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Toons target top trophies

Animation category nice, but CGI pics have bigger plans

Conspiracy theorists in toon town see the Academy’s creation of the feature animation Oscar in 2001 as a means of keeping the picture statuette out of their hands.

The alleged plot could fail miserably this year. The combination of some very strong animated contenders and the paucity of live-action front-runners bodes well for animation scoring in the top race.

In fact, DreamWorks and Disney have made “Shrek 2” and “The Incredibles,” respectively, their top candidates for Oscar promotion this year, each aiming as high as best picture.

Studios backing animated pics believe the field is wide open to animation at a time when the hearts and minds of Oscar voters might be, too. “It’s basically a glacier of rejection that’s been melting for 15 years, and it melts a little more each year,” says Terry Press, director of marketing for DreamWorks. She ought to know, having engineered the first best pic nom for a toon while at Disney, for “Beauty and the Beast.”

Still, granting a toon feature a picture nomination is one thing. But actually handing over the gold is quite another.

Wide-open year or not, it seems a stretch to believe that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ view of animated features — despite critical acclaim and stellar B.O. — has changed enough to make a toon best picture.

” ‘Finding Nemo’ had as much critical acclaim (in 2003) as it is possible for a movie to get, and yet they still couldn’t (even nominate it),” acknowledges Press.

While the snubs of the first “Shrek” and “Finding Nemo” imply that neither Disney nor DreamWorks should be holding their breath on pic noms this year, other major categories seem within their grasp.

Disney’s campaign for the Pixar-produced “Incredibles” has its sights set on writer-helmer Brad Bird taking home a directing trophy. The studio also has targeted the performance awards.

Until now, the acting categories have been unimaginable for animated pics — in part because perfs become moot once a film is dubbed for foreign markets.

But plenty of Oscar winners are lending their voices to toons this year, from Julie Andrews (“Shrek 2”) to Holly Hunter (“The Incredibles”) to Tom Hanks (Warner’s “The Polar Express”), and Acad voters tend to like actors with kudo track records. Away from the major categories, studios such as Disney are looking for consideration in technical areas where no animated film has ever gone, such as editing and costume design.

“Our costume designers design costumes just like a designer for live action, and our art directors work the same way — it’s all filmmaking,” says Pixar’s John Walker, who produced “The Incredibles.”

Meanwhile, Sony Pictures Imageworks, which produced “The Polar Express” for Warner Bros., wants the genre-bending film considered for a visual f/x trophy in addition to the top animation prize. “It is as much a tour-de-force visual effects project as it is an animation project,” notes Imageworks prexy Tim Sarnoff.

Just in case Academy voters aren’t ready to welcome animation into untraveled terrain, toon campaigners are targeting the categories in which they have a bit more of a toehold.

The writing categories, for example, have opened their doors in recent years to animated fare, with 1995’s “Toy Story,” 2001’s “Shrek” and last year’s “Finding Nemo” nabbing screenplay noms. Both of this year’s digital juggernauts, “Shrek 2” and “Incredibles,” will make a run for script recognition.

Sound categories have also been open to tooning in the past, with “Beauty and the Beast” and “Finding Nemo” receiving nominations for sound and sound editing, respectively.

Since animated features carry the extra burden of not having any kind of production track to follow, many feel they present special challenges that are particularly worthy of recognition.

“Even when we do our (story reel) screenings for the studio, we have to do temp mixes that are far more detailed than a normal temp mix for live action, because we have no natural sound in it,” says Julia Pistor, senior VP of Nickelodeon Movies and producer of the Par-distributed “SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.”

Then there are the two music categories — original score and song — where animated features have made quite a home for themselves.

This year’s hopefuls include Disney’s hand-drawn “Home in the Range”; its composer, Alan Menken, has won eight trophies while scoring such Disney animated pics.

Of course, if all else fails to work out for toons this year, there’s always the animated feature category — ghetto to some, home to others.

This year’s list of eligible pics includes DreamWorks’ “Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence” (released through its Go Fish Pictures banner); Disney’s “Teacher’s Pet”; Warners’ “Clifford’s Really Big Movie”; and indies “Sky Blue,” from South Korea, and “The Legend of Buddha.”

Because fewer than 16 animated films were released in the U.S. in 2004 — 16 is the threshold number to trigger a five-nominee category — there will be only three nominees in this year’s race.

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