February 11, 2009 / 12:22 AM / in 9 years

"WALL-E" the film to beat for animation Oscar

<p>A scene from "Wall-E". REUTERS/Disney/Pixar/Handout</p>

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - And then there were three -- though there could have been five.

Just three animated feature films have made the Oscar nomination grade, though 17 of them were released in 2008, enough to reach the threshold required for five nominations. But, for various reasons, only a relative handful of features were submitted for consideration.

“WALL-E” is the film to beat at the 81st annual Academy Awards on February 22, having garnered almost every award possible. Even so, “Kung Fu Panda” was a masterful feature, worthy in every way and sure to endure as a classic, while “Bolt” was another delightful addition to the Disney canon.

But perhaps the most interesting nomination this year for an animated feature was Israel’s “Waltz With Bashir,” which earned an Oscar nom in the best foreign-language film category. That’s eloquent proof of what animators have been saying for years: Animated films are films first.

“KUNG FU PANDA”

The filmmakers of “Kung Fu Panda,” a lush picture that melds the expansiveness of ancient China with the finest kung fu fighting and the most improbable of heroes -- saw their film as a widescreen Cinema-Scope production and insisted on its accuracy: One of Hollywood’s top experts on all things Chinese, DreamWorks artist Wei Xiaoping, was consulted, while production designer Raymond Zibach and art director Tang Kheng Heng were inspired by Chinese art, architecture, mythology and landscape. The result is a film true to Chinese culture that has become a huge hit not only here but also in China.

Finding the sweet spot between being emotionally believable and broad was a balancing act, especially in scenes that convey deep emotion and slapstick. “If it’s easy or obvious, it’s not in the movie” was their motto. To create the level of production values required by such detail, DreamWorks partnered with Hewlett-Packard, which provided its most up-to-date, powerful hardware.

North American box office: $215 million

Voice talent: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu

Original music: John Powell and Hans Zimmer

“BOLT”

“Bolt” represents numerous “firsts” for Walt Disney Animation Studios: It’s the first animated feature to be conceived and produced with Oscar-winning director John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, and Ed Catmull, the computer animation pioneer who helped create Pixar Animation Studios and who now serves as president of both Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. The movie is, in addition, the directorial debut of two veteran Disney artists: Chris Williams (14 years in story and development) and Byron Howard (15 years as an animator).

“Bolt” also is Disney’s first 3-D animated film to be created at the studio and to be conceived and designed in 3-D from its inception. Two previous Disney animated features -- 2005’s “Chicken Little” and 2007’s “Meet the Robinsons” -- were released in 3-D versions, but the 3-D was a postproduction conversion process created outside of the studio. For “Bolt,” the filmmakers created a “depth” script that determined the 3-D convergence point for each shot based on its emotional intensity and dramatic requirements. They specifically utilized 3-D as a storytelling tool to create an immersive environment and subtly impact key moments.

The super-dog Bolt was the source of a certain degree of canine research, including animators who filmed their own dogs and got down on all fours to see the view.

Musically, one of the film’s highlights is the original song “I Thought I Lost You,” performed by John Travolta and Miley Cyrus. A second song, “Barking at the Moon,” was written and performed by Jenny Lewis, an indie rock performer who founded and is the lead singer for Rilo Kiley.

North American box office: $113 million

Voice talent: John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman, Mark Walton, Malcolm McDowell, James Lipton, Greg Germann

Original music: John Powell

“WALL-E”

The film takes a big leap with its dialogue-free first half, and Pixar’s storytelling and animation skills soar in these scenes. WALL-E, however, is far from silent, and his robotic beeps and squeaks aren’t voiced by an actor but created by Ben Burtt, a four-time Oscar-winning sound designer, whose expertise in robot voices includes R2-D2 of “Star Wars” fame.

Pixar also took some cinematic leaps with the camera work. The digital camera was tweaked to capture 70mm large-format film, and the artists relied on inspiration from NASA, old sci-fi movies and original concept paintings for Disneyland’s Tomorrowland.

Adding to the film’s visual look were two heavy-hitter consultants: cinematographer Roger Deakins and long-time ILM visual effects master Dennis Muren.

The remaining creative pedigree on “WALL-E” is also top-notch: director Andrew Stanton, who wrote the screenplay with Jim Reardon (which was, in turn taken from Stanton and Pete Docter’s original story), executive produced by John Lasseter and produced by ex-ILM chief Jim Morris. Stanton also got to work with one of his childhood heroes, rock legend Peter Gabriel, who collaborated with composer Thomas Newman on the film’s signature song “Down to Earth,” which earned the pair one of two Grammy awards on Sunday.

North American box office: $224 million

Voice talent: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver

Original music: Thomas Newman

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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