'Planet,' 'Lilo,' 'Spirited' to vie for Oscar spots

Walt Disney Studios is in the enviable and unusual situation of having three very different pictures competing for the animated feature Oscar.

And the Mouse House has decided to put its campaigning muscle equally between its contenders, even amid a flurry of controversy surrounding the disappointing opening of the $140 million “Treasure Planet.” Disney took an unprecedented writedown of $74 million on its earnings mere days after the pic opened to lukewarm reviews and a Thanksgiving weekend bow that grossed just $16.6 million.

Disney’s other toon contenders performed much better with auds and critics, boding well for their chances with the Academy. “Lilo & Stitch,” a traditionally animated comedy, earned good reviews and a solid domestic B.O. of $145 million, while the English version of Japanese animation legend Miyao Hiyazaki’s “Spirited Away” was one of the best-reviewed films of the year in a limited fall release.

Even with “Treasure Planet” being labeled by industry watchers as one of the most costly box office bombs of the year, Disney is hoping Acad voters will look at the creative merits of “Planet” rather than its receipts.

Film critic Leonard Maltin, author of “Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons,” says that in the past there was some resentment of Disney’s domination of animation that hurt the studio in the animated short category. But with three very different films and strong competition from other studios, the race should focus more on merit than politics.

“I think it’ll be hard for people to think of ‘Spirited Away’ as a Disney film,” he says. “It’s the whole Academy membership that will be voting on the winner. They’re just going to vote for what they think is the best film.”

With strong competition from Nick/Par’s “The Wild Thornberrys Movie,” Fox’s surprise hit “Ice Age,” Sony’s CGI-dominated “Stuart Little 2″ and DreamWorks’ lively “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” it may be hard for Disney to land even two out of five noms. If only three films are nominated, then Disney may end up with just one nom.

“Spirited Away” has the potential to put Disney in the odd position of being an icon of American animation that could win its first animated feature Oscar for a foreign film.

“Planet” endured a difficult development process that caused deep divisions within the company. Some execs reportedly questioned the appeal of setting Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic boys’ novel “Treasure Island” in outer space.

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