Variety - - Contenders -

Univer­sal’s Il­lu­mi­na­tion En­ter­tain­ment had no Min­ions scur­ry­ing around, though it will un­veil a 3D-an­i­mated take on Dr. Seuss’ Christ­mas clas­sic with “The Grinch.” Warner An­i­ma­tion Group built on the stu­dio’s sto­ried an­i­ma­tion rep with the mu­si­cal- com­edy “Small­foot” — a man-meets-big­foot tale. Fi­nally, Fox Search­light is show­cas­ing Wes An­der­son’s idio­syn­cratic stop-mo­tion style on the Ber­lin Film Fes­ti­val- opener “Isle of Dogs,” his first an­i­ma­tion since the 2009 Os­car-nom­i­nee “Fan­tas­tic Mr. Fox.”

There’s no short­age of fa­mil­iar faces on­screen — from Jack-jack and Ralph to Drac­ula and Spidey. In an­i­ma­tion, fran­chises still rule. Yet Pixar’s two-time Os­car-win­ning di­rec­tor Brad Bird waited 14 years to re­visit his In­cred­i­bles clan.

“When we did the first film, the Batman and Su­per­man fran­chises were dor­mant, so we had el­bow room,” Bird says. “Now if you throw a rock, you’ll hit five su­per­heroes. That de­pressed me for about an hour, un­til I re­mem­bered that the su­per­hero part wasn’t what in­ter­ested me. ‘The In­cred­i­bles’ is more about fam­ily dy­nam­ics, and there are a mil­lion per­mu­ta­tions of that. Out­wardly, the film looks like a candy- col­ored ex­trav­a­ganza, but the feel­ing be­hind it comes from grow­ing up as a lit­tle brother.”

Bird was able to fol­low those in­stincts, since he’s that rare solo writer- di­rec­tor in a field in which films of­ten have many bosses.

Re­fresh­ing a su­per­hero fran­chise was def­i­nitely the chal­lenge fac­ing Sony An­i­ma­tion with “Spi­der-man: Into the Spi­der-verse,” which dis­plays a toon style that chan­nels the Mar­vel ‘POW’‘ZAP’ pan­els of comic books. Phil Lord (of “Lego Movie” fame) penned a script with a teen pro­tag­o­nist, an older Peter Parker and a mul­ti­cul­tural spin, while Dis­ney/ Dreamworks story vet­eran Bob Per­sichetti clinched his first co- di­rec­tor shot.

“There were seven pro­duc­ers and all these ex­pec­ta­tions, so it was daunt­ing,” says Per­sichetti. “In mak­ing a cin­e­matic ex­pres­sion of the orig­i­nal comic, we wanted to sat­isfy hard- core fans AND also cre­ate new char­ac­ters.”

Their “panel-iza­tion” ap­proach re­quired Sony’s an­i­ma­tors and vfx artists to make mul­ti­ple im­ages that ap­pear to­gether in some scenes.

“Our shot count is two or three times higher than most films that Image­works has done for Sony,” Per­sichetti says.

Image­works also de­liv­ered mon­ster ef­fects for “Ho­tel Tran­syl­va­nia 3,” in which Drac­ula and com­pany set sail on a cruise and meet may­hem at sea. Di­rec­tor Gen­ndy Tar­takovsky, the toon-mas­ter be­hind Sony’s “Tran­syl­va­nia” tril­ogy, proudly calls it goofy slap­stick.

“It’s not as if Luke Sky­walker does the wrong thing and the world ex­plodes,” he says. “We get more lee­way.”

For the first time, Tar­takovsky co-wrote as well as di­rected. “I wanted a story that would fa­cil­i­tate our phys­i­cal style of an­i­ma­tion. I think we have five se­quences with­out ANY di­a­logue. More peo­ple are steer­ing an­i­ma­tion to­wards re­al­ism, but I’m stay­ing with a car­toon sen­si­bil­ity,” he says.

Toon za­ni­ness is never far from the spirit of “Ralph Breaks the In­ter­net,” ei­ther — de­spite the 3D pol­ish on this Dis­ney An­i­ma­tion con­tender. Rich Moore and Phil John­ston, who penned “Wreck-it Ralph” and the Os­car-win­ning “Zootopia,” to­gether wrote and di­rected Ralph’s jour­ney from videogames into the wild world of the in­ter­net.

“Ralph’s gone from a lit­tle lake into the ocean,” cracks Moore, whose an­i­ma­tion DNA in­cludes “The Simp­sons.”

In brain­storm­ing the “what ifs …” for Ralph and his friend Vanel­lope roam­ing the web, John­ston and Moore imag­ined a Dis­ney-princess ver­sion of an on­line per­son­al­ity test. Evok­ing the sis­ter-stars of “Frozen,” they posed the hy­po­thet­i­cal ques­tion: “Are you an Elsa or an Anna?” That led them to in­clude voice ac­tors from “Frozen” — and also “Moana” — for their new “Ralph” film.

“There’s never been a movie with so many back­ground play­ers at once,” John­ston says. “We have 430 char­ac­ters, 90-speak­ing roles and lit­er­ally mil­lions of ex­tras.”

Com­puter-an­i­mated fea­tures are a safe bet to dom­i­nate the awards scene this year, but Bird says greater di­ver­sity in the medium can re­main vi­able.

“Be­cause of a lim­ited num­ber of ex­am­ples to em­u­late, peo­ple have con­flated com­puter graph­ics with con­tem­po­rary suc­cess,” he says.

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