Oscar gets in 'toon

Today is 'toon day at the Academy.

Final entries are due today to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to qualify for this year's best animated feature film Oscar.

But the real question is not necessarily: "What will make the final cut?" but "Is there a chance in hell that one of those nominees (we smell a rat here) could actually be nominated for best picture as well?"

Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" in 1991 is the only animated film to earn the distinction, but that was before the academy established the animated feature category in 2001. The ruling immediately gave 'toons their fair share of Oscar spotlight, but it ghettoized them as well.

In the eyes of many, particularly animation aficionados, the separative move just guaranteed voters wouldn't reward deserving films with a nomination for the big prize when they already have their "own" picture category.

But is the idea still so far fetched? "Ratatouille," the Pixar/Disney summer smash, has taken the world by storm, raking in more than $500 million to date around the globe and climbing.

Disney, as a studio, is still looking for its first best picture win, although it bought itself some BP glory when it purchased specialty label Miramax, which has won the top prize three times ("The English Patient," "Chicago" and "Shakespeare in Love").

In a season of dark, depressing dramas, "Ratatouille" may seem like an alternative - lighter, more optimistic and audience pleasing. Bloodshot, gun-shy academy voters looking for something different might come back to this one after trying out some of the newer films in the awards mix.

As Disney's home video campaign (it streets Tuesday) correctly states, it is "the best reviewed movie of the year," leading all comers with a remarkable 97% "fresh" rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website (out of 190 reviews) and a 96 score on MetaCritic, placing it not only first for the year there, but sixth on their all-time list led by none other than "The Godfather."

These critical huzzahs, plus its box-office clout, could give the little kitchen rat the street cred the academy needs to justify a super rare bump up to best picture.

A key best picture award from a couple of those critics groups that seemed to uniformly rave about the flick certainly wouldn't hurt "Ratatouille's" chances come Oscar time.

The trick to pulling off this kind of long shot, according to veteran awards publicist and Pixar consultant Tony Angelotti, is actually getting all the members, not just the committee, to watch animated films in the first place. When they do, they usually like what they see.

When we decided to pose the question earlier this week (no one from the studio had even dared suggest the possibility to us) to multiple Oscar winner John Lasseter, Disney/Pixar's chief creative officer and an animation director himself of such films as "Toy Story" and "Cars," he said that while animators are thrilled to have their own feature recognition now, it shouldn't preclude consideration for best picture as well.

"There is a separate category for foreign language films too, but that didn't stop 'Life Is Beautiful' (in 1998), for instance, getting nominated there as well as best picture," Lasseter said.

The Roberto Benigni tear-jerker went on to win three Oscars, including best actor and foreign film but lost best picture to "Shakespeare in Love."

Of course that was an exception not the rule, and it should be stressed that in addition to the animation hurdle, no film about a rodent has ever been nominated for best picture.

No matter what happens, Lasseter's film (written and directed by "Incredibles" Oscar winner Brad Bird) is probably the 800-pound gorilla in the animated feature race. Yet, after Pixar's champ "Cars" lost to Warner's "Happy Feet" last year, Lasseter is taking nothing for granted.

"Cars" had won just about every significant precursor award, including the inaugural Golden Globe for animation, the PGA, Broadcast Film Critics, National Board of Review and many others only to run out of gas and get stomped to death by those "Happy Feet" on Oscar night.

And taking note of that, there are many carnivorous Oscar campaigners looking to pull off just such an upset this year.

In fact, we have gotten more than one call this week from nervous consultants with their own contenders wondering if we could account for more than 15 animated films being released in 2007.

This is an important figure because if there are 16 or more eligible 'toons then five nominees could be named rather than the usual three, dramatically upping your chances of getting in the race. When there are only eight to 15 legit entries, a maximum of just three films can make the final cut.

Of course if the committee that decides these things deems less than eight eligible, no category will be greenlighted.

Last year the academy had announced 16 legitimate entries, barely triggering five nominees for the first and only time since 2002. It later determined that one of them, Luc Besson's "Arthur and the Invisibles," had too much live action content. It was dropped and only three nominees were eventually named.

We can count just 14 possibilities overall this year, and some of these, including Robert Zemeckis's motion capture extravaganza "Beowulf" and "Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie for Theaters" (possibly disqualified because of some sort of TV or Internet airing) may have their eligibility tested by new stricter rules.

The other 12 possibilities we see in addition to "Ratatouille" are "Surf's Up," "The Simpsons Movie," "Bee Movie," "Shrek the Third," "TMNT," "Meet the Robinsons," "Happily N'Ever After," and "Persepolis" as well three low-budget indies, "Ten Commandments," and Japanese imports "Tekkonkinkreet" and "Robo Tech: Shadow Chronicles."

The problem is that the movies' distributors must actually enter these titles, and not all would seem likely nominees, even with five slots, so some small distributors such as Funimation just might not want to bother filling out the paperwork for a perfunctory January release like "Robo Tech."

Another potential history-making nominee besides "Ratatouille" is the Cannes Film Festival hit "Persepolis" from Sony Pictures Classics, Marjane Satrapi's hand-drawn autobiographical story of a young girl growing up during a time of Islamic revolution in Iran.

This international sensation also has become a rare animated entry for best foreign language film from France (a surprise choice over the popular "La Vie en Rose").

"Persepolis" could be the first ever 'toon to find itself competing in two best film categories (foreign and animation), if not the coveted best picture itself, which Sony Pictures Classics even suggesting that possibility in their early 'for your consideration' ads.

The animation committee has been very willing to recognize foreign 'toons, including Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning "Spirited Away" (2002), his nominated "Howl's Moving Castle" (2005) and the French "The Triplets of Belleville" (2003).

Assuming "Ratatouille" and "Persepolis" grab two of the spots, there will be fierce competition for the third, particularly from 20th Century Fox, which plans to aggressively campaign for "The Simpsons Movie," (a huge hit), and from the new Sony Pictures Animation for their second effort, "Surf's Up," (very well reviewed but just so-so box-office returns, hence word on the street of Sony mulling the prospect of divesting itself from the CG business).

Plus don't count out Dreamworks, always a player (and a two-time winner in the category), with Jerry Seinfeld's "Bee Movie" hoping to sting the rest of the field especially if it can make a killing at the box office this weekend.

Movies that feature partial animation, such as Disney's Nov. 21 release "Enchanted" and Fox's holiday film "Alvin and the Chipmunks," have been ruled out by their studios in advance because of a preponderance of live action sequences.

The academy plans to announce its list of eligible animated features on Monday, but in the increasingly competitive and looney land of 'toons, you can be sure "That's NOT All Folks" for a bunch of talented animators with their eyes on the prize.

And yes, that includes best picture.

You can still dream big when it's this early in The Season.

Pete Hammond's Notes on aSeason column runs every Thursday in TheEnvelope.com.

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