Oscars Animation Race

'Monsters University' risks shut-out in wide-open year

Minions, monsters and snowmen, oh my!

When the Academy expanded its best picture race to 10 possible slots in 2009, some pundits wondered whether it was time to retire the animated feature category. Within the first two years of the new rules, Pixar’s “Up” and “Toy Story 3” found their way into the grand prize competition.

And then comes a year like 2013, where no toons are being touted for the top category.

Although the year’s top animated pics still represent a massive share of the global box office (Illumination’s “Despicable Me 2,” Pixar’s “Monsters University” and DreamWorks Animation’s “The Croods” have each earned more than half a billion dollars), the critics were fairly mixed — so much so that not a single toon has cracked the year’s 100 best-received films list on reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. (Some, like Disney’s “Frozen,” have yet to open, while others, including universally well-received GKids releases “Ernest & Celestine” and “A Letter to Momo,” were technically listed among 2012 releases.)

So, with 19 toons qualifying for the animated feature Oscar, it’s anybody’s guess which ones will snare the category’s five available slots. Although Pixar has won seven of the past 12 trophies, “Monsters University” could conceivably get shut out entirely, much as so-so sequel “Cars 2” did in 2011. Meanwhile, DreamWorks Animation (which saw two pics nominated that same year) delivers a pair of original contenders in caveman comedy “The Croods” and racing-snail toon “Turbo.”

Though the branch has often chosen to honor hand-drawn and stop-motion toons, this year’s lineup is dominated by CG offerings, including Blue Sky’s “Epic” and Sony Pictures Animation’s “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2” (plus live-action hybrid “Smurfs 2”). “Frozen” seems poised to become a “Tangled”-size hit for the Mouse House’s revitalized animation division.

Though most audiences haven’t seen the year’s more obscure offerings, the branch is expected to screen all eligible contenders before casting their votes and that could lead to some surprises.

It won’t hurt Japanese maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s chances that the Studio Ghibli chief announced his retirement after completing “The Wind Rises.” Korean director Yeon Sang-ho (“The King of Pigs”) offers a darker, more adult tale with his hand-drawn “The Fake,” while Brazilian animator Luiz Bolognesi earned the Annecy film fest’s top prize for his lushly illustrated “Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury.”

Additional contenders include turkey-themed “Free Birds,” South African “Khumba,” Canadian “The Legend of Sarila,” Spanish stop-motion entry “O Apostolo,” winged-“Cars” spinoff “Planes” and the trilogy capper in the “Puella Magi Madoka Magica” anime series.

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