Animation Magazine’s Oscar Watch

Fans are hoping that Pixar’s animated octogenarian is nominated alongside live-action heavyweights.

Last month, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released a list of 20 films that have been submitted for this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar. The unusually high number means that for the second time in the award’s history (and the first time since 2002), five films may be nominated for the honor. This news pleases many folks who felt this year’s impressive batch of animated features deserved more than only three spots on the Oscar ballot. The 20 submitted films are: Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, Astro Boy, Battle for Terra, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Coraline, Disney’s A Christmas Carol, The Dolphin: Story of a Dreamer, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Mary and Max, The Missing Lynx, Monsters vs. Aliens, 9, Planet 51, Ponyo, The Princess and the Frog, The Secret of Kells, Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, A Town Called Panic and Up. Submitted features must fulfill the theatrical release requirements and meet all of the category’s other qualifying rules before they can advance in the voting process.

Understandably, there are plenty of interesting trends and twists surrounding the 2009 feature toon race to keep the observers busy for the next few months. If you haven’t been traveling the far corners of the galaxy in your spaceship these past 10 months, you probably know that Pixar’s tenth feature release, Up, is one of the best-reviewed and most popular movies of the year’which means it has a good chance of being nominated in the Best Picture category as well, since the Academy has decided to open up that category to 10 nominees this year! Some have been questioning the wisdom of this move, but the truth is that this means more visibility for a larger number of films in the long run.

‘This year there will not only be fierce competition, but lots of it,’ says Oscars expert Tom O’Neil, who oversees the popular awards coverage of the Los Angeles Times. ‘The Oscar 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 of 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 as well. Warner Brothers’ Happy Feet trotted past front-runner Cars in 2006 and Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. got squashed by DreamWorks’ green ogre Shrek in 2001.’

O’Neil finds it curious that Hayao Miyazaki is competing with another installment of the Ice Age franchise this year as he did back in 2002 with his Spirited Away. ‘Miyazaki’s art-house hit beat such Hollywood studio productions as Ice Age, Lilo and Stitch, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Treasure Planet. But odds don’t favor Dawn of the Dinosaurs to make the cut this time. Parent studio Fox is putting its big Oscar push behind Fantastic Mr. Fox.’

Among the other titles that have good word of mouth supporting them are Sony Animation’s surprise fall box-office hit Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Henry Selick’s much-admired Coraline and Disney’s return to 2D animation and classic fairy tales, The Princess and the Frog.

The official list of short-listed toons will be released in mid-November. A screening committee views all the submitted movies, then grade the films with scores 10 (best) to 6 (poor). Titles with an average score of 7.5 or better are eligible for nomination, and will be on the short list. Last year 14 films appeared on the list, while only three’Bolt, Kung-Fu Panda and WALL’E‘received nominations.

What seems to be clear to all the awards race watchers is that Up has a good chance of becoming the second animated feature in the history of the Oscars to nab a Best Picture nomination since Beauty and the Beast broke the barriers in 1991. The film’s screenplay by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson is also a frontrunner in the prestigious script awards category.

‘As to the effect of the 10 nominees, everyone is holding their breath to see how this works out, whether the remaining five titles will be ‘more of the same’ or if they will look to animated films, indies and documentaries,’ says film historian and animation expert Leonard Maltin. ‘I rather doubt that will happen except in a year when there is a runaway critical and commercial success in one of those categories. To that end, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Up being nominated as Best Picture.’

O’Neil also believes that you can always rely on dark horses making the cut way out of the left field in this race. ‘Last year, the nomination of Bolt was a real bolt out of the blue over critics’ darling Waltz with Bashir, which got 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 category’wacky, unforeseen bids, particularly in the animation race where there were such surprise contenders in the past as Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Surf’s Up.’

Until a few weeks ago, it wasn’t clear whether Disney was going to submit Robert Zemeckis’ performance capture A Christmas Carol in the Animated Feature race. It was up to the director to decide whether he wanted his movie to compete in the animation category, but at press time, it seemed that the movie was going to be in the game. Many will remember that the director’s other recent efforts Beowulf and The Polar Express went through a similar will they/won’t they qualify period. They didn’t win, but they both appeared on the short list.

Still, many animation industry veterans and fans would like to look beyond the awards season madness and judge the year by how the world has embraced so many different types of animated projects. As Tom Sito, industry veteran and president of the Hollywood Animation Guild Local 839 IATSE tells us, ‘It’s a wonderfully eclectic year for animated features. We’ve seen some of the most various films in Toon Town history’Coraline, Up, Monsters Vs. Aliens, Ponyo, Princess and the Frog, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (the box-office champion, earning over a billion dollars worldwide) ‘ I think we have a good shot of scoring the first Best Picture nomination since Beauty and the Beast!’

As John Lasseter told the press earlier this year, the Pixar team have been striving since Toy Story to have their creations be seen like any other films. After winning the hearts of audiences all over the world with Up, it would be the real icing on the cake to compete with nine live-action movies on Oscar night.