Shrek, Sully both stalk Oscars, but are they hunting different prey

It’s a question that has dogged children and other philosophers since time immemorial: If an ogre and a monster got in a fight, who would win?

The answer should be forthcoming on Oscar night, when the envelopes are torn open and the outcome of the battle between the year’s reigning animated champs, Disney’s “Monsters, Inc.” and DreamWorks’ “Shrek,” finally becomes known. Sure, there’s no guarantee that either film will win, or even make the final cut of three nominees, but there are few in the Oscar-watching game who doubt that one of these blockbusters will nab the prize.

The often-documented enmity between the two studios is especially notable this season, the first for the Academy’s newly minted animated feature film Oscar, with both offering hugely successful and well-reviewed feature toons.

Despite their horn-to-horn competition, however, Disney and DreamWorks are employing very different approaches in their Oscar campaigns. DreamWorks is running a visionary but perhaps risky bid to secure a best picture win for “Shrek,” while Disney has pulled out the stops as never before to win “Monsters, Inc.” the new best animated feature statuette.

“We’re putting everything behind “Monsters,” says a Disney exec. “We’re of course passionate about the genre — it’s what this studio stands for.” After all, if ever there was an award that seems to be Disney’s corporate birthright, it’s this best toon prize.

But the Academy isn’t voting for 75 years of moviemaking, Oscar watchers point out — just the one.

And Disney has learned this — painfully. Despite many successful and acclaimed films, the Mouse is an Oscar also-ran in the high-profile categories, having won a total of zero best pic awards. And in recent years, it has been criticized for waging ineffective Academy Award campaigns on behalf of critical and popular hits such as “The Sixth Sense” and “The Insider.”

That’s why insiders say Disney and its “Monsters” partner Pixar are spending far more on this year’s Oscar campaigning than in recent seasons. Among the measures: The studios have hired at least three top-flight Oscar consultants this year, three more than last year.

The 6-year-old DreamWorks, however, has followed in the Miramax tradition of mounting all-out Oscar campaigns as part of a larger corporate strategy to enhance industry respect through award wins. In the last two years, it’s brought in notable wins for “American Beauty” and “Gladiator.”

And this year it’s pushing just as hard. The studio’s “Shrek” campaign has been a publicity tour de force, starting with the studio’s deft move to win the film a slot at Cannes, more firmly establishing the movie’s artistic credentials as part of a larger effort to secure a best picture nom.

DreamWorks’ unusual Friday release of the “Shrek” DVD — the same day Disney opened “Monsters” — ensured that its movie wouldn’t be forgotten in a weekend where the big story would have been the “Monsters” premiere.

But some observers say DreamWorks could be committing a tactical blunder by focusing its campaign on the best pic nom — the “Shrek” ads always request consideration in all categories, including best picture, but make no specific mention of best toon. It’s an approach, say observers, that could put it in danger of losing the more attainable best animated feature award.

It’s worth remembering that animated features have only broken through the celluloid ceiling into best pic consideration once before — Disney’s 1991 “Beauty and the Beast” (the award went to “The Silence of the Lambs”) — and it’s far from certain that Academy voters would put “Shrek” into play, especially in the first year of the best animation award.

“It’s definitely a harder maneuver to convince people that an animated film can be a best picture contender,” concedes Terry Press, DreamWorks’ head of marketing. “It’s just a matter of whether or not people can see past its origins as animation.” Press reiterated DreamWorks’ stance that “Shrek” remains the best-reviewed movie of the year.

In fact, DreamWorks doesn’t seem to think it’s necessary at all to commit campaign resources for “Shrek’s” consideration in the animated feature category.

“It’s obvious that it’s an animated film,” says Press. “I’m sure people will presume that ‘Shrek’ will show up in the animation category.”

Conventional wisdom has long held that a big reason animated pictures don’t get the major award nominations is that actors — the Academy’s largest branch by far — don’t see animated films as helping the larger thespian cause.

That could be changing. It’s hard to imagine lead roles in “Monsters, Inc.” or “Shrek” as anything but performances by John Goodman and Mike Myers, or supporting roles by Billy Crystal and Eddie Murphy, and the studios tout the actors openly. DreamWorks has already ponied up $10 million paydays signing the main talents for a “Shrek” sequel.

Whether ogre or monster — or a dark horse, like Fox Searchlight’s “Waking Life” — triumphs at the Academy Awards, the fact that a fight between two such major films exists at all means that the future of animation is probably healthier than many have predicted.

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