The analysis

No Oscar category packs as much populist punch as this year’s animated film category, with “Shrek 2,” “The Incredibles” and “Shark Tale” finishing 2004 ranked Nos. 1, 4 and 9, respectively, at the North American box office and taking in a combined $855 million.

Despite the ample commercial success of all three films, the inclusion of Disney/Pixar’s “The Incredibles” seems a bit like a presidential candidate who comes home to run for mayor. Up for four Oscars, including Brad Bird for original screenplay, Mouse marketers had aimed as high as best pic for the film.

Critical response certainly backed such lofty expectations, with “The Incredibles’ ” story about a superhero forced into early retirement garnering effusive praise. Besides the PG-rated humor, Bird’s substantive theme — resisting modern society’s pervasive tendency toward mediocrity — separates “Incredibles” from the pack of the more gag-driven, youth-oriented fare that’s typical of CGI toons.

For “Shrek 2,” relying on tried-and-true pop-culture riffs, fart jokes and cute animals catered to an aud that’s probably more important to an animated film than critics are — young kids — and the film has enjoyed more commercial success as a result.

Crix have complained that the anarchic “Shrek” humor isn’t as fresh or abundant the second time around, but “Shrek 2″ is certainly no lightweight. DreamWorks marketers also had best pic aspirations before contenders like “The Aviator” and “Million Dollar Baby” took the field.

Writer-director Andrew Adamson’s solid sequel execution of “Shrek’s” popular characters resulted in on-par performance with the original film — in fact, $377 million in DVD revenue so far is better than on par.

Coming off a near-consensus victory in the animation category last year for “Finding Nemo,” Pixar is generally considered preeminent in the field of computer animation. But in 2001, the original “Shrek” won the first animated feature trophy over competition that included Pixar’s “Monster’s, Inc.”

For its part, DreamWorks’ “Shark Tale” — which relies even more than “Shrek 2″ on kid-friendly critters and media age-driven gags — had seemed a bit out of its Oscar depth. DreamWorks focused far more of its awards promotion on “Shrek 2″ and Warner’s motion capture-crafted “The Polar Express” had managed to gather momentum after early struggles at the box office.

The Incredibles

Current kudos: Annie Awards (10 wins) Golden Globes (nom), Los Angeles Film Critics (win), National Board of Review (win), New York Film Critics (win)

Why it will win: Brad Bird has crafted a rare family film that relies on sophisticated humor and substantive themes, and it appeals to the older end of the age spectrum as a result.

Why it won’t: Bird isn’t necessarily a Hollywood insider, having been tied into “Incredibles” through a relationship with Pixar’s John Lasseter from their school days.

Shark Tale

Current kudos: None

Why it will win: Features a first-rate cast and some rendering improvements over last year’s ocean-based toon winner, “Finding Nemo.”

Why it won’t: If voters favor pop-culture references and cute critters over “The Incredibles’ ” more sophisticated edge, then they’ll likely vote for “Shrek 2.”

Shrek 2

Current kudos: None

Why it will win: In the brief history of the rather populist-minded animated feature category, films that have ranked near the top of the box office (“Shrek” was No. 2 domestically in 2001; “Finding Nemo” was No. 1 in 2003) have won the category.

Why it won’t: The popular characters are back, but even the theme — acceptance — isn’t anything new.

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