That’s not all, folks

I’d like to thank Tom Hanks for voicing me, John Lasseter and the guys at Pixar for creating me, my agent, Buzz, Jessie, Mr Potato Head and the rest of the team – it was great working with you guys.”

That won’t happen this year but we could be hearing Oscar acceptance speeches like this, perhaps complemented by computer-animated tears, in years to come.

For the first time in 20 years, a new Academy award has been created: best animated feature. It will probably come into effect in

2002, for films of more than 70 minutes in length that are “primarily animated”. Up until now, only animated short films – of which Creature Comforts and The Wrong Trousers are outstanding examples – could expect Academy recognition. But the new award means next year’s crop of full-length animations are, for the first time, true Oscar contenders.

Animators have been campaigning for years for Oscar recognition, but also harbour reservations about the award. “It’s a double-edged sword,” says Dave Sproxton, managing director and co-founder of Britain’s Aardman Animations, producers of last year’s Chicken Run. “It’s a sign that animation is back on the agenda and should mean we see more players in the field. But it could also relegate animated films to their own little ghetto, so they stand against each other and don’t interfere with the ‘real’ pictures.”

In critical and box-office terms, animation is already giving “real” pictures a run for their money. Toy Story II was one of the top-grossing films worldwide last year, as well as a critical triumph; while Chicken Run and Dinosaur both took more than $100-million in the United States. But despite matching live-action films in the marketplace, animation has never come close at the Oscars. Animators often spend years crafting their product, only to see Phil Collins or Tim Rice walk off with an Oscar for best song.

Only one animated feature has ever received a best picture nomination: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in 1991. It, too, won only in the music categories.

Since about 1960, Disney has been the only studio regularly producing feature-length animation so, until recently, any Oscar would

have been a one-horse race. Disney is the only studio to have received real Academy recognition for its features. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs received an honorary award in 1939 for having “pioneered a great new entertainment field” and, three years later, Fantasia received another.

Disney’s dominance once destroyed competition in the past, but its recent renaissance has had the opposite effect. Once the Mouse House bounced back with hits such as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and particularly The Lion King – which took more than $760-million worldwide – Disney’s colossal revenues prompted other Hollywood studios to take another stab at the genre.

Most have mimicked Disney’s family musical formula but few have consistently made it click. Fox put its weight behind Disney

defector Don Bluth, whose Phoenix studio found sporadic success with Anastasia and An American Tail. However, last year’s sci-fi epic Titan AE failed to recoup much of its $80-million budget, sending Fox Animation into untimely closure.

Warner Bros, still productive in TV animation, has experienced similar difficulty when apeing the Disney formula (Quest for Camelot, The King and I), but found critical success with original work (The Iron Giant).

DreamWorks has fared better with The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado and Antz, while TV tie-ins such as Rugrats, Pokémon and South Park have also performed well at feature length.

“We’ve spent three or four years debating this award, but we had to wait until the industry was big enough to make it worthwhile,” says John Pavlik of the Academy. “That time is judged to have come, though the rules have been carefully calibrated to ensure competition.’ The best animation feature Oscar will only be given if eight or more eligible films are released in a year, and it will require a minimum of 16 releases to secure five nominees. The average number of US-produced animated features over the past decade, including the year 2000, has been seven.

What the Oscar will hopefully encourage is variety, giving a financial boost to riskier projects and small or foreign players, as it

has with live-action features. Japan, for example, has a fullyfledged animation industry, producing everything from apocalyptic sci-fi adventures such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell to contemporary character dramas such as Perfect Blue and offbeat fantasies such as the widely acclaimed Princess Mononoke (the highest-grossing picture in Japan apart from Titanic).

Many of these have gone on to find a niche in Western video markets (Mononoke even had a limited US theatrical release), but their technical sophistication and mature themes could have made them strong contenders for Oscar success.

With a $240-million Hollywood deal to their name, Aardman Animations is living proof of the difference an Oscar can make to a smaller player. “We can’t deny that the three Oscars Nick [Park] won from the Wallace and Gromit films helped pave the way to our deal with DreamWorks,” says Dave Sproxton. Its forthcoming reworking of the tortoise and the hare fable could be a contender for the first award in 2002.

Whatever the effects on the industry, there could be more problematic repercussions from the new Oscar stemming from the tricky

term “primarily animated”. With computer-generated images (CGI) increasingly blended into live-action films, the dividing line between the genres is likely to become more and more indeterminate.

Take a movie such as Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Real characters and virtual ones populate a combination of CGI and live sets. What percentage of the film is animated? How would such a percentage be determined? By drawing a firm line between the two, the Academy might be laying the ground for future legal disputes and bitter statistical warfare on a par with the US presidential elections.

“That’s definitely one of the wickets that’s still sticky,” says Pavlik. “The original proposal has detailed guidelines about the way the competition will work, but the rules about what constitutes “primarily animated” haven’t been written yet.”

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