of the 19, there are a few films that can be immediately ruled out: while it was submitted, unlike fellow live-action/animation blend "Walking With Dinosaurs," "The Smurfs 2" could yet be disqualified, but even if it isn't, it's unlikely to figure in. Similarly, lower-rent fare like "Free Birds," "Planes" and mega-flop "Turbo" won't be anywhere near the nominees.
So four down, fifteen to go. As ever, the longlist at this point is made up of a mix of bigger studio fare, and more obscure international animations which rarely see a wider release outside of their brief qualifying runs. The past has seen films like "A Cat In Paris," "Chico And Rita," and "The Secret Of Kells" nominated, and this year there are eight films in that latter category, some more serious than others. We've run them down below, in likelihood of nomination, and you can watch trailers for them all on the next page.
"Puella Magi Madoka Magica The Movie - Rebellion": This is a spin-off of an anime series about a group of magical teens. Maybe it's a masterpiece, but we'd be quite surprised if this could break out of the otaku ghetto and if the nominating committee get around to watch it (it's one of the more eminently skippable prospects on the list). They may not be able to make head or tail of it so, not going to be nominated.
"Khumba" A South African made film about a zebra struggling to fit in, it has shades of "Madagascar" to it, and has a reasonably starry cast delivering the English voices, including Liam Neeson, Steve Buscemi and Laurence Fishburne. But low-ish production values mean this'll struggle against the bigger studio films it's imitating.
"The Fake": From Korean director Yeon Sang-ho, who made his debut a few years back with "The King Of Pigs," this is a provocative and grown-up affair targeting organized religion, about a fraudulent minister. Looks genuinely artful, but appears so bleak that it would struggle to get traction as a live-action film, let alone as animation. Maybe we're being pessimistic, but this feels like a long-shot for any recognition.
"The Legend Of Sarila": Canada's first 3D animated film, in case you were wondering, this is about an inuit tribe on a journey to a magical land to save their people, with a voice cast featuring Christopher Plummer. The more anthropological elements are often a boon in this category, but this looks fairly generic, and hasn't been particularly well-received on the festival circuit.
"Rio 2096: A Story Of Love And Fury": A Brazilian-made century-spanning epic with a touch of "Cloud Atlas" and "The Fountain" to it, this has decent production value, and some solid reviews, but being aimed at adults it has an immediate handicap. And without a U.S. distributor behind it, it's chances are even less.
"A Letter To Momo": Actually two years old, but released by GKids (who often do well in this category), this is Hiroyuki Okiura's follow up to 2000's "Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade," a Miyazaki-ish tale of a young girl dealing with the death of her father. Seems fairly decent, it's likely to be overshadowed by "The Wind Rises," and by GKids' other entry (see below).
"O Apostolo": A distinctive looking Spanish stop-motion story, this has the same kind of darkly atmospheric feel that paid off for "Frankenweenie" and "ParaNorman" last year, and has been a hit on the festival circuit. Stop-motion often does well here, and as the lone entry, it has an advantage, but without a distributor, who'll be campaigning for it?
"Ernest & Celestine": The definite contender of the group, this comes from the directors of the excellent "A Town Called Panic," and follows the friendship between a bear and a mouse. The film won raves at Cannes in 2012, and GKids have given it a new dub featuring Forest Whitaker and Mackenzie Foy as the leads, with Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti and Nick Offerman among the cast. It ticks an old-school animation box that contrasts nicely with the more high-tech fare, and we think this has a very good chance of making the final five.