The Oscars race for best animated feature may look like it's all sewn "Up," but don't bet on it. Yes, Pixar films have claimed that Academy Award four times in the eight years of the category's existence with victories by "Finding Nemo" (2003), "The Incredibles" (2004), "Ratatouille" (2007) and "Wall-E" (2008), but it suffered some shocking upsets. Warner Bros.' "Happy Feet" trotted past front-runner "Cars" in 2006 and Pixar's "Monsters, Inc." got squashed by DreamWorks' green ogre "Shrek" in 2001.
This year there will not only be fierce competition, but lots of it. Looks like there will be five nominees in this race for only the second time ever. The first was in 2002 when director Hayao Miyazaki's little art-house hit "Spirited Away" beat such Hollywood studio biggies as "Ice Age," "Lilo and Stitch," "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" and "Treasure Planet."
All other years there were only three nominees in the category because Oscar rules limit the race to that number if there are eight to 15 eligible films. This year there will probably be 16 in the running, thus expanding the category to five nominees:
"Astro Boy" (Summit Entertainment)
"Battle for Terra" (Roadside Attractions)
"A Christmas Carol" (Walt Disney Pictures)
"Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" (Sony Pictures Entertainment)
"Coraline" (Focus Features)
"Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone" (Funimation)
"Fantastic Mr. Fox" (20th Century Fox)
"Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" (20th Century Fox)
"Mary and Max" (IFC Films)
"Monsters vs. Aliens" (Paramount Pictures)
"9" (Focus Features)
"Planet 51" (Sony Pictures Entertainment)
"Ponyo" (Walt Disney Pictures)
"The Princess and the Frog" (Walt Disney Pictures)
"Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure" (Walt Disney Pictures)
"Up" (Walt Disney Pictures)
Contrary to some blog reports, "A Town Called Panic" will not make the race because Zeitgeist Films doesn't plan to open it until late next January.
Coincidentally, Miyazaki is back in the derby this year with "Ponyo," competing against "Ice Age" again — the third installment. But odds don't favor "Dawn of the Dinosaurs" to make the cut. Parent studio Fox is putting its big Oscar push behind "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Both are considered front-runners for a nomination along with "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," "Coraline," "9," "The Princess and the Frog" and, of course, "Up."
"Up" is a sure bet considering it scored 97% at RottenTomatoes.com and it is the year's third top-grossing flick behind "Transformers 2" and "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." "Ponyo" is a very good bet to get in considering Miyazaki's "Howl's Moving Castle" was also nominated in 2006.
What will the others be? A lot will depend on what makes the official list, which will be revealed in mid-November. Deadline for entries is Nov. 2. Thereafter, a screening committee views submitted fare, grading the films with scores 10 (best) to 6 (poor). Movies with an average score of 7.5 or better are eligible for nomination. Last year 14 films entered the race. Three scored nominations: "Bolt," "Kung-Fu Panda" and "Wall-E." "Wall-E" won, continuing the domination of computer-generated animation (six victories over eight years)..
The nomination of "Bolt" was a real bolt out of the blue over critics' darling "Waltz with Bashir," which ended up with a curious consolation prize. It became the first animated flick ever nominated for best foreign film. That's one thing you can usually count on in this Oscar animated category — wacky surprises like unforeseen bids in the past for "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" and "Surf's Up."
This year there will probably be more than usual considering there will probably be five nominees for best animated feature. But considering that the top race for best picture will expand to 10 entries, there's a good chance that an animated flick might land there for only the second time in Oscar history. The sole time it occurred in the past: "Beauty and the Beast" (1991).
Animated films have been gaining esteem among Oscar voters in recent years. Until the early 1990s, none was ever nominated for best screenplay, but five animated movies pulled off screenplay bids since: "Wall-E" (2008), "Ratatouille" (2007), "The Incredibles" (2004), "Finding Nemo" (2003) and "Toy Story" (1995).
Since screenplay contenders often score noms for best picture too, it looks like an animated movie may cross over soon. Oscar watchers like me believe "Up" will pull that off this derby season because it was co-directed and co-written by two past Oscar nominees, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson. Docter reaped bids for co-writing "Wall-E" and "Toy Story," co-directing the animated short "Mike's New Car" (2002) and co-directing and co-writing nominee for best animated feature "Monsters, Inc." Peterson nabbed a writing nom for "Finding Nemo."
Read Pete Hammond's take on the animation race at his Notes on a Season blog here.
Photos: Walt Disney Pictures