- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2010

Any film studio would kill for a movie that earns north of $400 million domestically while drawing near-universal raves from critics.

One 2010 feature managed both feats, a one-two punch that normally would generate serious talk of an Oscar for best picture.

Too bad the film features an animated toy named Woody.

“Toy Story 3,” featuring the voice of Tom Hanks as Woody and Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear, seems the most likely film to shatter the animated glass ceiling. But it won’t be easy. For years, Oscar voters have viewed animation as a second-tier genre, worth dragging your nephew to see, but hardly art with a capital “A.”

But the times — and movie demographics — are changing. Animated films such as “Megamind” and “How to Train Your Dragon” routinely demolish the competition at the box office, and animated films hold four slots on the list of the 10 top-grossing films this year — “Toy Story 3,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Shrek: Forever After” and Despicable Me.”

These films, led by the excelsior Disney/Pixar brand, can deliver a brand of nuanced storytelling lacking in many live-action features. They also hail from different studios — it’s not all Disney anymore — and are released throughout the year, not just the obvious holidays. Opening this Thanksgiving week is another Disney fairy tale — the Rapunzel-based film “Tangled.”

If 2010 isn’t the year Oscar pays animated films the ultimate tribute, then when?

Disney senses a unique opportunity and is pouring money into a marketing campaign on behalf of “Toy Story 3.” The studio’s “For Your Consideration” ads in entertainment outlets such as Variety use the film’s characters to pay homage to such previous best-picture winners as “Shakespeare in Love.”

Animation historian Charles Solomon said films like “Toy Story 3” influence the culture in more profound ways than do many traditional features.

“How many people have re-watched [2009 best picture winner] ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘Up’ more than once? Which films have the real staying power and form part of the popular culture?” Mr. Solomon asks. “It’s been more than a decade between ‘Toy Story 2’ and ‘3.’ Those characters never went away.”

Only two animated films have even been nominated for best picture: Disney’s 1991 offering “Beauty and the Beast” and Pixar’s “Up” last year.

Disney may pin some hope on a comparison between the latest “Story” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The first two films in that series picked up mostly technical Oscars, but “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” swept its way to a record-tying 11 prizes, including the best picture award.

Bob Birchard, editor of the AFI Catalog of Feature Films, argues that the comparison won’t necessarily boost “Toy Story 3’s” chances for Oscar glory. The “Rings” films were conceived as a trilogy, so it seemed appropriate to honor the films’ achievements with the final chapter.

“When ‘Toy Story’ was made, no one was thinking there would be a Toy Story 2, 3 or 4,’” Mr. Birchard says.

Award voters sometimes lean on emotion when making their choices — for example, the award given to an aging, Oscar-less Paul Newman for the 1986 film “The Color of Money.”

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