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Animation Oscar Race: Why 'The Croods' Is 'Frozen''s Only Real Challenger (FEATURETTE)

Interviews
by Anne Thompson
January 5, 2014 3:28 PM
7 Comments
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'The Croods'
'The Croods'

In the Oscar animation arena, competition is fierce. The conventional wisdom has $600-million global smash "Frozen," Disney's best princess musical since "Beauty and the Beast," leading the pack by a good distance. It just returned to number one again in its seventh week at the box office. 

Two old-fashioned 2-D stories, Hayao Miyazaki's historic "The Wind Rises" (which has been winning some critics prizes), and France's "Ernest & Celestine," should be among the Oscar final five. And Pixar sequel "Monsters University," which was nominated for ten Annie Awards and a PGA, will probably squeak in on sheer craftsmanship, if not storytelling, knocking out the year's animation blockbuster "Despicable Me 2" ($921 million worldwide) which appears statistically unlikely to land an Oscar nomination (although it did land a PGA) because unlike "Monsters Inc.," the original film did not.

"Frozen"'s strongest competitor comes from Jeffrey Katzenberg's DreamWorks Animation, which put together a formidable filmmaking partnership. Soon after he left Disney, Chris Sanders (Oscar-nominated "How to Train Your Dragon") joined up with Kirk De Micco ("Space Chimps") who had been developing "The Croods" for Aardman Animation as a stop-motion film with John Cleese (who retains story credit) before Aardman split with Glendale-based DreamWorks, which took over the movie. This spring "The Croods" grossed $573 million worldwide.

The Croods

Since "Shrek" collected the first animated feature Oscar in 2001, DreamWorks has scored one more, for Aardman's "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" (2005), while Disney/Pixar has taken home six (including Miyazaki's "Spirited Away") to Warner Bros.' one (George Miller's "Happy Feet"). 

I talked to the "Crood" writer-directors on the phone about how they created this clever caveman family comedy --with a strong, brave girl maverick (voiced by Emma Stone) at its center.

Anne Thompson: How did you come up with this high concept of a terrified family hiding in a cave who are forced out into the world?

Chris Sanders: This movie was more visual than anything we had previously worked on. Animated films never end up where they start. They develop and change along the way. We knew from the beginning the general nature of the world we were working with. We did a lot of storyboarding as well as writing to find the story. And music [composed by Alan Silvestri] would play a huge part in this. We knew the dialogue couldn't carry the big themes, so music was designed into the movie, houses for music and moments so that the largest turning points of the film could be spooled to by just music.

Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders of 'The Croods'
Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders of 'The Croods'

Kirk De Micco: We're both writer-directors, so we make our script knowing we'll service it later with the right visuals and music. The neat thing about animation: because you build animatics, we were able to share them with Alan early in the process, earlier than you'd ever do it in live action, when you have nothing to show until you shoot something. In fact, he started talking to us when were doing storyboards. That gave us the confidence to paint the family, knowing we'd build the themes. It's like doing a music scout while looking at the whole script animatic, where to lay in the moments along the way so that it hits when you need it and resonates with the audience. You can't start a big theme at the end, it's woven through from the beginning. Like reaching up for the sun, those themes are played through to the very end, the two images of light are the bookends of that story arc.

When did you see that these basic caveman family fears and need for growth might tap into a global universality? 

Sanders: We didn't realize, because we work on these things in a very intimate way. We don't think about the larger implications. In the case of this original story we had the ability to let the movie take us where it wanted to go. The direction it took on its own was this profound journey to answer questions of human existence. It happened that the Croods exist without any sort of trappings of society, cars, jobs, schools, telephones. Nothing around them places them anywhere. We didn't realize you've stripped everything away and gotten down to people period. It's just a family. When we relieve them of all distractions you get down to big questions: father-daughter relationships, larger themes of why are we here? That was the thing that Kirk and I had discovered within just weeks after I started on the film.

De Micco: When I started with John Cleese, it was more of a buddy comedy. The theme of fear of change was being played out. But when Chris was shown all the projects at studio, he liked the Caveman movie.

Sanders: There are two types of movies I'll always take: one about a submarine or a caveman, they're just appealing at a universal level of elemental existence. One thing I discovered that was amazing as I dived into the film was the joy of working with cavemen. These people don't have any guile, they can get upset and act like a child with no social filters. We look at them as children.

7 Comments

  • EJ | February 2, 2014 7:56 PMReply

    I just saw The Croods recently, and I think it's a lot better than some people give it credit for. I mean, it's not a perfect masterpiece, but I personally really enjoyed it. Not that it really matters...with a Disney monster like Frozen in the running, there's no hope for anybody. Don't get me wrong, it's good, but extremely overrated.

  • D day | February 2, 2014 12:42 AMReply

    Frozen must win ! :) In Frozen we trust

  • Julie K. | January 9, 2014 10:09 AMReply

    Go Team The Wind Rises. Frozen is really like a copy of Flintstones and Croods, couldn't agree more. But I saw The Wind Rises at TIFF and I really loved it. Great story, great love story, amazing animation. Miyazaki is the master!

  • cadavra | January 5, 2014 6:36 PMReply

    THE FLINTSTONES + THE VILLAGE = THE CROODS.

    (nothing previous) + (nothing previous) = THE WIND RISES.

    But what difference does it make? As you say, FROZEN will win.

  • Reuben | January 6, 2014 3:55 PM

    Technically, biography of Jiro Horikoshi+Tasuo Hori's short story "The Wind Has Risen"=The Wind Rises

    Not that being an adapted screenplay makes The Wind Rises any less amazing and worthy of winning.

  • joes | January 5, 2014 6:29 PMReply

    If THE CROODS is indeed the runner-up to FROZEN in the Oscar race, it's an outrage. THE WIND RISES' credits sequences are better than anything in either of the "front-runners's" entire running times.

  • Anonymous | January 5, 2014 4:42 PMReply

    "Disney's best princess musical since 'Beauty and the Beast'" No it's not. Lol. It is on the same level of mediocrity as "Tangled." "The Wind Rises" is the best animated film of the year, even though that was only good.

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