25 April 2016

Why ‘The Jungle Book’ Could Compete for the Animated Feature Oscar

With $103 million in domestic box office receipts coming in over the weekend, plus a collective enthusiastic thumbs up from critics, Disney’s “The Jungle Book” has positioned itself as a possible home run year-end awards possibility.

Of course, categories like best visual effects are a given. The film will likely remain the frontrunner there all year long, if it can fend off competition from prestige fantasy plays like “The BFG” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and more adult-oriented films like “Passengers” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” But nearly 50 years after former Academy president Gregory Peck reportedly campaigned on behalf of the original animated musical in the best picture race, Jon Favreau’s fresh new take could easily navigate a more open-minded membership, particularly with a wider playing field that allows for up to 10 slots.

But should the studio want to get greedy, the film — which was shot in downtown Los Angeles with a live action lead actor and fully animated environments and supporting characters — could also be positioned in the animated feature race. Going by the letter of the law, it would appear to qualify.

“An animated feature film is defined as a motion picture with a running time of more than 40 minutes, in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique. Motion capture by itself is not an animation technique. In addition, a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time.”

While motion capture was used on “The Jungle Book” for pre-visualization and referencing, the bulk of the animation — courtesy of effects house MPC — was key-frame. (New Zealand-based effects company Weta was tasked with the King Louie sequence, drawing on experience with simian effects on films like “King Kong” and the “Planet of the Apes” franchise.) It’s not unlike “Avatar” in many ways, which was not submitted for animated consideration but arguably could have been. Again, motion capture itself is not deemed an animation technique, but films like this and “Life of Pi,” as another example, have so much going on besides the live action components that it’s hard to argue against the legality, shall we say, of their inclusion.

That is, until you bump up against the purists. There’s a reason films like “Boy & the World,” “Song of the Sea,” “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” and “When Marnie Was There” continue to find room in the animated feature category at the Oscars: animators want to uphold the value of traditional hand-drawn animation. They would no doubt rally against a film like this, and that’s assuming Disney would even want to go there. Frankly, it’s doubtful they would want to. After all, the studio has three strong contenders — “Finding Dory,” “Moana” and “Zootopia” — looking for room as it is. The external competition will be fierce enough without dealing with more internally.

But “The Jungle Book” has muscle to flex otherwise. It’s a rousing success and a lovable new spin on a classic that it managed to celebrate rather than sully. That could count for plenty.

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