Eligible feature toons run the gamut of style, technique

Three nominations. 11 eligible animated films. Which ones will nab the coveted spots?

Animation isn't limited to talking pigs and personality-packed cars these days. In fact, the year's qualified features run the gamut of story lines -- from bees to beasts, Iranian girls to surfing penguins -- and feature a full array of techniques, from performance-capture animation to 3-D CGI and hand-drawn cels. There's been something for everyone: lovers of anime, fans of mythology, children and adults.

Going into the nominations, two films seem to rise to the top of the list: Disney/Pixar's "Ratatouille," which exhibits the companies' trademarked combination of great storytelling and rich, captivating imagery; and Sony Pictures Classics' "Persepolis," a surprise entry that arrived on the scene at the end of 2007 with a cloak of international acclaim enveloping it. Although not as certain as "Ratatouille," it seems likely that "Persepolis" might garner the second nomination.

The remaining films to watch are DreamWorks/Paramount's "Bee Movie," Paramount's "Beowulf," Fox's "The Simpsons Movie" and Sony's "Surf's Up." "Bee Movie" and "Simpsons" carry the clout of beloved icons: Jerry Seinfeld and the Simpsons family, respectively. "Surf's Up" didn't get a lot of attention, but animators -- whose Academy branch picks the three nominations -- liked it. And though "Beowulf" has been acclaimed as a new form of hybrid filmmaking -- live action and animation via performance capture -- the method is not favored by animators, who might choose to give it the cold shoulder.


Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters (First Look)

Plot: Based on an Adult Swim animated show, the Aqua Teen Hunger Force (made up of Master Shake, Frylock and Meatwad) is faced with an immortal piece of exercise equipment that threatens the balance of galactic peace. The Plutonians team up with the Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past to control the deadly device as the Aqua Teen Hunger Force runs away from it.

If this synopsis doesn't make any sense, don't worry. The show revels in its idiosyncratic humor and nonsensical plots, in which characters routinely die and return. Adult Swim fans apparently love the movie, but animation expert Jerry Beck calls it "one of the worst films ever made." "It's offbeat and has 'post modern' humor," he says. "But I think it's nonsense. "It's the 'Beavis and Butt-Head' of today without the wit or artistic talent."

Voices: Carey Means, Dana Snyder, Dave Willis; Music: The theme song was written and performed by Schoolly D; MC Chris, playing his character MC Pee Pants, raps; Technical specs: A combination of hand-drawn and 2-D computer animation


Bee Movie (DreamWorks/Paramount)

Plot: Barry B. Benson, a recent college graduate, ventures out of the hive to avoid the dull and inevitable career waiting for him at Honex producing honey. He develops a forbidden friendship with a human, a Manhattan florist named Vanessa, and soon discovers that humans are making money from the fruits of the bees' labor. Horrified, he decides to avenge this injustice by suing the human race.

"Bee Movie" combines the iconic talents of Seinfeld with a host of stellar comedians and actors and the animation talents of Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks Animation. Seinfeld, who also co-wrote and co-produced the film, got the idea for "Bee Movie" during a dinner with Steven Spielberg. Katzenberg, who reportedly had been trying for years to lure the comedian into feature animation, gladly gave Seinfeld a crash course in the genre. And "Bee Movie" also did well at the boxoffice. "'Bee Movie' has a shot at the nomination mainly because of the industry's affection for both Jerry Seinfeld and Jeffrey Katzenberg," says Beck, who notes that ASIFA-Hollywood, the Los Angeles chapter of the International Animated Film Society, nominated this film (along with four others) for its best animated feature award, the Annie. The Golden Globes also nominated "Bee Movie," making it a favorite for an Oscar nod.

Voices: Jerry Seinfeld, Renee Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, Patrick Warburton, John Goodman, Chris Rock, Kathy Bates, Oprah Winfrey, Sting, Ray Liotta, Barry Levinson, Megan Mullally, Larry Miller, Rip Torn; Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams, with executive music producer Hans Zimmer; Technical specs: 3-D CGI


Beowulf (Paramount)

Plot: Based on the epic saga, "Beowulf" tells the tale of the eponymous heroic warrior who arrives in a remote kingdom to defeat the monster Grendel, who is terrorizing its inhabitants. Though Beowulf gains the kingdom and the king's beautiful wife, his arrogance and pride lead him astray. Grendel's mother, a demonic temptress, seduces him, and his corruption stains his life and ruins his relationship with his queen. To redeem himself, Beowulf battles a dragon menacing his kingdom.

"Beowulf" is director Robert Zemeckis' latest foray into animation via performance capture, a technique that enables actors to provide realistic movements to 3-D CG models. "Bob Zemeckis thought performance capture animation was the perfect tool to achieve his vision of 'Beowulf,'" says Sony Imageworks senior visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen. "We animate on top of all the characters, but it needs to feel like a realistic performance, and that timing is what we get from the performance capture." Though audiences have flocked to "Beowulf," especially the 3-D and Imax 3-D versions, the animators who make up the Academy's animation branch are likely to veto a nomination. "I do know that most of them resent motion capture being represented as part of the art form of animation," explains Beck. "The Academy may look at it as a bold step into filmmaking, but animators won't want to pass it off as what they traditionally know as animation."

Voices: Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, Crispin Glover, Robin Wright Penn, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson; Music: Alan Silvestri; Technical specs: Hailed as a new "hybrid" form of filmmaking, "Beowulf" is Zemeckis' most advanced version yet of performance capture animation for the big screen. The CG models have more lifelike characteristics than previous efforts, and improved technology allowed him to capture the proverbial "cast of thousands" necessary to realize an epic. The original performance capture data was clearly the raw material for dozens of top-notch Sony Imageworks animators, but the real-time capture of that raw material has some animators crying foul over putting "Beowulf" into the animation category at all.


Meet the Robinsons (Disney)

Plot: Orphan boy genius Lewis longs for the family he's never had. He encounters Wilbur Robinson, a mysterious stranger with a time machine who whisks him off to the future -- and a new family. Warned about a villainous "Bowler Hat Guy," Lewis finds himself stuck in the future when that same Bowler Hat Guy steals his only way home. But the fun-loving, futuristic Robinsons teach Lewis lessons about family, his own potential and the world of the future.

"Meet the Robinsons" is the only Walt Disney Feature Animation movie of the year, and chock-full of typical Disney delights. The 3-D stereoscopic release was a big hit, and audiences found the film charming and enjoyable. Is this enough to rise to the top for a nomination? Beck points out that the Academy "looks for films that are pushing the envelope," which, alas, "Meet the Robinsons" does not do. Sticklers might think that an assured nomination for "Ratatouille," a Disney film by way of Pixar, will be the only nod necessary to the Mouse.

Voices: Angela Bassett, Harland Williams, Adam West, Nicole Sullivan, Ethan Sandler, Tom Kenny, Laurie Metcalf, Tom Selleck; Music: Danny Elfman; songs by Rufus Wainwright, Harry Ruby, Rube Bloom, Rob Thomas and Danny Elfman; Technical specs: 3-D CGI


Persepolis (Sony Pictures Classics)

Plot: Based on a series of autobiographical graphic novels, Marjane Satrapi tells the poignant story of a precocious and rebellious 9-year-old Iranian girl growing up in the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and her subsequent fleeing of that country for exile in Europe. In Europe as a teenager, she endures discrimination and teenage angst. The animated feature adaptation, by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, is true to the B&W graphic-novel look and creates a lyrical portrait that has endeared the film to critics.

Heavy buzz preceded its Dec. 25 release, and ASIFA-Hollywood nominated it for best animated feature, but what's more telling is its reception among mainstream critics: The New York Film Critics Circle named it best animated feature; and in the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. Awards race, it shared the award with "Ratatouille." Animators in particular admire the film because it is hand-drawn and emphasizes the importance of story and character for the medium. And though "Persepolis" is told from the point of view of a child, it's definitely a movie for adults -- another point in its favor among animators, who want the art form to be recognized as more than children's fare.

Voices: Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux; Music: Olivier Bernet; Technical specs: Fully hand-drawn animation; Satrapi developed and drew 600 distinct characters.




Ratatouille (Disney/Pixar)

Plot: He's been raised in a world of garbage-dump dining, but Remy the rat dreams of cooking in a gourmet restaurant, something none of his family or friends understand. Circumstances drop him into the kitchen of Auguste Gusteau, a chef with a philosophy that emboldens Remy: Anyone can cook. But it isn't so easy being a chef, especially if you're a rat in a rat-phobic restaurant kitchen. Just when Remy is ready to give up, he meets Linguini, a shy garbage boy about to be fired from his job. Remy hides under Linguini's hat and works him like a marionette to create spectacular dishes.

The story of making "Ratatouille" is as miraculous as the tale it tells. the Pixar film was in trouble when writer-director Brad Bird was brought on board to salvage it. "It was a magnificent idea and the looks that had been developed were all wonderful," says Bird. "But the story had proven to be a tricky one to get to work, and time to ponder options had been used up. I had the same delivery date, but I took the movie down to the studs." What he created is perhaps the most satisfying Pixar animated feature ever. "Ratatouille" is a slam dunk for a nomination.

Voices: Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano, Brian Dennehy, Peter O'Toole, Brad Garrett, Janeane Garofalo, Will Arnett; Music: Michael Giacchino; Technical specs: 3-D CGI


Shrek the Third (DreamWorks/Paramount)

Plot: Shrek has never wanted to be a king, but when Fiona's father, King Harold, dies, the crown falls on the ogre's head. Then another big responsibility looms when Shrek learns he's going to become a father. The reluctantly royal Shrek goes in search of the next possible heir to the throne, Fiona's long-lost cousin Artie, with Donkey and Puss in tow.

"Shrek the Third" did well at the boxoffice and pleased audiences, but its chances for a nomination are slim, given that the Academy already bestowed an Oscar on the first "Shrek" in 2002. ASIFA-Hollywood did nominate it for an Annie, but Beck notes that sequels always fight an uphill battle. "I don't see the Academy giving an award to the third entry," he says. "It's not pushing the envelope or stretching the boundary of animation."

Voices: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Rupert Everett, Justin Timberlake, Julie Andrews, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Cheri Oteri; Music: Harry Gregson-Williams; Songs by Harry Chapin, Eels, the Ramones, Wings, Wolfmother and Led Zeppelin, as well as "Barracuda," performed by Fergie, and "Thank You (Falettin' Me Be Mice Elf Again)," performed by Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas; Technical specs: 3-D CGI


The Simpsons Movie (Fox)

Plot: In the film's opening scene, Green Day plays "The Simpsons'" theme song as the citizens of Springfield throw trash at the band, sinking their barge and killing them, further polluting the Lake Springfield. Though Lisa tries to sound the alarm about pollution, Homer creates more by dumping a silo's worth of waste (created by his pet pig) into the lake. All this leads to President Arnold Schwarzenegger declaring Springfield the most polluted city in the U.S. and covering it with a glass dome. The infuriated townspeople torch the Simpsons' home, and the family escapes and begins a new life in Alaska. But when they learn the government is going to destroy Springfield, they leave Alaska to try and save their hometown.

The brilliant writing that characterizes the TV show is in full force here. Though the simple 2-D animation doesn't push any envelopes, "The Simpsons" is the most successful animation franchise of the last several decades. "Like Jerry Seinfeld, 'The Simpsons' have an iconic presence," says Beck. "It's so part of Hollywood that I think there's a chance it will be considered." Animators appreciate "The Simpsons" hand-drawn 2-D look, another factor in its favor. "I have to say that one of my hopes is that the potential success of 'The Simpsons Movie' would help reinvigorate the notion of 2-D animation being viable," says director David Silverman. It doesn't hurt that "The Simpsons" is up for an Annie and a Golden Globe.

Voices: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria, Tress MacNeille, Pamela Hayden, Joe Mantegna, Albert Brooks, Tom Hanks; Music: Hans Zimmer; Technical specs: A combination of hand-drawn and 2-D computer animation


Surf's Up (Sony)

Plot: Teenage rock hopper penguin Cody Maverick travels from Antarctica to the "Big Z Memorial Surf Off" on Pen Gu Island, determined to win the most important competition in the world of penguin surfing in honor of Big Z, a deceased surfing legend whom he has idolized since childhood. But Cody hasn't counted on different waves and competition from the current champion. Then he meets a reclusive old surfer who teaches him more about life and surfing.

This lovely film has been overlooked by nearly everyone, with the exception of ASIFA-Hollywood, which nominated it as best animated feature. "It was a surprise -- there was really something there," says Beck. "The look of it, especially the waves, and the documentary style of telling the story were really interesting. It's a good film, and I'd understand a nomination." One unfortunate coincidence, however, is that the leading characters in "Surf's Up" are penguins, and it was penguins, in 2006's "Happy Feet," that won last year's Oscar for best animated feature. If Academy members aren't too tired of penguins, "Surf's Up" has a shot at snagging a nomination.

Voices: Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, Jon Heder, James Woods, Diedrich Bader; Music: Mychael Danna; Technical specs: 3-D CGI


Tekkonkinkreet (Destination Films)

Plot: Based on a popular Japanese manga written by Taiyo Matsumoto and directed in Japan by American Michael Arias, "Tekkonkinkreet" follows the adventures of two street urchins in an isolated city where life is both magical and brutal. They do battle with Old World Yakuza and alien assassins who are trying to take over the shabby Treasure Town in order to tear it down and build an amusement park.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of "Tekkonkinkreet" is that an American directed this dyed-in-the-wool Japanese anime. Scott Green, anime/manga columnist for "Ain't It Cool News," says anime fans in the U.S. had "largely an ambivalent reaction" to the film. "Studio 4°C is highly regarded, and anime followers were eager to see one of their movies, especially since their uniformly praised work on 'Mind Game' (2004) never made it to North America beyond a few festival screening," he says. "Many anime fans appreciated the visual language of the movie on a technical level but weren't affected by its theme or artistic references." "Tekkonkinkreet" didn't get a wide release and doesn't have the same street cred as a master such as Hayao Miyazaki (who won the best animated feature Oscar in 2003 for "Spirited Away"), so it's a long shot.

Voices: Yu Aoi, Masayuki Furuya, Yusuke Iseya; Music: U.K. band Plaid; Technical specs: Hand-drawn with 3-D CGI environments


TMNT (Warner Bros.)

Plot: After the defeat of their old arch nemesis, the Shredder, the Turtles have grown apart. Leonardo has gone for training in Central America, per the orders of his martial arts mentor Master Splinter. Donatello and Michelangelo have started small businesses. But strange things are happening in New York City. Tech-industrialist tycoon Max Winters revives four ancient stone warriors and enlists the help of the foot clan to capture ancient monsters. The Turtles must reunite to save the city.

"It was a good little movie for what it was," says Beck. "It was a routine actioner, not a particularly special animated film. I liked it but I don't see it having a prayer here."

Voices: Chris Evans, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mako, Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Smith, Patrick Stewart, Zhang Ziyi; Music: Klaus Badelt; Technical specs: 3-D CGI
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