Early Best Animated Feature Predictions

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This awards season, Pixar gets back to original storytelling with its first Black-led feature, “Soul” (November 20). Sony returns with “Connected” (October 23), another stylistic experiment from Oscar-winning producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”). Two-time Oscar nominee Tomm Moore tackles his third Irish folktale about saving the balance of nature with Cartoon Saloon’s “Wolfwalkers” (fall). And, with fall entry “Over the Moon,”  a gorgeous update of the Chinese Moon Goddess fable, former Disney legend Glen Keane (Oscar-winning “Dear Basketball”) makes his directorial feature debut at Netflix.

The most significant casualty of pandemic so far has been Disney’s Southeast Asia-set “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which was pushed back to March 12, 2021 to make room for heavily-favored “Soul” in the fall. Pixar’s heart-tugging fantasy about spirituality and jazz from Oscar-winner and chief creative officer Pete Docter (“Inside Out,” “Up”) might even generate some Best Picture consideration, given its cultural significance.

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“Soul” explores the life of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a New York middle-school band teacher, who gets the ultimate gig playing piano at the top jazz club, only to fall into a manhole and journey to The Great Before, a fantastical place where new souls are formed before birth. There he encounters precocious soul, 22 (Tina Fey), who rejects the appeal of the human experience. But they team up so Gardner can return to Earth and complete his journey.

The predominantly Black cast also includes the voice work of Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Ahmir Questlove Thompson, and Daveed Diggs. Musician Jon Batiste composed the jazz score for the New York portion, while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed the ethereal score for The Great Before.

As with the Oscar-winning “Coco,” Pixar wanted to ensure cultural authenticity, so Docter enlisted Black screenwriter Kemp Powers (“One Night in Miami,” “Star Trek: Discovery”), who was promoted to co-director. Additionally, Pixar formed the “internal culture test” with Black employees, and also recruited outside consultants, including Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young (“The Arrival”), and celebrated jazz musicians Herbie Hancock and Terri Lyne Carrington.

Lord and Miller’s “Connected” continues their mission to push storytelling and stylistic boundaries. Directed by Mike Rianda (creative director of “Gravity Falls”), it’s a comedy about a family combating a tech uprising of electronic devices, including a new line of personal robots, and centers on the conflict between a nature-loving dad, Rick (Danny McBride of “The Righteous Gemstones”) and his social media-savvy daughter, Katie (Abbi Jacobson). Leveraging the new tools from “Spider-Verse,” the Sony Pictures Imageworks production juxtaposes painterly/watercolor elements in the “human world” with the clean, calculated perfection of the “robot world.” Additionally, it uses 2D pop-up animation for Katie’s POV (internally called “Katie Vision”).

In “Over the Moon” (co-produced by China’s Pearl Studio and animated by Imageworks), 13-year-old Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) builds a rocket to the moon to meet the legendary goddess, Chang’e (Phillipa Soo of “Moana” and “Hamilton”). But her journey on Lunaria forces her to embrace change. Original songs were composed by Christopher Curtis (“Chaplin: The Musical”), Marjorie Duffield, and Helen Park (“KPOP”), and the score was by “Gravity” Oscar winner Steven Price. Also, famed costume designer Guo Pei designed the lavish gowns for Chang’e, which required Imageworks to up its simulation software.

Netflix also has another prime contender with festival favorite “Bombay Rose,” (fall), which kicks off the streamer’s India deal. Director Gitanjali Rao offers a hand-painted movie about a red rose bringing together three tales of impossible love, delicately woven through music, between a Hindu dancer and a Muslim boy, two women, and an entire city for its Bollywood stars.

Meanwhile, “Wolfwalkers” shapes up as the most anticipated international contender. Directed by Moore and long-time art director Ross Stewart, it centers on an 11-year-old female apprentice hunter forced to re-evaluate her mission to wipe out the last remaining wolf pack in Ireland. The 2D folktale juxtaposes a block-print style for Kilkenny with watercolors and ink splats for the forest and a charcoal look for the wolves. Although Cartoon Saloon partnered with streamer Apple TV+, a theatrical distributor has not been announced. But it’s worth noting that GKids previously released Cartoon Saloon’s Oscar nominees: “The Breadwinner,” “Song of the Sea,” and “The Secret of Kells.”

Speaking of GKids, the standout among its nearly half dozen anime release is Studio Ghibli’s first CG movie, “Earwig and the Witch” (fall), directed by Goro Miyazaki (“From Up on Poppy Hill”), with planning from his legendary father, Hayao Miyazaki. It’s about an orphan girl with latent magical powers, who’s forced to live with a selfish witch.

“Calamity, a Childhood of Martha Jane Cannary” (fall) is another international release to keep an eye on. The hand-drawn biopic about Martha (Calamity) Jane’s empowering journey West in 1863, from French director Rémi Chayé, won the Cristal Award at the Annecy 2020 Online animation festival. North American theatrical distribution has not been announced, but leading contenders include GKids and Shout! Factory, which handled Chayé’s acclaimed Arctic adventure, “Long Way North.”

DreamWorks’ hopeful, “Trolls: World Tour,” scored a major VOD victory during the lockout. Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake returned as Poppy and Branch in a more expansive and colorful movie about acceptance and musical diversity. They battle hard-rock baddie Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom), who threatens to destroy the other five musical Trolls tribes.

Warner Bros. has “Scoob!” in contention, which also did well on VOD. Part origin story, part present day Mystery Inc. supernatural adventure, the lovable Great Dane (Frank Welker) alternates between two timelines, revealing how he met Shaggy (Will Forte) and the rest of his pals. Voicing Fred, Daphne, and Velma are Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried, and Gina Rodriguez, with guest appearances by other Hanna-Barbera characters: Mark Wahlberg as Blue Falcon, Ken Jeong as Dynomutt, Dog Wonder, Tracy Morgan as Captain Caveman, Kiersey Clemons as Dee Dee Sykes, and Jason Isaacs as Dick Dastardly.

Here is a list of leading contenders in alphabetical order.  No film will be considered a frontrunner until we have seen it.

“A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon” (Netflix/Aardman)
“Animal Crackers” (Netflix)
“Bombay Rose” (Netflix)
“Calamity, a Childhood of Martha Jane Cannary” (TBD)
“Connected” (Sony)
“Earwig and the Witch” (GKids)
“Inu-Oh” (GKids)
“Lupin the 3rd: The First” (GKids)
“On-Gaku Our Sound” (GKids)
“Over the Moon” (Netflix)
“Onward” (Disney/Pixar)
“Ride Your Wave” (GKids)
“Scoob!” (Warner Bros.)
“Soul” (Disney/Pixar)
“The Croods 2” (Universal/DreamWorks)
“The Willoughbys” (Netflix)
“Trolls: World Tour” (Universal/DreamWorks)
“Wolfwalkers” (TBD)

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