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Category sparks animated debate

Toon kudo not always a sure thing

In only its second year of existence, the category of animated feature is offering up one of the hottest Oscar races, with consideration ads in toon buff magazines and heavy PR activity already whipping up the waters.

Part of this could be 2002 being a rich and varied year for animated films. As opposed to 2001’s largely digital sweep, this year has seen a return to traditional animation with DreamWorks’ “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”; Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch”; and Japan’s “Spirited Away,” dubbed and released by Disney in the U.S.; and Paramount’s “The Wild Thornberrys Movie,” among others.

On the pixilated side of the contenders’ pool are “Ice Age,” which finally put Fox Animation on the map after five wobbly years, and “Jonah: A Veggie-Tales Movie,” from FHE Pictures (Artisan). Meanwhile, Disney’s “Treasure Planet” is a mix between the two techniques, right down to the character of John Silver, who is animated in 2-D but with 3-D cyborg limbs.

No sure thing

Another reason for the early push could be that, unlike most other Oscar categories, the existence of the animated feature kudos is not automatic. The category must be recommended to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences board of governors by the shorts and animation branch.

Last year the rules mandated that a minimum of eight films had to be submitted before the category could be triggered. But after realizing that a studio could theoretically veto the category’s existence by choosing not to submit its films, the rules were changed.

Starting this year, the category is allowed to move forward simply through the release of eight or more animated films in qualifying theatrical runs. “The ‘threshold of eight’ is the minimum requirement,” says Jon Bloom, chair of the short films and animation branch, “but on top of that we’re charged with looking at the films that come out and evaluating the quality.”

Eight films can trigger three noms while a minimum of 16 qualified pictures could lead to the category’s first five-nominee slate, based on the judgment of the branch committee.

Weighing heavier than the subjective judgment of quality, however, is the question of what, exactly, constitutes an animated film. Sony has fought hard to include “Stuart Little 2” as a contender, to the howls of purists who feel that it is not an animated film, but a live action-special effects hybrid.

Open season

Still, the language of the official Academy rules, which define an animated feature film as one that contains “a significant number of the major characters animated, and in which animation figures in no less than 75% of the picture’s running time” leaves room for judgment and interpretation.

In a year when even such limited-release long shots as Bill Plympton’s ultra-indie “Mutant Aliens,” and the Japanese imports “Metropolis” and “Escaflowne” are out there vying for consideration, the contest promises to be, well, animated.

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