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Could a toon nab a best picture nomination?

Lasseter wants to break out of animation category

A best animated feature trophy is great, but why stop there? That’s the question on the mind of John Lasseter, who serves as a governor for the Acad’s animation branch.

“Prior to adding this category, having an animated film, no matter how good it is, you could only hope for music or song, or an occasional writing nomination,” says the Disney/Pixar creative chief, whose “Toy Story” was the first toon to snag a screenplay nom.

Only one animated feature, 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast,” has ever cracked the best picture lineup, and some feel the addition of the toon category discourages voters from recognizing such films for traditionally live-action kudos.

“Frankly, what I hope is that if an animated film is one of the five best motion pictures released in the year, the Academy members as a whole would consider it as a best picture nomination, in the same way that a really brilliant foreign-language film like ‘Life Is Beautiful’ will get nominated in both categories,” he says.

As it happens, the only toons to attract that kind of buzz in recent years have been Pixar releases. The studio has built a reputation on both quality and originality, taking yet another leap forward with “Wall-E.”

The story, about a robot stranded on a post-apocalyptic Earth who finds love and adventure in the form of a futuristic space droid, simply wouldn’t be possible in live action. In some ways, limiting the film to the animated category wouldn’t be fair to either “Wall-E” or its competition, which, for the most part, were content to deal in the traditional talking-animal antics (with some kung fu and space exploration thrown in for good measure).

Whether “Wall-E” snags a picture nom or not, the animated competition could be more heated than it looks. By the end of the year, at least 20 new toons will have played Los Angeles theaters, which would have been enough to boost the category to five slots, had they all submitted the paperwork for Oscar consideration. To qualify, animated features must apply by Nov. 5, which is why a film like Focus’ stop-motion “Coraline,” which wasn’t ready until last week, must wait until 2009 to compete for awards that won’t be given out until 2010.

With only 14 in contention for three slots this time, the lineup represents a wide variety of styles, subjects and backgrounds: Japanese samurai story “Sword of the Stranger” represents traditional hand-drawn anime. “Bolt” and “Fly Me to the Moon” heighten their respective adventures via 3-D projection. Modestly budgeted Aussie entry “$9.99” tackles the meaning of life via clay animation. And Israeli Cannes hit “Waltz With Bashir” uses Flash-based techniques to weave memory and dreams into what might otherwise have been a talking-head docu.

“That’s another exciting thing about the animated feature category,” Lasseter says. “In the past, they’ve been very good about nominating all the different mediums — not just computer animation, but hand-drawn, stop-motion and clay animation.”

The selection committee must view and rate all the submissions with fresh eyes at the end of the year, with the noms going to the three films that score best during these screenings, which puts earnest indies on a level playing field with blockbusters (that’s how “Surf’s Up” and “Persepolis” trumped “The Simpsons Movie” and “Shrek the Third” last year).

Best pic, by contrast, relies on voters’ memories of the films that impressed them most during the year. And while “Wall-E” no doubt sticks in their minds, it faces yet another challenge: how to get the actor-heavy Academy to embrace a film whose lead star is R2-D2 sound designer Ben Burtt?

FAST FACTS:

Animation race

SHORT FILMS AND FEATURE ANIMATION BRANCH MEMBERS: 340 active/voting

BRANCH GOVERNORS: Jon Bloom (chair), John Lasseter, Carl Bell

NOMINATING PROCEDURE: An even mix of members from the animation branch and Academy roster at large form a committee that screens and rates at least 80% of the eligible films in a theatrical setting.

KEY DEADLINE: Nov. 14: film prints due

PIX IN THE MIX

  • $9.99

  • Bolt

  • Delgo

  • Dragon Hunters

  • Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!

  • Fly Me to the Moon

  • Igor

  • Kung Fu Panda

  • Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

  • Sky Crawlers

  • Sword of the Stranger

  • The Tale of Despereaux

  • Wall-E

  • Waltz With Bashir

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