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Go fish

Does anyone really stand a chance against 'Finding Nemo'?

First the conventional wisdom: The only thing that would jinx an animated feature film nomination for Disney/ Pixar’s digitally animated “Finding Nemo” is the unexpected interference of a Chicago Cubs fan.

Swimming in an ocean of critical support and enjoying its status not only as 2003’s top-grossing film to date, but the highest-grossing animated film ever, “Nemo” would seem a virtual shoo-in for a toon feature, if not best picture, nod.

Beyond that, however, all bets are off in the Academy’s newest category.

“I think we’re going to have a healthy category this year, and I think there are several strong films,” notes Jon Bloom, chair of the Executive Committee of the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch, which reviews each animated feature submitted and recommends the action the Board of Governors should take regarding the category. While healthy, the field is certain to be a smaller one, since the reduced number of animated films released this year will warrant a three-nom race.

2003 may stand as the year of the foreign invasion with the list of top toon contenders, including the Japanese import “Millennium Actress,” released by DreamWorks through its new Go Fish Pictures banner; “The Triplets of Belleville,” a nearly wordless comedy from France released in the U.S. by Sony Pictures Classics; “Tokyo Godfathers,” an anime take on “Three Godfathers” that Destination/Samuel Goldwyn Films sent out in December for a qualifying run; and “Jester Till,” a family comedy from Germany based on the legendary medieval trickster of European European folklore, which is also slated for a qualifying run before the end of the year.

Coming on the heels of last year’s victory for the Japanese-made, Disney-released “Spirited Away” over the higher profile and more commercial “Ice Age,” “Lilo & Stitch,” “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” and “Treasure Planet,” this influx of indies skewing older than the Happy Meal set signals to some a changing taste in animation, at least among Oscar voters.

“I think it has given some of the smaller studios, especially some of the foreign animation producers, the hope that Academy members are looking for something more than just the big, sprawling, crowdpleasing studio films,” says R.J. Millard, VP of marketing for IDP, the “Tokyo Godfathers” distributor.

And citing the “Spirited Away” win, Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker goes so far as to say that “it is not necessarily a plus to have the highest-grossing, most-popular film. I think (‘Nemo’) was a high-quality film, but I’m not really in fear of the fact that it was a popular success.”

Can the kind of lightning that last year saw a small film (albeit one released by a major studio) prevail strike twice?

“I think it’s always going to be difficult going up against a film that has overwhelming public and critical approval, like ‘Shrek’ or ‘Finding Nemo,’ ” says critic Leonard Maltin.

The feature animation category is governed by strict, often confusing, rules whose workings contain as many mechanisms as a Swiss clock and require almost as much winding.

“It’s analogous to our other specialized categories, such as foreign-language films, where you’ve got a special committee that meets to consider the entries in that area,” says Bruce Davis, exec director of AMPAS.

Disney, of course, is sitting pretty since “Finding Nemo,” which was released on commercial VHS & DVD while still showing a small theatrical presence, requires less promotion than any film since “Shrek.”

Still, not wanting to put all its caviar into one basket, the studio has submitted its three other 2003 releases for consideration: “Brother Bear,” “The Jungle Book 2” and “Piglet’s Big Movie.”

“We’re really putting our hopes on ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘Brother Bear,’ but I think the other two movies are also worthy, and we’d love to see them get some kind of recognition as well,” says David Stainton, president of Disney feature animation

DreamWorks will concentrate its campaign on “Millennium Actress,” described within the studio as “femine” — a more feminine form of anime.

The unexpected entry of “Tokyo Godfathers,” which will run in L.A. concurrent with its Japanese premiere, puts an interesting twist on DreamWorks’ push for a nomination since “Godfathers'” director Satoshi Kon also directed “Millennium Actress,” and will thus be in competition with himself.

This year’s nomination wild card is Warner Bros. “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” a live action/animation mix. Live/toon mixes can be considered as animated features if they meet certain Academy criteria, notably that at least 75% of the movie features animation.

“This is at heart an animated movie,” says “Looney Tunes” director Joe Dante. “I was told that one of the criteria was how much the animation drives the action, and we couldn’t have a movie if it weren’t for our two stars, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.”

While the number of animated films is definitely down from 2002 — which set the record for toon feature releases in a given year with 19 — it is too pat to say that this downward trend represents a glut in the marketplace or the end of traditional animation.