The 74th Academy Awards, which honored films from 2001, was historic in many ways. Whoopi Goldberg would host the ceremony on March 24, 2002, for her fourth time. Denzel Washington became just the second black actor to win a lead trophy. It was for his villainous cop in “Training Day” — 8 years after Sidney Poitier became the first for his handyman in 1963’s “Lilies of the Field.” Halle Berry also broke down a barrier by becoming the first-ever black actress to win an Oscar as a lead, portraying a single mother in “Monster’s Ball.”
It was also the debut of the Best Animated Feature category. As Goldberg explained on air, “In recognition to their steadily growing importance to the motion picture arts, the academy has added a category honoring animated feature films. Bambi, who is now in an assisted living facility in Palm Springs, has been lobbying for this for years. I proudly became a low-class hyena in ‘The Lion King.’ And, in the three movies that have been nominated for this brand-new award, an array of talented actors also got to cut loose like Patrick Stewart in ‘Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,’ John Goodman and Billy Crystal in ‘Monsters Inc.’ and Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers in ‘Shrek.’ ”
To the credit of the producers of the show, they recruited the very funny and fully accredited animated voice actor Nathan Lane aka Timon the Meerkat from “The Lion King” to present the newly minted Oscar to the first winner. His material might be slightly dated nowadays, but the crowd lapped it up.
“Good evening, I’m Greta Van Sustern,” Lane said while referring to a then-cable news commentator. “I’ve had a lot more work done. Oh, yes, beneath this lovely tuxedo I’m wearing the Victoria’s Secret bra with the 22 diamonds sewn in the lining. That’s Hollywood for you. Real diamonds, fake breasts.
“But it’s great to be in the panic room,” he continued. “At long last, an Academy Award for the best animated feature film. I know dear old Walt Disney would be smiling right now if he wasn’t frozen solid. You know, animators work entirely in two dimensions. Taking an image that’s flat and inert and creating the illusion of life. Something that was sadly never achieved by Al Gore.”
As for the art of animation, “It has come a long way from the early days. Instead of being hunched over drawing tables creating thousands of individual cells, animators are hunched over computer key boards creating thousands of merchandising opportunities. But some things change. The Pink Panther still can’t adopt in Florida.”
Lane then said those magic words as the ‘toon stars of each film appear in the audience: “And the nominees are ‘Monsters Inc.,’ Pete Docter and John Lasseter, ‘Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,” Steve Oederkerk and John A. Davis and ‘Shrek,’ Aron Warner.”
With the envelope in his hand, Lane got in one more dig that just might be more timelier today than ever: “Guys, up until now I thought ‘Monsters Inc.’ was a documentary about the Weinsteins.” When the audience groaned, he said, “We kid the rich and powerful because we love them. Academy rules specify that animated characters must remain in their seats. Only real people can accept the award. So please, be animated.”
And the Oscar went to …. “Shrek.” We saw Donkey give his green ogre pal a celebratory kiss as an announcer said that “the film employs state-of-the-art CGI animation. Producer Jeffrey Katzenberg says it will be a benchmark for a day or two.” Accepting the statuette was producer Aron Warner, who voiced the Big Bad Wolf in “Shrek.” “Thank you, members of the academy for inviting us to the party by creating this category to begin with.” Meanwhile, Lane donned big white Mickey Mouse hands and awkwardly shook Warner’s hand.
Warner continued, ” ‘Shrek’ took five years and 500 people to bring to life. It’s an honor to be up here on behalf of the entire team. Special thanks goes to John Williams who originally brought the book by William Steig to DreamWorks, Laurie McDonald who thought it would make a good animated movie, the amazing directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, our incredible cast Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow.”
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Warner gave special thanks to fellow producer and studio honcho Katzenberg, “whose love for animation borders on obsession and who is the real reason we’re here tonight.”
“Shrek” would grow into one of the most profitable animated franchises ever, grossing $3.5 billion worldwide with three sequels — 2004’s “Shrek 2,” 2007’s “Shrek the Third” and 2010’s “Shrek Forever After” — and a 2011 spin-off, “Puss in Boots,” featuring Antonio Banderas as the swash-buckling kitty. It held the top spot until “Despicable Me” came along, whose worldwide box office stands at $3.7 billion. Both “Shrek 2” and “Puss in Boots” would also be nominated for Best Animated Feature.
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