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Finding room for ‘Nemo’ in best pic slot

Despite 'Beast' breakthrough, Oscar a long swim for fish

Only once in the history of the Academy Awards has an animated feature received a best picture nom: 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

It was an unexpected, controversial result that prompted some in Hollywood to gripe that honoring a film in which the actors were not photographed directly somehow diminished the category. Oscar traditionalists, therefore, breathed a little easier when Disney’s lavish, musical fairy tale was beaten by “The Silence of the Lambs,” which boasted its own beauty and beastliness.

DreamWorks’ “Shrek” (2001) and Disney’s “Spirited Away” (2002), by way of Japan’s Studio Ghibli, were touted by critics as best pic material, but to no avail come Oscar time (though both won their respective year’s animated feature kudo).

This year Disney, buoyed by stellar reviews and a year-topping $340 million domestic B.O., is campaigning hard for such a nom for Pixar’s CG fish story “Finding Nemo.” But it might be a tough swim, despite the film’s inclusion in the Golden Globes’ comedy/musical category.

“I think that people have been taking animation a lot more seriously since ‘Beauty and the Beast,'” says Antran Manoogian, president of the Intl. Animated Film Society ASIFA-Hollywood, which each year stages the Annie Awards honoring the toon industry. “Though I would question the mindset of the members of the Academy and whether the long-held belief is still there that (best picture) has to do with live action.”

For some, the creation of the animated feature category renders the question moot. “Now that they’ve given the Academy Award for best animated feature, it’s easy for Academy members not to have to consider an animated feature for best picture,” says animation historian and author Jerry Beck, who likens the situation to the documentary feature category. “Is it possible for a documentary feature to win for best picture? None ever has.”

Oscar has a long history of inviting feature animation to the party, but only on a guest ticket. At the ceremonies held in 1939, Walt Disney was awarded an honorary Oscar (and seven miniature ones) for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” In 1942, he shared another one with maestro Leopold Stokowski for “Fantasia,” the animated classical music compilation that Stokowski helped inspire.

While that year’s pic category included 10 contenders instead of five, “Fantasia” was not among them, though Beck believes it should have been. ” ‘Fantasia’ was cutting-edge,” he says. “It was so different that I think if they had been open-minded, it could certainly have been a nominee.”

Even though 1942’s “Bambi” was not as cutting-edge (though its use of subliminal color and imagery in the fire sequence was certainly innovative), a similar argument could have been made for its inclusion. If nothing else, the film has lived in viewers’ memories and on their video shelves far longer than many of that year’s 10 pic nominees, such as “Wake Island,” “The Talk of the Town,” “The Pied Piper” and “The Invaders.”

The closest animation got to the pic trophy during the 1940s came not via Disney but MGM, whose 1945 nominee “Anchors Aweigh” featured a cartoon sequence in which Gene Kelly danced with Jerry Mouse, created by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera’s Tom & Jerry unit at the studio. “Anchors Aweigh” lost to “The Lost Weekend.”

Disney’s live-action/animation mix “Song of the South,” released in 1946, failed to score a picture nom despite the praise critics heaped on its cartoon segments.

A true contender that never was arrived from England more than 20 years later. George Dunning’s innovative Beatles-inspired “Yellow Submarine” might simply have been too hip for the house in 1968, when Academy voters were overlooking pop art and the youth culture in favor of old-fashioned adaptations of Broadway’s “Funny Girl,” “The Lion in Winter” and “Oliver!” (which won).

Had its use of the medium and story content not been so startling, if not shocking, Ralph Bakshi’s highly praised, X-rated “Heavy Traffic,” released in 1973, might have scored a picture nomination, though Academy voters probably still would have awarded top honors to the much safer caper film “The Sting.”

Since “Beauty and the Beast,” several animated films that are considered as good or even better — Disney’s “The Lion King,” Pixar’s “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” and Warner Bros.’ “The Iron Giant” — have come and gone without being recognized for the top Oscar honor.

As for this year, little “Nemo” has its work cut out as it swims up a mystic river, dodges naval battles in the ocean and escapes from orcs in its quest for a picture nom.

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