By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood August 26, 2011 at 8:29AM
The good news is that the Oscar race for best animated feature is wide open -- the widest, in fact, since Happy Feet beat Cars in 2006 (the last time Pixar lost the Oscar). And, lo and behold, here we are again with Happy Feet 2 competing against Cars 2 in the Year of the Sequel. Thanks to a new policy, a maximum of four films can now be nominated if 13-15 qualify. In the past, anything under 16 qualifiers meant three Oscar nominees. So expect either four or five nominees this Oscar season.
The bad news, of course, is that there's a dearth of originality -- at least thus far. In fact, DreamWorks's Katzenberg told Fortune that it's the worst year for movies overall that he can remember.
But don't blame it on Rio, which is Blue Sky's most beautiful and musical movie yet. Blame it on Pixar and DreamWorks, who've had subpar offerings with Cars 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2. Not that they're bad. Cars 2 is the epitome of a summer popcorn movie, with its mash-up of Bond and Formula 1 racing, and the "Cari-fied" Europe through Pixar's incomparable eye candy. And Kung Fu Panda 2 expands the richness and scope of its predecessor while adding pathos to Po's backstory. It's just that they don't reach the dramatic heights of, say, last year's Toy Story 3 or How to Train Your Dragon.
Which is why Rango has emerged as the front-runner at this point. It's definitely unique with its hip and funny riff on spaghetti Westerns. Of course, it doesn't hurt having Industrial Light & Magic getting down and dirty and photo-surreal as only it knows how in its first animated feature. Or having director Gore Verbinski working in live-action mode: inspiring Johnny Depp to turn his wacky chameleon into a cross between Don Knotts and Hunter S. Thompson.
Disney's Winnie the Pooh was a gallant effort to reinvigorate a popular franchise while propping up its hand-drawn pedigree. It reminded us once again that 2D isn't dead -- it just smells funny, as Frank Zappa once said about jazz. Unfortunately, Pooh opened against the Harry Potter finale and never really had a chance to find its audience theatrically. Still, it's the best reviewed animated film at the moment (scoring 90% on Rotten Tomatoes).
Meanwhile, Disney's off-the-shelf release, Gnomeo & Juliet, a rollicking collision of Elton John and Shakespeare among the Stratford garden gnome set, put Starz Animation Toronto on the map. Like last year's mega-hit, Despicable Me, it offered the best of indie creativity and studio polish.
Then there's The Smurfs, which did exactly what it was supposed to by capturing the hearts of youngsters while providing a fun nostalgia trip for adults. Certainly Sony Pictures Animation reached new animated heights with its older VFX sibling, Imageworks, in turning the beloved icons into believable and expressive CG characters. And while it's a hybrid, The Smurfs should qualify as animation under Academy rules specifying principal characters in at least 75% of the film.
And the field will definitely heat up with the arrival of DreamWorks's Puss in Boots (Nov. 4), Happy Feet 2 courtesy of director George Miller's Dr. D Studios (Nov. 18), Arthur Christmas from Sony and Aardman (Nov. 23), and Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin from Weta Digital (Dec. 23). That is, if it qualifies under stricter rules pertaining to performance capture (a frame-by-frame technique must be utilized).