Awards Watch: Animation III

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There are always surprises when the Oscar nominations are announced, but usually they're only surprises to people who aren't paying attention.

This year, the Academy's selection of "The Secret of Kells" in the best animated feature category, fit the bill. The Irish film, directed by Tomm Moore, about a young boy who taps his inner magical talents to help fend off a Viking invasion, had been building buzz among animators for a year. "It went kind of viral among the animation community itself," animator Tom Sito says.

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The grass-roots excitement about "Kells" was fanned both by people who worked on it and by select early screenings that got animators excited. The Oscar nom will only add to that.

"If anything, this is sort of a sneak preview, or an early endorsement of a film that hasn't yet had wide viewership," film critic Leonard Maltin says. "It also represents the animation branch's desire to give an underdog recognition."

That helps explain how "Kells" beat "Ponyo," whose director Hayao Miyazaki is an Oscar favorite, and CG hit "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" to take on fellow nominees "Coraline," "Fantastic Mr. Fox," "The Princess and the Frog" and "Up."

But the process, in which only qualified animation branch members who have seen at least 80% of the submitted films can vote for nominees, now is thrown open to the Academy's wider membership when it comes to determining a winner.

By any measure, Disney-Pixar's "Up" is a front-runner. Not only has it won a slew of awards to date, including honors from the top prize at the Annie Awards, Producers Guild of America, National Board of Review and the Golden Globes, it has also been nominated for four other Oscars including best original screenplay and best picture. And with Pixar's track record -- its films have won four Oscars and lost only twice in the past eight years -- it seems as sure a bet as you can get.

Still, there's a risk for any film perceived as a sure thing, especially when that film is nominated in a second category the way "Up" is for best picture. Votes might be split between categories, or members might opt for another title, thinking they won't affect the outcome.

"It'll be a question as to whether there's Pixar exhaustion out there," Sito says. "I don't sense a backlash like that myself."

The chances of "Up" nabbing the best picture prize is another matter.

"The Secret of Kells"

"The rank-and-file Academy members are going to be focused on 'The Hurt Locker' or 'Avatar' or 'Up in the Air,' " Maltin says. "And that's no insult to 'Up.' Having spoken to a number of Academy members, I know they feel that's why they created the animated category."

Disney's "Princess" faces similarly subtle challenges. As a film cast in the mold of Disney's classics, it can evoke nostalgia as easily as it can seem outdated.

"Everyone in the animation community embraced Disney's return to 2D animation, and many critics (led by Richard Corliss of Time magazine who picked 'Princess and the Frog' as the best movie of 2009) also loved the studio's first African-American princess," says Ramin Zahed, editor in chief of Animation magazine. "However, Princess Tiana's biggest challenge is fighting that poignant wordless sequence in the first 15 minutes of 'Up,' which has left the most hardened moviegoers weeping in the dark."

Sito agrees somewhat, but notes a "nostalgia for the quality Disney films of the early 1990s will make it likely a strong contender."

Two stop-motion films were also nominated, both expressing the unique visions of their directors. While Henry Selick's "Coraline" features more refined animation and a darker story, Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" offsets intentionally rougher movement with charm and personality.

"Focus Features did an excellent job of promoting 'Coraline,' especially since the film was released in early February of last year, and we know Oscar voters have a tendency to be easily distracted by titles that come out in November and December," Zahed says. "Also, Selick is a highly respected and personable artist, and he valiantly put in many appearances at screenings around town. However, some believe that the exquisitely crafted, stop-motion feature may be a bit outside the comfort level of older voters who don't appreciate more challenging, artistic fare."

"Fox," meanwhile, has star power in its corner, and the distinctive voice performances of Oscar favorites George Clooney and Meryl Streep could lift the film's prospects among the actors that form the bulk of the Academy's membership.