Well, we heard it was coming -- and, sure enough -- the animation branch rejected Pixar's "Cars 2" and Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin" in favor of two hand-drawn European indies: "A Cat in Paris" from France and "Chico & Rita" from Spain.
It was a stinging rebuke by the branch, which, on the one hand, signaled to John Lasseter and Pixar that they were not up to their usual high standards (this marks the first time that the animation power house has not received a nomination since the category was adopted in 2001), and, on the other hand, rejected Spielberg's passionate embrace of performance capture. In this case, the traditionalists struck back.
Still, the five nominees for best animated feature comprise a diverse group in what has partly become the Year of the Cat: "Kung Fu Panda 2" and "Puss in Boots," which clearly tap a more bittersweet side to DreamWorks in the telling of these origin stories; Gore Verbinski and ILM's off-beat "Rango" (the front runner, which gets a one-week re-release starting Friday at the ArcLight Hollywood) ; "A Cat in Paris," which is a love letter to film noir, "Pink Panther" cartoons, and Billie Holiday, in which a house cat by day turns into a cat burglar by night; and "Chico & Rita," a love story between a pianist and a singer set in Havana and New York at the end of the 1940s -- and a tribute to Latin jazz.
"The list is great," proclaimed "Puss in Boots" director Chris Miller. "It feels wide open -- so many different approaches. It all comes down to telling a compelling story. For me, I've noticed a shift at DreamWorks since 'Kung Fu Panda.' Every film since then has become more filmmaker driven. There is no set house style. We're more self-assured. It was vital to make 'Puss in Boots' different and it was an opportunity to make a unique world for the cats. The brotherhood story between Puss and Humpty had to come together or it wouldn't have worked, and Guillermo Del Toro appreciated our approach and bolstered it."
Likewise, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, the director of "Kung Fu Panda 2," said that people were obviously pleased to learn more about Po. "They were surprised at how in-depth it got, where he came from -- it made people cry, which is the best you can hope for."
"A Cat in Paris" and "Chico & Rita" are the latest triumphs of indie distributor GKIDS, which scored a nomination two years ago with another hand-drawn favorite, "The Secret of Kells" from Ireland.
"The main idea was to make a film noir for children," explained Alain Gagnol, who co-directed "A Cat in Paris" with Jean-Loup Felicioli after making 14 shorts together."I wrote several crime novels and it was already my world. I also live in an apartment with a window with a view of the roofs in my neighborhood. I used to see cats wandering out there at sunset, and couldn't help myself from wondering what they can do at night. Paris is like a character and there's nothing realistic about it."
Fernando Trueba ("Belle Epoque"), who co-directed "Chico & Rita" with Javier Mariscal -- his first foray in animation -- decided to tell the story at the end of the '40s because that was a magical moment when Cuban music and American jazz really mixed and created a genre: Afro-Cuban jazz, or Cu-Bop. "To have [Cuban pianist and composer] Bebo [Valdés] with us, who belongs to that period and knew most of the [legends] personally was an incredible privilege."
Meanwhile, the animated short nominees are just as diverse as the features. They include Pixar's "La Luna" by Enrico Casarosa about a boy's fantastical journey to the moon; "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg about an imaginative solution to the crisis in publishing; "A Morning Stroll" by Grant Orchard about the bizarre hundred -year relationship between a New York pedestrian and a chicken; and two entries from the acclaimed National Film Board of Canada (with a record-setting 72 nominations): "Sunday" by Patrick Doyon about a child's wide-eyed amazement at finding a coin on a train track, and "Wild Life" by Amanda Forbis & Wendy Tilby about the clash between wilderness and civilization and the folly of living out of context.
"People have really responded to the journey," remarked "A Morning Stroll's" Orchard, who made his short in his spare time at London-based Studio AKA without any funding, scrounging around for two years and getting assistance from every stray animator that was interested in participating. "It's short and punchy at 6 1/2 minutes, which comes with our commercial background." The triptych takes us from 1959 (Emile Cole reductive stick figures) to 2009 (colorful and loud) to the future (a grandiose surprise).
Finally, the VFX branch spoke loud and clear that it wasn't impressed with last year's class of superhero movies, rejecting both "Captain America: The First Avenger" and "X-Men: First Class." The branch instead nominated a combination of character-driven works ("Rise of the Planet of the Apes," "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," and "Real Steel") and complete invention ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" and "Hugo").
Despite the fact that Andy Serkis failed in his bid to earn a best supporting actor nomination, his CG Caesar has made a powerful impression. In fact, the film's enormous success is directly tied to his stirring performance and the brilliant performance capture technique and Weta's accompanying animation behind the digital mask. This is why I think "Apes" will win the VFX Oscar.
"Andy allowed Caesar to connect with the audience," suggested four-time Oscar winner Joe Letteri. "As a result, the story has a lot of possibilities to go in different directions, and here you can easily see the transfer of going to both worlds."
But the larger significance of "Apes" is that Weta's onset performance capture breakthrough is part of the normal rigging process. According to Letteri, it will eventually be adopted by the industry as soon as more people use it and drive the cost down.
In looking ahead with regard to animation, I still think "Rango" will prevail but believe the short category is totally wide open. However, a Pixar victory for "La Luna" (the studio hasn't won since 2001's "For the Birds" by Ralph Eggleston) would be a sweet irony.