In a category that has been almost owned by Disney and Pixar over the years, the heaviest hitter of this year’s lineup is a live-action auteur making his animation debut for Netflix, Guillermo del Toro. Disney/Pixar is represented in the lineup, of course, and so is a work of indie animation from A24, an entry in the “Shrek” franchise from Universal and a second Netflix movie.
GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO
Guillermo del Toro has been an animation fan since he created his own stop-motion company as a teenager, and a huge Pinocchio fan — with reservations — for just as long. “I saw (Disney’s) ‘Pinocchio’ as a very young kid and I loved it because I found it captured how scary childhood felt to me,” he said. “But I didn’t quite understand why he needed to be an obedient boy to be loved.” After working to get it off the ground for years, he and co-director Mark Gustafson made a disobedient Pinocchio movie, and one where they gave their stop-motion animators a specific task: “We don’t want motion, we want emotion. Anybody can make the puppet go from here to there, but we want to know what the puppet is thinking.”
MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON
When Dean Fleisher Camp and Jenny Slate had a viral hit with the original “Marcel the Shell” video in 2010, it launched the lengthy process of turning a short about a lonely but open-hearted little shell into a feature film. They finally did so with this charming, low-key piece released by A24. “You get all the meetings at the studios — but at these big studios, they’re not really interested in working with a 24-year-old kid who made a viral video,” Camp said. “They were really more interested in trying to figure out how they could graft Marcel into a more familiar tentpole franchise. And I knew that wasn’t right.”
PUSS IN BOOTS: THE LAST WISH
The second “Puss in Boots” feature brings something new to the world of the intrepid cat voice by Antonio Banderas: fear. That emotion, unfamiliar to Puss, is exemplified by the character of death, who hunts our hero (who is almost out of his nine lives) in the guise of a wolf. “The audience is like, ‘I didn’t know this could happen in this movie,’” said director Joel Crawford of the moment when the wolf first threatens Puss. “And Puss is like, ‘I didn’t know this could happen in my life.’ To have a joyful message, in order to feel the light, you’ve got to go to the dark.”
THE SEA BEAST
The second Netflix movie in the category follows intrepid hunters who take to boats to chase down sea monsters — but are we supposed to root for those guys? “I knew our sympathies will be divided at least somewhat,” director Chris Williams said. “But I didn’t mind that. When I think about the movies that I loved, and most were made in the ’70s, those movies invited you to feel conflicted when you’re watching. Those conflicted feelings can be a source of energy, and I’m not afraid of that.”
More heavily influenced by anime than any other Pixar movie, “Turning Red” is an “Asian teen fever dream,” in the words of director Domee Shi. It’s lead character is a teen who transforms into a giant red panda when she gets upset, something that runs in her family and also serves as a useful metaphor for raging teenage hormones. “I just thought with this movie we could shed a light on this side of teen girls that you don’t really see,” Shi said. “I was just as awkward and sweaty and lusty and excited as any boy. And that’s something to celebrate and laugh at and cringe at.”
In the first 21 years of this category’s existence, a film from Disney or Pixar has won a remarkable 15 times, including nine times in the last 10 years. That means you absolutely can’t rule out “Turning Red,” this year’s Pixar entry. But the lineup is also reminiscent of the 2011 field, when a live-action director, Gore Verbinski, moved into animation with “Rango” and won the Oscar, or 2006, when “Mad Max” director George Miller won for his animated entry “Happy Feet.” Guillermo del Toro has been sweeping the early awards and will likely do the same at the Netflix-dominated Annies, so “Pinocchio” remains a solid frontrunner.