The Producers Guild of America, that somewhat vague trade-org cluster of TV, film and new-media producers in Hollywood, on Tuesday did what it -- as a cast of thousands -- perhaps does best: Act as a trusty bellwether for the Oscar nominations.
So just what picks did they cull in their Animation Nominations for Aught-Nine?
Of the five best-animated-film contenders, the three movies that have the most critical heat behind them are Henry Selick's "Coraline," Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and Pixar's "Up." The two films that round out the PGA field -- Shane Acker's "9" (reviewed here) and Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" -- were both visual spectacles, but many critics found their narratives lacking.
Arguably the most glaring omission was the legendary Hayao Miyazaki's aquatic "Ponyo," which -- like "Princess and the Frog" -- was distributed by Disney. "P&F" might have had the edge, though, because Disney finally righted a longtime wrong by featuring an African American princess. And a very strong case could be made, too, for the winning stop-motion claymation film "Mary and Max."
Elsewhere, the highly entertaining "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" or the third "Ice Age" film could have gotten the nod over "9," but those two films -- as well as DreamWorks' "Monsters vs. Aliens" -- have the feel of mainstream, bigger-studio success. "9" -- a feature-length outgrowth of Acker's Oscar-nominated student short -- has an appealing pedigree. Plus, those stitchpunk characters and all the CGI scenes they inhabited felt more intimate in their artfulness.
So let's take a closer look at what did make the PGA cut...
What "Coraline" writer NEIL GAIMAN tells Comic Riffs about his film:
"I loved that everything was handmade. Everything. It was so personal.
What I [also] loved about 'Coraline' and [director] Henry Selick is that Henry used the 3-D in Coraline as a storytelling tool. I also hope that people won't try and make everything in 3-D."
Why it could win: Gaiman's story is enchanting, the characters are beguiling and Henry Selick ("The Corpse Bride") renders a stunning 3-D world. A minor masterpiece.
Why it won't win: Because it's caught squarely between the Year of George Clooney ("Fox") and the seeming Every-Year of Pixar.
"FANTASTIC MR. FOX":
What "Fox" filmmaker WES ANDERSON tells Comic Riffs about his film:
" I grew up on the Rankin-Bass animated specials. I'm 40, and I cannot express how revved-up my brother and I were when the holiday specials [came around]. ... For me, there's nothing quite like actual, old-fashioned stop-motion. Which is why we were using digital cameras -- there wasn't even a movie camera [on set]. It all goes into the hard drive -- our [technology] was about as high-tech as you get outside of NASA."
Why it could win: Anderson and stop-motion animation were born to work together. "Fox" -- with its old-timey charm leavening the Andersonian irony -- is utterly and fully realized. Doesn't hurt that this film represents a minor "comeback" for Anderson, an Oscar nominee for screenplay ("The Royal Tenenbaums"). Also doesn't hurt that Clooney and Streep, deftly voicing lead characters, bring a supreme pedigree to their pair of foxes.
Why it might not win: "Pixar" is the King Midas of animation -- everything it touches turns to golden statuette.
What "9" producer TIM BURTON tells Comic Riffs about this film:
"We've all seen post-apocalyptic imagery, but the thing about this that's surprising is that it sneaks up on you -- the humanity. It's very touching. I just find it strangely emotional."
Why it won't win: The narrative, so brilliant in Acker's Oscar-nominated student-film of a short, grows wobbly when overstretched for a feature film. Still, the look of the stitchpunk characters -- featuring remarkably warm CGI effects -- shouldn't soon be forgotten. All in all, file this under "It's an honor just to be nominated."
"THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG":
What "Frog" filmmaker RON CLEMENTS [with co-director/writer JOHN MUSKER] tells Comic Riffs about their film: "Depicting Disney's first African American princess? Why, we felt no pressure -- no, NONE at all."
Why it won't win: Nostalgia for "hand-drawn" Disney animation -- and hope for progressive Disney princesses -- won't be enough to overcome some flaws. Still, "P&F" is a gumbo-marinated charmer that tries to right a longtime Disney wrong.
What "Up" co-director BOB PETERSON tells Comic Riffs about his film:
"You tell the truth of how people would react. ... We're always concerned about the relationships -- are we telling the truth? Jokes are one thing, but we sacrifice thousands of jokes if they get in the way of the emotional narrative."
Why it will win: The joyous "Up" -- featuring Ed Asner's inspired curmudgeon and the original Balloon Boy -- is one of the best films from a studio that so rarely missteps.
Bottom line: As a Thanksgiving release, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is more recent than "Up" in many voters' minds. Yet if there's a single sequence that tips the balance in "Up's" favor, it's the affecting story-within-a-story that is the lifelong romance of Carl and Ellie Fredricksen. The near-wordless montage is absolutely masterful. If you've got any heart at all as a moviegoer, this sequence will stay with you for a long, long time.
And if "Up" beats "Fox," we'll get the added bonus of hearing Clooney's furry thief say one last time: "What the cuss?!"
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THE RELATED READ:
The 'Riffs Interview: WES ANDERSON introduces his fantastic 'Mr. Fox'.
NEIL GAIMAN recalls his first impressions of San Diego Comic-Con.
The 'Riffs Interview: TIM BURTON on why he decided to support the creative vision of "9."
The 'Riffs Interview: Pixar's BOB PETERSON on his path to co-directing "Up."
The 'Riffs Interview: "SNL's" BILL HADER embraces his inner nerd to voice "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs."
The 'Riffs Interview: Director CARLOS SALDANHA on the challenges of making a third "Ice Age."
The 'Riffs Interview: "Monsters vs. Aliens" animator PHIL 'Captain 3D' McNALLY on the cuttinge edge of stereoscopic 3-D effects.