New Oscar to trumpet animated works

— With a Scottish-burred ogre, a bunch of button-down corporate monsters and a kid with a gumdrop hairdo among invitees, this year's Academy Awards will be a bit more animated.

For the first time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will present an Oscar for best feature-length animated film, a badge of prestige for filmmakers who often have felt their work is dismissed merely as cartoons for children.

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AP Photo

Top kid scarer James P. Sullivan, center right, and his assistant, Mike Wazowski, center left, arrive for work at Monsters, Inc. the largest scream processing facility in the monster world. "Monsters, Inc." was among three nominees in the new Oscar category for animated feature films.

Up for best animated feature are DreamWorks' hip ogre fairy tale "Shrek"; Disney's "Monsters, Inc.", the story of beasties in an energy crisis; and Paramount's "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius," a sci-fi adventure about a whiz-kid.

The academy has singled out a handful of animated films for awards and top nominations, but the genre usually has been relegated to a few victories in the Oscar music categories.

"Animation is considered different somehow than live action. It's somehow for kids and not something that's looked on as seriously as other movies," said John Lasseter, the creative mastermind behind Pixar Animation, Disney's partner in producing "Monsters, Inc.", the "Toy Story" flicks and "A Bug's Life."

"But people go to the same theaters to see animation as they do live-action films. They pay the same ticket price, sit in the same seats and eat the same popcorn. Our goal as animators is exactly the same as live action: to thoroughly entertain the audience."

The cartoon stigma

While animators generally are pleased that feature-length cartoons now have their own Oscar, some say animation becomes "ghettoized" when it's segregated with its own category � like a kids' table lined up alongside the adults table.

Animated films remain eligible for the overall best-picture category. But many filmmakers think academy members will be less inclined to back a worthy animated film for best picture now that there's a separate animation category.

"Animation is regarded as a genre when in fact it is a technique. I think it is peculiar that a technique is singled out as a separate sort of movie," said director Simon Wells, whose animated credits include "The Prince of Egypt" and "Balto." "That said, if I had a movie that was being nominated for a best-animation Oscar, I certainly wouldn't turn it down."

Only one animated film has ever earned a best-picture nomination, "Beauty and the Beast" from 1991.

A special award � a full-sized Oscar and seven miniature ones � was given to Walt Disney for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the first feature-length animated film. Pixar's Lasseter received a special Oscar for "Toy Story," the first full-length computer-animated picture.

"Shrek," considered this year's animated front-runner, was so well received that it might have landed a best-picture nomination if not for the cartoon category.

"It is one of those double-edged swords to a degree," said Andrew Adamson, co-director of "Shrek." "It's great that animation is getting this honor, but then, you don't have a best-comedy category or a best-movie-with-visual-effects category. In some ways, it kind of delineates animation in a negative way, like saying animation can't compete with other films.

"It would be nice to get to the day where there is no stigma attached. That it's not an 'animated film.' It's just another film."

The new Oscar category comes as animated films scored one of their biggest years ever. The combined receipts for the three nominees totaled $600 million domestically. "Shrek," at $267.7 million, is No. 2 among top-grossing animated movies behind "The Lion King," while "Monsters, Inc.," at $252 million, is No. 3.

Last year also produced such technical advancements as "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," a box-office flop that still raised animation to a new level of semi-realism, and "Waking Life," a film shot in live action then digitally "painted over" by computer animation.

The more the merrier

The academy, which has presented an Oscar for short cartoons since the early 1930s, had long considered adding a category for long-form animation.

The hitch was whether any given year could produce enough animated films to make it worthwhile. For decades, Disney was Hollywood's only steady producer of animated features. Even with rival DreamWorks emerging as a major player in the last few years, the academy could have been stuck trying to create an Oscar category with three nominees from a field of just four or five eligible cartoons.

With advances in computer animation, other studios and even low-budget independent filmmakers have jumped into the cartoon business, giving the academy a broader range of contenders. Under the rules for animated films, an Oscar in that category will be awarded only in years that produce at least eight eligible movies.

"It looks now like there's beginning to be enough studios and companies producing animated films that you could have more of a guarantee there would be enough to choose from for the nominations," said Bruce Davis, academy executive director.

A big crop of animated films are coming this year, too.

In mid-March, 20th Century Fox releases "Ice Age," a buddy tale of prehistoric creatures coping with the big freeze. Disney released the "Peter Pan" sequel "Return to Neverland" in February and will follow with the sci-fi cartoons "Lilo & Stitch" and "Treasure Planet." DreamWorks has "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," an Old West adventure about a wild horse. Paramount is making "Hey Arnold! The Movie" and "The Wild Thornberrys," big-screen adaptations of TV cartoons.

Some of those films are likely to factor into the animated Oscar nominations next year.

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