Wild card lurks in toon deck

Smaller animated pix hoping to muscle in on noms

With four high-profile animated features released this year — DreamWorks’ “Shrek 2” and “Shark Tale,” Disney/Pixar’s “The Incredibles” and Warner’s “The Polar Express” — it might seem like the shortlist for Oscar’s animated feature category is already taking shape.

A heavyweight bout between “Shrek 2” and “The Incredibles” is sure to highlight what looks to be a three-nominee year. There were more than eight animated features released in 2004, but less than the 16 required to bump the category to a five-nom slate.

But things might not be that simple.

The possible wild card in the race is Paramount’s puppet parody “Team America: World Police,” which the studio has submitted for consideration in the animation category. The inclusion of the term “puppets” as one of the eligible animation techniques covered in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ rules for the toon short category might mean that it may be eligible for feature as well, even though that category doesn’t address puppets in its rules.

Whether or not “Team America” will be held back by its strings will be up to Academy committee governing the feature animation category. It is one of three Oscar awards categories (along with makeup and original score for a musical) whose inclusion is at the discretion of AMPAS’ board of governors.

The toon biz has been abuzz with the rumor that Disney was going to emulate Michael Moore’s strategy in the feature docu category and withhold submission of “The Incredibles” in the animation race to put it more squarely in line for best picture and other kudos. Technically, this is allowed under the category’s rules, but both Disney and Pixar insiders dismiss the rumor.

But some observers question whether an animated pic can break into the picture race now that there’s a standalone animation category. The last toon film to be nominated for best picture was Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” in 1991, when there was no separate animation category. Arguably, no film of 2003 was more fully embraced by critics and auds than “Finding Nemo,” yet no best-pic hopes materialized.

Meanwhile, the fact that “Polar Express” bases its computer animation (which was done by Sony Pictures Imageworks) on motion capture, the digital recording of live-action movement, has prompted debate as to whether it qualifies as animation. With the onset of newer technologies and hybrids of various techniques, this is a dilemma that is sure to keep the animation branch busy for years to come.

With or without controversies, though, this year’s race looks to be a lively one. “We’re very excited that the category remains vibrant in terms of the number and depth and variety of releases,” says Jon Bloom, chair of the short-film and feature animation branch executive committee. “It continues to be one of the more exciting categories in the Oscar race.”

Rounding out the pool of potentials are “Home on the Range,” Disney’s last hand-drawn title; “Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence,” an anime import from Go Fish Pictures, DreamWorks’ specialty label; “Kaena: The Prophecy,” a French sci-fi adventure from Goldwyn/Destination; “Muhammad: The Last Prophet,” from Fine Media Group; and “The Easter Egg Escapade,” a 2-D indie created by John Michael Williams. There also are the bigscreen versions of TV programs: Disney’s “Teacher’s Pet,” Warners’ “Clifford’s Really Big Movie” and “Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie: Pyramid of Light” and Paramount/Nickelodeon Movies’ “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.”

In previous years, foreign animated films such as 2002’s “Spirited Away” and last year’s “The Triplets of Belleville” have scored far better than TV bump-ups. Prior winners in the young category are “Shrek,” “Spirited Away” and “Finding Nemo.”