Two lead pack in animation race

Other animation contenders vie for five slots

In the first 80 years of Oscar, only one animated film had ever been nominated for best picture: 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Then the Academy went back to considering 10 contenders, and “Up” made the cut; now all bets are off.

Does the expansion mean the Academy is now open to considering toons in its top category? (Back in 1937, not even “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” made the cut.) Or was “Up” so good that it could have nabbed a nom even during a year with just five noms — and, by extension, had a real shot at winning Oscar’s top prize?

This year should test those questions. According to Rotten Tomatoes’ review-aggregating tools, the year’s top non-doc releases are Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” (with 99% positive reviews) and DreamWorks Animation entry “How to Train Your Dragon” (98%). Live-action “The Social Network” stands one notch lower at 97%. Box office isn’t much different: Four of the year’s 10 top-grossing films are toons, with “Toy Story 3” weighing in at more than $1 billion worldwide. Surely these points can’t be lost on the Academy.

But while Pixar and DWA ready themselves for picture contention, there still remains the pesky question of Oscar’s animated feature race, now in its 10th year. When the Academy agreed to honor toons with their own prize, they designed the category to grow or shrink according to the number of animated pics submitted: If 15 or fewer films enter, there would be three nominations, but the field can grow to five slots if at least 16 toons qualify.

Only two years have drawn enough contenders to support five noms — 2002 and 2009 — but every year, the underdogs hold out hope that the category will expand, giving smaller pics a chance to be recognized (This year, if only three films compete, “Toy Story 3” and “Dragon” are widely expected to make the cut, meaning fierce competition for the remaining spot). Among this year’s indies, big 3D CG blockbusters face competition from hand-drawn entries “The Illusionist” (an extremely personal project from Sylvain Chomet, director of “The Triplets of Belleville”), “My Dog Tulip” and “Idiots and Angels” (the latter two by former toon short nominees Paul Fierlinger and Bill Plympton, respectively).

In hopes of broadening the field, studios who fear their films might get shut out submit anything and everything that might qualify: DreamWorks has three contenders (“Dragon,” “Shrek Forever After” and “Megamind”), Disney entered not-quite-straight-to-DVD title “Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue” to improve “Tangled’s” chances and Warner offered up animation/live-action hybrids “Yogi Bear” and “Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore” to assist “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.”

As it happens, a total of 16 films were submitted, putting the category right on the brink. It could hypothetically accommodate five noms, unless one of the films gets disqualified — and that’s a very real risk, with the Acad’s toon branch meeting this week to evaluate whether “Cats and Dogs” and “Yogi Bear” contain enough animation to be considered. (Per the official language, “a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75% of the picture’s running time.”)

Given the vagaries of the category, it’s even conceivable that an animated feature would be nominated for picture and shut out of the toon race altogether.

• Alpha and Omega
• Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore
• Despicable Me
• How to Train Your Dragon
• Idiots and Angels
• The Illusionist
• Legend of the Guardians:

The Owls of Ga’Hoole
• Megamind
• My Dog Tulip
• Shrek Forever After
• Summer Wars
• Tangled
• Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue
• Toy Story 3
• Yogi Bear

Note: Variety has been unable to confirm the 16th film entered.

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