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Could DreamWorks’ ‘Dragon’ Franchise Finally Strike Oscar Gold in a Sequel-Heavy Year?

We haven’t even gotten around to the 91st Academy Awards, so it’s obviously premature to be looking ahead to the 92nd. Nevertheless, with the domestic release of DreamWorks Animation’s trilogy capper “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” right around the corner, it’s worth pondering whether one of the finest theatrical animated franchises of all time will finally get the Oscar love it deserves. In a year set to be packed with sequels, that unrewarded legacy could stand out.

Let’s go back nearly a decade, though. The first film in the series arrived in theaters just three weeks after the 82nd Oscars in March of 2010 — incidentally, the first year of the Academy’s expanded best picture category. Pixar was in full gallop with three-straight wins: “Ratatouille,” “WALL-E” and “Up.” DreamWorks’ “Dragon,” directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, was a refreshing experience after the hellish annual awards season. It was a critically acclaimed box office hit and arguably the studio’s greatest accomplishment up until that point. But within months, Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” would steal the thunder with its own outstanding reviews and record-breaking box office (on its way to a best picture nomination, back when there were 10 guaranteed spots in the lineup).

“Dragon” had no chance in the animated feature Oscar race that year. But it put up a good fight. On Sept. 1, Paramount came roaring into the season with the earliest “for your consideration” ad and website launch ever. Fancy screeners and mailers went out playing up the 3D element in those post-“Avatar” months of 3D fad hysteria. It was a full-court press.

Skip ahead four years. It’s 2014, and with DreamWorks now calling Fox home, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is well-positioned. It was a lively race, but DreamWorks seemed like it might come out ahead and win its first Oscar since “Shrek” in the category’s inaugural year. Warner Bros.’ “The Lego Movie” was cleaning up on the critics’ circuit and won the British Academy prize, but “Dragon 2” claimed the Golden Globe and top Annie Award. When “Lego” failed to land a nomination (quite the scandal that year), it seemed like clear sailing for a now-solo DeBlois and company. Alas, Disney’s “Big Hero 6” — a bigger hit at the box office but not as critically acclaimed as “Dragon 2” — played the role of spoiler. It was a shock, but it reminded how strong the Disney/Pixar allegiance is within the Academy when it comes to this category. Twelve wins in 17 years is quite the statistic.

Now we move ahead another five years with “The Hidden World,” a gorgeous and emotional closing chapter in a series that tapped the genius of Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins along the way to help conjure bold and rich imagery, that has bested itself at every step and that collectively stands as DreamWorks Animation’s crowning achievement. The company now calls yet another studio home, Universal Pictures, and it enters the season with a mission.

With two films in play, Disney will be there to meet the challenge, as ever. Both are sequels to movies that previously won the Oscar: “Frozen 2” and “Toy Story 4.” In fact, sequels are set to dominate the race with “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” also in play, as well as “The Secret Life of Pets 2” (at Universal’s Illumination Entertainment). There will be a handful of new properties, including Sony’s “The Addams Family,” Fox’s “Spies in Disguise” and “Missing Link” from Laika, the Portland-based stop-motion shop that’s still looking for its first win in the category. But none are likely to have the narrative “Dragon” will have going for it.

So, we’ll see. Again, this is all a long ways off. But at the moment, “The Hidden World” is cleaning up internationally. It earned $40 million in 23 foreign markets last weekend and has generated $85 million overseas all told, from Italy and the United Kingdom to Indonesia and Australia. It will finally open in North American on Feb. 22, just two days before this year’s animated feature race comes to a close, with Disney again playing the role of potential spoiler as “Incredibles 2” squares off against the dominating “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”

Will “How to Train Your Dragon” finally breathe fire on Oscar night? Tune in next year to find out.

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