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Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, will be standing beside animation powerhouses DreamWorks SKG and Disney at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony for the first ever Best Animated Feature Oscar. And this animated film is made with off-the-shelf software that even you could use at home, reports Robert Nunez.

For the first time since Hollywood gathered to hand out the golden statuettes, a cartoon character will accept one of the coveted gold men. More precisely, the award will go to … a cartoon. This year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences had added a new category: Best Animated Feature Film.

"But why add another category?"

But why add another category? Some consider the awards show already too long.

"The more categories there are, the better. Contests are hard enough as it is," jokes Steve Oedekerk, co-producer and co-screenwriter of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, the retro-cool 3D animated contender for Oscar’s newest prize. Disney’s Monster’s Inc and DreamWorks SKG’s Shrek round out the impressive list of nominees.

"This is a not only an acknowledgement of the great history of animation and its role in movie making, but its future," adds Neutron producer Albie Hecht.

Jimmy Neutron has proved to be the little genius that could. When the new Oscar category was announced, pundits were certain that Disney and DreamWorks, with their publicity machines and prestigious histories were virtually guaranteed nominations for their films. Jimmy’s home studio, Nickelodeon (working with Paramount Pictures), is a relative newcomer to the feature animation business. The Neutron nomination, as well as his victory at the box-office, came as a fabulous surprise.

"I thought we were the underdog," confides Albie Hecht. "We were like the independent film next to those huge campaigns. I thought it was a long shot."

"We're definitely the new kids on the block," points out John Davis, Jimmy’s director, co-producer and co-screenwriter. "And we did it with all off-the-shelf software, the same tools that a lot of guys have been using to animate stuff at home. It was very much more like the garage band mentality. You get a bunch of guys and you hole up in your garage for a couple of years. Then suddenly you pop out with this really neat thing."

"a major player in animation"

So how did a once-obscure cable channel become a major player in animation, taking on established players like Disney and DreamWorks? Albie Hecht (who has served as President of Film and TV Entertainment for Nickelodeon since 1997) is helping Nickelodeon to take animation to infinity and beyond.

"Nickelodeon was a television channel in the United States over 20 years ago. But it was originally sort of the good-for-you-vegetable channel," he laughs. "Then, we changed our logo to orange and turned it over to a contemporary us-versus-them, first kid's network."

Under Hecht’s leadership, Nickelodeon Movies has released a slate of live-action and animation projects, sticking to their "kid-first" motto with star-driven family movies and animated features. Nickelodeon Productions is now the third largest TV studio in the United States.

"It's a very contemporary attitude. It's a place where kids win. You're in an exclusive club, but it's not too exclusive: if you're a kid, you're in."

John Davis, who created Jimmy Neuron with his DNA Productions in Texas, explains, "One of the things that led us to take Jimmy to Nickelodeon, was their sense of fun. In the old golden age of animation in the forties, Warner Brothers was looked at as the jazz to Disney's classical. You could look at Nickelodeon as more rock and roll."

Like Jimmy Neutron’s fantastic inventions, Nickelodeon’s success didn’t just happen. Hecht had a plan. "We've always made a left when everybody else went right. So when we got into animated feature films, we were going to be contemporary," he explains.

"a very contemporary point of view"

"So what did that mean? That meant no fairy tales, no historical sagas. The Rugrats Movie then became the first animated film about a contemporary family. We had a very different point of view about music that went with that. Instead of Broadway scores we went with Busta Rhymes. We were rewarded for that with a lot of success. We've continued to do that with Rugrats In Paris, Jimmy Neutron, [the upcoming] Wild Thornberries and Hey, Arnold. All of those take a very contemporary point of view."

That contemporary view combined with Jimmy’s high-flying adventures proved to be an explosive combination, attracting some of the most talented stars to help voice Jimmy’s first escapade. Martin Short ("Father Of The Bride," "Three Amigos"), Patrick Stewart ("X-Men," "Star Trek") and Andrea Martin ("The Rugrats Movie," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch") bring star wattage to this space flick.

Whether it is the Year Of The Woman or the Indie Revolution, Oscar historians (yes, there are dozens) are always looking for trends. With Russell Crowe garnering praise and Oscar noms for his portrayal of math wiz and Nobel prize-winner John Nash, Jr., the 74th Academy Awards ceremony could become the Year of the Brain. Albie Hecht hopes so. "One of the things Nickelodeon always said to our kids is, ‘it's cool to be smart.’ I guess Hollywood is catching up."

Even with his large head screwed on tight, the life of an Oscar nominee can be overwhelming. How will Jimmy react to being one of the youngest and most animated contenders?

"Jimmy would definitely be very touched and very thankful," speculates Steve Oedekerk. "And then he would immediately be trying to come up with some contraption that ensures he wins. (Laughs) He's still a kid, so he'd be trying to come up with some kind of an envelope name-changing ray or some kind of thing like that, just in case."

John Davis agrees. "He would probably, start exploring ways to manipulate the system. (Laughs) ‘Okay, now how is this thing judged and who is making these decisions? Where does that envelope go? Let's see. I've got my Inviso-ray….’"

"a Hollywood law "

It’s almost a Hollywood law to assert that it’s just as good to be nominated for the Oscar, as it is to win. But the Neutron team asserts that this sentiment is far more sincere than a Beverly Hills air-kiss.

"Oh, absolutely. It'd be hard for anybody to believe," Steve Oedekerk explains. "But we weren't even thinking, ‘are we going to be nominated?’ It really came as a surprise."

Of course winning would be great, says John Davis. "But I'm totally satisfied with the nomination. It could end right now and I'd be a happy man. I wasn't really allowing myself to believe we'd get nominated, much less winning the Oscar."

Albie Hecht makes it unanimous. "I'm so happy! In my mind, I've won by being acknowledged by the Academy and being part of history. Being a nominee in the first year [of the animated feature film category]—that's already a huge, huge win."

Published March 21, 2002

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Steve Oedekerk

John Davis


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