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Beating ‘Nemo’

Finding a way to conquer Disney's fish tale will be difficult, but there are fighting toons out there.

Given the critical and commercial success of Disney/Pixar’s “Finding Nemo,” one might assume that the digitally animated fish story is a sure bet for a nomination in the 2004 animated feature race. But the hard truth about Oscar’s newest category is that nothing is a sure bet — not even its existence from one year to the next.

“For years, whenever we considered instituting such a category, one of the concerns we had is that it’s a very thin field,” says Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “If there are only five animated features released in a given year, you wouldn’t want each of those to receive a nomination and water down the concept of what an Academy Award nomination means. So there’s a process of making sure that there are enough films in a given year to really constitute a legitimate competition.”

Eight animated theatrical releases in a year in L.A. County will automatically trigger the potential for the category, though each film must be formally submitted by its studio to officially qualify for consideration.

Pending the official decision by the Academy’s Board of Governors regarding the category’s fate, one can only speak in probabilities. It is probable that the feature animation race will be held in 2004, but equally probable that it will be a three-nominee race since there are not 16 animated films out there, which is the minimum criteria for a five-nom category.

Nearly all the usual suspects are represented in this year’s pool of animated films. In addition to “Finding Nemo,” Disney has “Brother Bear,” a 2-D adventure produced by its Florida feature animation unit; and two films made by the company’s television animation division, “The Jungle Book 2” and “Piglet’s Big Movie.”

DreamWorks has the enigmatic Japanese drama “Millennium Actress” (released under the studio’s new Go Fish banner) and the “tradigital” action adventure “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.”

Miramax has “Pokemon Heroes,” the latest chapter in kid anime phenom, and indie Pioneer Entertainment has another anime actioner, “WXIII: Patlabor the Movie 3.”

Warner Bros. has the live action/animation mix “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” and Sony Pictures Classics is distributing the bizarrely comic French film “The Triplets of Belleville.”

Fox Animation is the only major toon player missing from this year’s pack.

Two of the imports, “Millennium Actress” and “Triplets of Belleville,” which use traditional animation to tell strikingly nontraditional stories, have generated buzz among the Hollywood toonerati — a group that tends to overlook franchise or TV-based films for awards.

The framers of the category deliberately avoided basing criteria for qualification on technique or artistic style, focusing instead on whether animation drives the action and how much of the film was created by artists. Under the current rules, 75% of a film’s running time must contain animation, and a “significant” number of the major characters have to be animated.

Insiders are closely watching “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” which, like last year’s live/toon mix “Stuart Little 2,” must be checked for if it meets the minimum criteria to be considered an animated feature by the Academy.

“I believe it has met the criteria and I believe (Warner Bros. is) going to enter it,” says Eric Goldberg, animation director for “Looney Tunes.”

If anything about the feature animation category is certain, it may be that the rules remain a work in progress. “Through the years, I think we’re going to have to look at this on a case-by-case basis,” Davis says. “I’m sure there are going to be hurt feelings at some point on the part of makers of some films.”

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