Who's gonna get in? Toon in tomorrow

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It all could come down to a chipmunk.

In a year when a number of Hollywood heavyweights — including Jerry Seinfeld, Matt Groening and Robert Zemeckis — are duking it out in the unlikely forum of the best animated feature film Oscar race, several complicating (and complicated) factors could rob many of their glory.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is expected to announce its eligibility list for the animated category next week. With heavy star power, a deep field and unconventional candidates — and a rule that could involve the Fox family film "Alvin & the Chipmunks" — animation players are bracing for the kind of drama and controversy that's never been seen in the award's seven-year history.

"This is finally the year you see the animation category breaking out and telling different kinds of stories," Animation Magazine editor Ramin Zahed said.

As a result, he and other animation watchers say, votes could be split in a way that will make a lot of toon players unhappy.

Seinfeld's "Bee Movie," Pixar critics favorite "Ratatouille," Groening's "The Simpsons Movie," Sony's technically lauded "Surf's Up" and Oscar-factory DreamWorks' "Shrek the Third" are all in the mix.

That would make for a crowded enough race in any year. But this year they'll be going up against the adult-aimed French-language political movie "Persepolis" and Zemeckis' take on the epic Beowulf tale.

"I could say it's the year of diversity," one Academy member said. "But really it's just the year of chaos."

Contributing to that chaos is an uncertain number of slots. Academy rules state that if 16 animated movies are released in a given year, the committee could nominate five movies instead of three.

While by most counts 13 films now make the cut, "Chipmunks," a Fox live/animated hybrid whose status as an eligible film remains uncertain, could become an improbable swing vote in whether the 16-release threshold is reached. (A number of other films, including Serge Elissalde's "U," which has the backing of major European firms like Canal Plus, also could put the number over the top if it gets last-minute qualifying runs.)

If the magic number is reached, that would increase the award slots to five — a rule quirk that offers the strange specter of distributors like "Persepolis" backer Sony Pictures Classics rooting for "Chipmunks" to be considered a cartoon.

Meanwhile, at Paramount, eligibility for "Beowulf" represents an epic saga in its own right.

The studio is expected to make a big push for Zemeckis' performance-capture movie. In the past, similar projects — including the helmer's own "The Polar Express" and "Monster House" — have made the grade.

But the Academy has tightened its rules this year. A seemingly inscrutable change — it has revised the requirement of "a frame-by-frame technique" to one in which "movement and characters' performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique" — is said by experts to target performance-capture techniques, potentially eliminating "Beowulf."

Zemeckis has been quoted as saying that he doesn't see performance-capture movies as animated films. "To call performance capture animation is a disservice to the great animators," he said at the International Broadcasting Convention in September (HR 9/10).

A Paramount spokesman said the company was "definitely submitting" the movie.

In a way, the explosion of contenders represents what the animated community has long wanted: the moment when animation is acknowledged not so much as a genre but as a format, capable of all sorts of narratives.

But that growth also means intense competition that didn't exist when it was just DreamWorks, Disney and Pixar dominating.

With technology developing even faster than the genres, confusion is inevitable. Jon Bloom, chair of the Academy's short films and feature animation branch, admits that technology is so "constantly and rapidly changing" that "we want to make certain we are not allowing the doors to be so wide open that just about anything that looks like animation qualifies as animation."

What's more, members of the Academy's small eligibility committee could make their decision without seeing such movies as "Beowulf" and "Persepolis"; studios are required to fill out paperwork by today but aren't obligated to submit prints until mid-November, after the eligibility list is released.

Last year, the Academy gave the nod to Luc Besson's "Arthur and the Invisibles," getting the total to 16. But it revoked that eligibility after more members saw the film, ensuring that 15 movies were released and shrinking the nominee slots to three.

Other factors also heighten the drama.

"Persepolis," also the official French submission for best foreign-language film, could be submitted in its subtitled version instead of its English-language one, a point that could hurt the film with some voters.

In addition, Groening has never been nominated for an Oscar, and a number of animation experts and Academy members polled for this report said that the "Simpsons" creator is likely to sponge up a certain number of votes simply because of who he is, a kind of nod to his career achievements as much as the movie.

Also, the possibility that "Ratatouille" also could land a best picture nomination — it would be the second animated film to pull off the feat after 1991's "Beauty and the Beast" — could ding its prospects in the animation category.

Animation players can comfort themselves with one small thought about this year's field: At least there's no anime.

Carolyn Giardina in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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