A look at the 20 animated films in contention this season

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Frontrunners

"9" (Focus Features)
Director: Shane Acker
The scoop: Acker turns his Oscar-nominated short film into a visually stunning adventure movie in which tiny mechanical "stitchpunk" men battle machines of war. Its impressive CG visuals and high-action quotient set it apart enough for a shot at a nomination -- having Tim Burton's name attached as a producer doesn't hurt, either -- though a thin story and the limited appeal that comes in this category with a PG-13 rating could cap its chances.

"Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" (Sony)
 
Directors: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
The scoop: Staking out a unique visual style, "Cloudy" breaks out on its own to develop a colorful look full of falling food and appealing characters. Focused on a story with a sweet romantic undertone and a dearth of talking animals, the film serves up a potent meal of inspired lunacy. The animation in particular stands out with a bright color palette and a fast-paced visual style that also features realistic and appetizing CG food.

"Coraline" (LAIKA/Focus Features)
Director: Henry Selick
The scoop: Like a tasty Halloween confection, "Coraline" offers many layers of pleasure. Selick brings Neil Gaiman's novella to spritely life, imbuing the lead character with likeability without undermining her underlying wish to find better parents. The film uses 3D to define its alternate world, which is full of fun and well-executed visual surprises.

"Fantastic Mr. Fox" (Fox Searchlight)
Director: Wes Anderson
The scoop: Anderson's quirky style arrives in a unique package, courtesy of some very cool voice acting from a top-notch cast wrapped up in a fully retro stop-motion package. Anderson may encounter resistance from animators who see him as a dilettante or dislike his physical absence during filming. But with plenty of hip charm for kids and adults, "Fox" stands to rank among the year's best.

"Ponyo" (Disney)
 
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
The scoop: Few animators are as beloved as Miyazaki, who remains beloved by animators and has the Oscar to prove it. But while "Spirited Away" won in 2003, the 2006 Oscar nomination for "Howl's Moving Castle" shows Miyazaki's hold over awards voters is not absolute, and "Ponyo's" acclaim was tinged with just enough dissent to scale back expectations a notch or two.

"The Princess and the Frog" (Disney)
Directors: Ron Clements and John Musker
The scoop: Disney goes back to its roots with this 2D musical fairy tale that will no doubt please animation traditionalists. It also tries to broaden the genre, creating Disney's first black princess and setting the film in New Orleans -- moves that are bound to be seen by some as groundbreaking but also likely to raise a few eyebrows. Little of which is likely to matter for nominations if animators find the craftsmanship and entertainment value worthy of a big kiss.

"Up" (Disney-Pixar)
Directors: Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
The scoop: Few films made as many people cry as the first 10 minutes of this most-recent hit from Pixar. The studio's first 3D film maintained its high standards for animation and story while pushing both into new directions. As close to a lock as you're ever likely to see, the film's ability to compete for the overall best picture category could have unforeseen consequences in the animation category.


Contenders

"Astro Boy" (Imagi/Summit Entertainment)
 
Director: David Bowers
The scoop: This independent update puts a nice, CG sheen on Osamu Tezuka's classic manga and anime tale. But something gets lost in the translation and the simple charms of the original degenerates into a predictable paint-by-numbers origin story with uneven voice acting. The animation works well in action sequences, but it's emotionally cold, fails to break new ground and never busts out of its kidvid niche.

"Battle for Terra" (Roadside Attractions)
Director: Aristomenis Tsirbas
The scoop: Another independent CG sci-fi tale, this one about a generic looking group of aliens facing colonizing human interlopers. A few cool action sequences and the occasional impressive environment can't overcome the story's excessive exposition and preachiness or the animation's rather bland style.

"A Christmas Carol" (Disney)
 
Director: Robert Zemeckis
The scoop: The motion-capture technique Zemeckis uses qualifies as animation -- "Beowulf" qualified a few years ago -- but it also tends to polarize animators who can be quite vocal when it comes to defining their art. The mixed reception this has received from critics is more likely to reflect awards voters' opinions, especially in the nominating stage, than any amount of boxoffice success.

"Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" (Fox)
Director: Carlos Saldanha
The scoop: 3D wizardry and boxoffice records can't shore up the feeling that this third installment of the series is showing its age. The story finds the main characters settling down to raise families while the animation retains, aside from the addition of 3D, the look of the previous two pictures. With a very sequel-like story and no great innovation in the animation, expect voters to turn a cold shoulder on this one.

"Mary and Max" (IFC Films)
Director: Adam Elliot
The scoop: An emotional and challenging tale that goes to some surprisingly dark places that few films -- animated or not -- dare to go. The simple stop-motion animation uses color and lack of color to reflect to good effect the emotional states of its characters. A real underdog, the film will have to overcome the still-common perception of animation as a feel-good medium for young people for this very adult film to succeed.

"Monsters vs. Aliens" (DreamWorks)
 
Directors: Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon
The scoop: Bright, joke-filled riffs on pop culture have worked wonders in the past for DreamWorks, which fills this film with celebrity voices and lively
B-movie action sequences to good effect. But the formula was evident as formula in this outing, despite some funny and clever moments. And stiff competition from an extremely diverse group of contenders will make even a nomination an uphill fight for "Monsters."

"Planet 51" (Sony)
Directors: Jorge Blanco, with Javier Abad and Marcos Martinez
The scoop: An amiable year-end contender about a human astronaut who finds himself the alien on a planet very much like ours. The movie boasts a strong voice cast, a crowd-pleasingly funny premise and an animation style that's solid and bright but not exactly groundbreaking. All of which add up to an amiable movie that is unlikely to compete with this year's deeper, more diverse offerings for awards.


Long shots

"A Town Called Panic" (Zeitgeist Films)
Directors: Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar

"Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" (Fox)
Director: Betty Thomas

"The Dolphin: Story of a Dreamer" (Fox)
Director: Eduardo Schuldt

"The Missing Lynx: Paws on the Run" (Aurum)
Director: Raul Garcia

"The Secret of Kells" (Cartoon Saloon)
Director: Tomm Moore

"Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure" (Disney)
Director: Klay Hall
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