'WALL-E' bow kicks off Oscar season

First half of the year rarely yields Academy contenders

With Pixar's newest blue-chip animated movie "WALL-E" hitting theaters Friday, the 2008 Oscar race is finally off and running.

It's an unofficial starting gun, of course. Technically, any movie that's had a commercial release of at least a week in Los Angeles County since the start of the year is eligible to compete. But the first half of the year rarely yields much in the way of Oscar fodder, and this year has been no exception.

May's Festival de Cannes didn't do much to clarify the situation, either: Several promising foreign films aside, only Clint Eastwood's "Changeling," starring Angelina Jolie, emerged as a mainstream contender.

Most of the remaining summer popcorn fare isn't generally regarded as Oscar worthy, though if critics and fans applaud Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker in "The Dark Knight" when it is released July 18, Warner Bros. is ready to support a campaign on his behalf. Only one acting Oscar has been bestowed posthumously -- to Peter Finch for 1976's "Network" -- but five others have been nominated in the wake of their deaths, including James Dean, who earned noms for "East of Eden" and "Giant."

But while Oscar strategists are marking time, waiting for the fall festival circuit to launch a wave of hopefuls, the animation race has begun to take shape.

The critics are just beginning to weigh in on "WALL-E" -- the Village Voice's Robert Wilonsky has already called it "both breathtakingly majestic and heartbreakingly intimate" -- but the buzz surrounding the film about a lovelorn robot already is so heady, there's no doubt it will be the movie to beat for best animated film. The bigger question is whether it might become a candidate for a best picture slot.

At one point last year, director Brad Bird wanted to position his "Ratatouille" in the best picture heat, but he was convinced to focus on the best animated film category, which it handily won while also picking up noms in four other categories.

But if today's moviegoers warm to "WALL-E" the way an earlier generation embraced "E.T. the Extra-Terrestial," then the latest Pixar effort could find itself contending with the big boys for best picture.

In any event, the photo-real, computer-animated "WALL-E" should dominate the animation arena, which given the number of films expected to be released this year should yield three Oscar nominees.

Fox and Blue Sky Studios' "Horton Hears a Who" looks like a strong contender for bringing Dr. Seuss' illustrations into the CG realm. DreamWorks Animation will have two hopefuls with "Kung Fu Panda" and the upcoming "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa."

Other titles that could figure prominently are "Waltz With Bashir," an Israeli film set amid the Lebanon War that Sony Pictures Classics plans to promote in multiple categories, and the stop-motion "Coraline," Henry Selick's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's book, which Focus has slated for a late-December release.

On the live-action front, the picture is much murkier.

At Cannes, "Changeling," Eastwood's period drama, drew appreciative reviews, putting it on the same award-winning track "Mystic River" followed in 2003. Jolie was hailed as a definite Oscar nominee for her performance as a single mother who fights the Los Angeles establishment; then again, prognosticators said the same thing about last year's "A Mighty Heart," though that one failed to secure her an acting nom. Writer J. Michael Straczynski, in a major change of pace for the creator of "Babylon 5," also could find himself courting awards consideration for his based-on-fact screenplay.

Real question marks surround a number of the other American films that debuted at Cannes. Steven Soderbergh's "Che," Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" and James Gray's "Two Lovers" all left town without securing distribution deals, raising the possibility that they might not even qualify for awards attention this year.

With the specialty film business under siege -- and such past Oscar players as Picturehouse, Warner Independent and New Line out of the picture -- Hollywood might be facing a leaner, if not meaner, Oscar season.

Yet there are still plenty of awards aspirants coming from pedigreed filmmakers.

Leonardo DiCaprio will appear in Ridley Scott's CIA tale "Body of Lies" and Sam Mendes' domestic drama "Revolutionary Road" opposite Kate Winslet, who also stars in Stephen Daldry's "The Reader," set in post-World War II Germany.

Also on tap are adaptations of such award-winning plays as "Doubt," directed by John Patrick Shanley, and "Frost/Nixon," directed by Ron Howard; such critically applauded novels as Fernando Meirelles' screen version of "Blindness," Gina Prince-Bythewood's "The Secret Lives of Bees" and John Hillcoat's "The Road"; and also David Fincher's imagining of the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

Taking on big topics are director Baz Lurhmann, returning to the screen with the epic "Australia"; Oliver Stone, tackling President Bush in "W"; and Gus Van Sant, looking at a hero of the gay rights movement in "Milk."

Will Smith, who earned an Oscar nomination in Gabriele Muccino's "The Pursuit of Happyness," is reteaming with the director in "Seven Pounds"; Keira Knightley will don period garb again for Saul Dibb's "The Duchess"; Robert Downey Jr. will play a journalist who befriends a homeless musician, played by Jamie Foxx, in Joe Wright's "The Soloist"; Daniel Craig will lead a group of Jewish resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied Poland in Ed Zwick's "Defiance"; and last year's big winners, the Coen brothers, will be back, this time with outright comedy "Burn After Reading."

But at this early date, that hardly defines the field. Remember, at this time last year, no one had even heard of "Juno."