Difference between three or five noms hinges on entries

For those who follow the fine print, the animated feature category can actually be Oscar’s most nail-biting race. According to the Academy rule book, when at least 16 toons qualify, five nominees compete; if 15 or fewer submit, the category shrinks to three slots; and if for some reason not even eight films enter, it goes away altogether.

Thanks to the ever-expanding roster of animation studios, there hasn’t been a risk of the latter happening since the category was introduced in 2002. Still, every year, the toon community carefully tracks the competition, hoping that enough films enter to support five noms.

After 2008 fell two toons short of the five-nom cutoff, studios scrambled to qualify as many pics as possible this year, with Disney even giving made-for-DVD “Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure” a one-week qualifying run and convincing director Robert Zemeckis (who declined to submit “Beowulf” a couple of years back) to enter “A Christmas Carol.” After all, what better way to demonstrate a new golden age of Disney animation than securing noms for Pixar’s “Up,” return-to-2D toon “The Princess and the Frog” and “Ponyo” (the latest from John Lasseter’s inspiration and friend, Hayao Miyazaki)?

Similarly, Fox’s “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” may have become the top-grossing toon of all time this year, but the studio seemed to feel its odds were better in a five-film race, which may explain the decision to submit “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” (which likely features too much live-action to be nominated) and obscure toon “The Dolphin: Story of a Dreamer.”

They needn’t have worried. Even with “Evangeleon 2.0″ deemed ineligible (because the anime pic played Japan in 2007) and James Cameron’s live-action/performance-capture “Avatar” not in the mix (since Fox is gunning for picture on that one), the Academy received a full cadre of 20 films by its Nov. 2 deadline.

The crop demonstrates just how healthy the animation sector is today, representing a wide range of techniques, from a traditional hand-drawn style (represented by European Film Awards nominee “The Secret of Kells”) to stereo­scopic 3D (such as “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”). There are even a staggering four stop-motion entries: “Coraline,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “A Town Called Panic” and “Mary and Max” (the latter opened the Sundance Film Fest and was made by Oscar-winning animator Adam Elliot).

Of course, submitting for animated feature consideration needn’t negate a toon’s chances in other categories. Pixar has made no secret of coveting a picture nomination in the past and stands a good chance with “Up,” the studio’s biggest domestic hit to date. As one Pixar insider confides, “Our biggest fear is that people will say it happened because of the switch to 10 nominations, even though we think ‘Up’ is good enough to get in with five.”

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