- 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.”

“I don’t know the Academy members would even be thinking in terms of, ‘Gee, no animated film has ever won best picture. We have to right that wrong,’” he said. “The academy devised the best animated feature category years ago to counteract the fact that it was unlikely an animated film would make it among the five [best picture] nominees.”

Jerry Beck, an animation historian and author of 15 animation books, said Disney may feel emboldened by the modest competition this year.

So far, there’s no front-runner for the best-picture prize, although that may change over the next month as films such as “True Grit” and “How Do You Know” hit theaters.

“For them, it makes sense to go for it. … I do think it has a legitimate chance,” said Mr. Beck, noting that the only time Oscar went out of his way to honor animation was the special award presented by Shirley Temple in 1939 for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Then again, Pixar features such as “Wall•E” and “Up” also scored boffo reviews and box office bounty, and neither won best picture.

“Three strikes and you’re out if this doesn’t work,” Mr. Beck said.

It may take a new generation of filmmakers to change the status quo.

“[Directors like] Wes Anderson, Robert Zemeckis and Zack Snyder are getting into animation now. There’s a newfound respect among the younger generation,” he said.

Reelzchannel movie reviewer Richard Roeper noted that the romantic montage at the start of “Up” was “probably more moving than anything we’ve seen in a live action movie” last year.

But that didn’t matter, he said, because “the average age of the academy voter is well north of 60,” and they tend to see animated films in a different category than live-action features for reasons having little to do with the quality of the films.

“Toy Story 3” Oscar hopes are still “an extreme long shot,” Mr. Roeper said. But the annual awards ceremony is known for the occasional shock.

“It wouldn’t be the biggest upset of all time,” Mr. Roeper said, adding that audiences carry plenty of good will for the franchise’s characters into the third installment. “If they vote with their hearts, then it could happen.”

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