Animated films could impact Oscars

Wider picture race, more contenders could shake things up

As the buzz on a best-picture nom for "WALL-E" hit a fever pitch last year, one Pixar exec confided to me: "This is it. This is our last chance. After this year, we're out of the awards game."

Well, perhaps not.

The Oscar buzz this year couldn't be higher for Pixar's "Up," not only for best animated category but for best picture, thanks to a warm Festival de Cannes playdate and a lucky-to-be-born late blessing of 10 best-picture noms.

A dual accolade would make history: The only instance of an animated movie being nominated for best film was "Beauty and the Beast" in 1991, long before the best animated feature category existed.

A double nomination also would create complications -- and not only for Pixar execs who might have to shell out some extra coin on a broader campaign.

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Pixar and director Pete Docter might hope that the best-picture momentum will carry it to a victory in the animation category. But for some voters, it could slice the other way, prompting them to choose something else in animation because they've already put "Up" high on their best picture ballot. (In that sense, "Up" would be unlucky to be nominated twice.)

The "Up" conundrum isn't the only drama playing out this year. The animation race is more wide open than ever, thanks to a likely five slots, which are possible (though not mandated) if the Academy qualifies at least 16 animated releases. A whopping 20 films are said to have been submitted this year, a bounty that would nearly double the number of animated slots and essentially create the animation equivalent of the best-picture slot expansion.

That, in turn, could charge up more than a few dark horses. "There's real anticipation this year because of the possibility we're finally going to hit the magic number of 16, which would be a real bonus for many of the smaller pictures at the boxoffice and on DVD," says Animation Magazine's Ramin Zahed. "We say that every year, but this year there's a real feeling it could happen."

It's hardly a surprise the category has swelled, what with indies and studios ramping up their animation output. Every major studio besides Warner Bros. has a contender this year, including a few smaller companies not often seen in the race, like IFC, in the mix with "Mary & Max.'" That means we'll have more than just the usual competition between Pixar and DreamWorks, Lasseter and Katzenberg (juicy as that is). Sony is a real contender with "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," and Focus is a contender twice over -- for Henry Selick's "Coraline" and for Shane Acker's "9."

The race also will offer the rare case of pitting classic Disney (as in the hand-drawn "The Princess and the Frog") against the new, CG-ized Disney (Pixar's "Up").

Indeed, the prize is becoming, more than ever before in its nine-year history, a referendum on format, at a time when the animation world is seeing technology and opinions proliferate (and, sometimes, create fissures).

Robert Zemeckis' "A Christmas Carol" is likely to qualify, though its absence from a five-nomination field also could be seen as a rebuff to motion-capture technology. And 3D is likely to be a factor, though studios are taking different strategic approaches to the new technology.

Focus has opted to send out the 3D version of "Coraline," hoping that Selick's work is best seen that way. Pixar, however, won't send "Up" screeners in 3D, on the assumption that busy voters don't want to fiddle with a pair of glasses.

Japanese-style animation is making a return to the field with Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo." And if all that didn't create enough of a logjam, the animation race could be influenced by elements usually reserved for the live-action categories as voters pay more attention to "Fantastic Mr. Fox" because of the presence of Oscar perennials George Clooney and Meryl Streep.

The eligibility list will be announced within the next week. Then the cartoon antics will really begin.