A look at the Oscar contenders for animation

“Toy Story 3″
Why It’ll Win: Directed by Lee Unkrich (co-director of “Toy Story 2″ and “Finding Nemo”), the third in the beloved franchise dazzled the eyes and tugged at the heartstrings, and in the process gave yet another non-pareil lesson in the tricky business of how to successfully combine art and commerce. Both wittily lighthearted and profound, it explores weighty themes of change, loss and growing up as their owner, Andy, goes off to college and the discarded toys get shipped off to a daycare center where they meet Ken and Barbie and some damaged and villainous new toys. Charming, moving, beautifully animated, and with an inspired script by Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”), the three-quel scored universally glowing reviews (it won the Golden Tomato Award for the best-reviewed film of 2010) and blew up the box office — $414 million domestic, over a billion worldwide, making it the highest-grossing film of the year and the top-grossing animated film ever. Its five Oscar noms (including best picture — making it only the third animated film ever to be so honored), rack of critics association wins, PGA and Globe victories only help its chances.
Maybe Not: Call it the Avatar Syndrome. Yes, it was the top-grossing film of the year and loved by everyone, but even play-it-safe Oscar voters like a change of scenery now and then. They may feel it’s already won enough plaudits and that the time has finally come to loosen the apparent stranglehold that Disney-Pixar has over the category (every Pixar film has been nominated since the category was introduced, “Up” won in ’09, “Wall-E” in ’08 and “Ratatouille” in ’07).

“How To Train Your Dragon”
Why It’ll Win: Taking some unlikely elements — gruff Vikings, fearsome dragons — as its starting point, directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (“Lilo & Stitch”) and DreamWorks Animation took a risk in moving away from the studio’s traditional toon model for their comedies. But the risk paid off big time — both critically and commercially, and the result is an energetic and entertaining cinematic treat that tells the story of a Viking boy, Hiccup, and his dragon, Toothless, that thankfully manages to avoid the usual cloying kid-and-pet saga. The animation is gorgeous, with scenes (such as the initial meeting between Hiccup and the tailless dragon at a lakeside glade) that evoke the fairytale beauty of the classic Disney films. And when the boy and dragon take to the sky in kinetically stirring scenes that take full advantage of the film’s 3D digital format, they effortlessly take the audience along for the magical ride. It didn’t hurt that the film’s timely subtext — ignorance breeds fear and vice versa — helped make this a half-billion dollar global hit.
Maybe Not: Despite its mythical Viking setting, it’s slightly derivative in terms of its character development and storytelling. The familiar boy-and-his-dog, er, dragon, tale has more than a dash of “Old Yeller” in there, with a splash of “King Kong” for good measure. And hovering over the whole enterprise, especially in such self-consciously cute scenes as the dragon-killing lessons, is the unmistakable spirit of another teen hero, Harry Potter. And compared with “Toy Story 3’s” shiny, Oscar-fave cast (Tom Hanks et al) “Dragon’s” voice-over talent offers such lesser-known names as Craig Ferguson, Gerard Butler, Jay Baruchel and America Ferrera.

“The Illusionist”
Why It’ll Win: Poetic, quirky, visually witty and inventive, the latest hand-drawn 2D labor of love from French filmmaker Sylvain Chomet is part silent film, part homage to a bygone era — and by extension, to the old-fashioned 2D process itself. It tells the story of an aging and struggling French magician trying to capture the fleeting attention of audiences on a tour of Scotland in the late ’50s and competing against the modern age of noisy rock ‘n’ roll. But his faith in humanity is restored when he becomes a father figure to a young Scottish girl for whom his dated magic routines are the stuff of reality. The sentimental tale may reverberate with Oscar voters who have previously recognized Chomet’s work (his much-admired ’03 film “Les Triplettes de Belville” scored two Oscar noms). And then there’s the David and Goliath subtext; in an era when 3D CG animation and big studio juggernauts such as Disney-Pixar and DreamWorks seem to dominate the toon landscape, an auteur-driven, hand-drawn project like this presents an appealing challenge to the status quo.
Maybe Not: Critical response was mixed, with many decrying its nostalgic, sentimental tone. Oscar voters may also be wary of its baggage; Chomet based the project on an unproduced 1956 script by French comedy star, director and mime Jacques Tati, which has been the subject of some — albeit minor — controversy and speculation (the family of Tati’s estranged eldest daughter claim she was the true inspiration for the story and should be acknowledged; Chomet disagrees).

THE NOMINEES:
Best Picture | Director | Animated Picture | Foreign Film |

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