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Pixar gets shut out of the animation race; ‘Zootopia’s’ timeliness is amplified by the Black Lives Matter movement

By Jen Yamato Los Angeles Times

The Oscars invited a wide ranging class of 2017 animation film nominees to the party Tuesday, from acclaimed studio hits “Moana,” “Zootopia” and “Kubo and the Two Strings,” to Swiss stop-motion drama “My Life as a Zucchini” and the dialogue-free Studio Ghibli offering “The Red Turtle.”

But Pixar, whose “Inside Out” took home the animated feature Oscar last year, found its “Finding Dory” left swimming on the sidelines – drawn out of the race in a rare shutout for the CGI juggernaut.

That’s good news for the five contenders, which represent a diverse breadth of style, story and size, making the animation category one of the hardest races to predict come Feb. 26.

Disney Animation made a strong showing with two critical and commercial hits now vying for the animation prize. Pacific Islander girl-power tale “Moana,” directed by John Musker, Ron Clement and Osnat Shurer, also earned a song nomination for the soaring anthem “How Far I’ll Go,” penned by EGOT-chasing “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Disney’s “Zootopia,” about a female rabbit who defies her haters, doubters and a class-divided society to become a police officer, heads into the Academy Awards with a Golden Globe win under its hat and a sense of timely urgency that continues to grow in stature. Will it be the first “woke” movie for kids to take home an Oscar?

The film, from co-directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore, explores the kinds of social inequities – gender, racial and class bias – they saw unfolding during production in the national conversation as police killings of African American men sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I remember saying, ‘This is exactly what we’re talking about with this movie,” Howard told The Times Tuesday morning. “It was emboldening. We felt like we really needed to do this topic justice, because it wasn’t just a theoretical that we were playing out onscreen.”

Focus Features’ handsome 3-D stop-motion picture “Kubo and the Two Strings” is another strong contender. Hailing from Oregon-based Laika Studios (“Coraline,” “ParaNorman”), it is just the second animated feature to additionally earn a nomination for visual effects since Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” in 1994.

“Kubo’s” Asian-influenced visual aesthetic and story have been met with critical praise. But the casting of primarily white stars – including lead actor Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes and Rooney Mara – to voice its Japanese characters has drawn robust fire from the Asian American community.

A year after #OscarsSoWhite, in spite of increased accolades for black filmmakers and performers, issues of representation and inclusion will continue to be hotly debated until and beyond Oscars Sunday. And director Travis Knight, who has attempted to deflect those accusations of whitewashing, has yet to win over his toughest critics.

“(I) think that things can get easily simplified when you’re talking about diversity in a binary way,” he told the Wrap in August. “A lot of nuance gets lost when you reduce this complex matter to a hashtag.”

Seamless cross-cultural blending is on display in the quiet and exquisitely drawn fable “The Red Turtle,” a dialogue-free, hand-animated fantasy from Dutch-British animator Michael Dudok de Wit. The French-Belgian-Japanese co-production between France’s Wild Bunch and Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli tells the story of a shipwrecked man who creates an unexpected new life for himself on an island deserted of everything but wildlife.

The category is rounded out by another European entry with art-house appeal: “My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette),” a colorful stop-motion nominee with playful visuals hailing from France and Switzerland.

Director Claude Barras spent three years just prepping his film about a young boy who loses his parents and goes to live in an orphanage. It took six years to complete the film – “a lonely six years,” he joked via telephone from Switzerland. “Hopefully the next one comes together more quickly,” he continued. “And is less lonely.”

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