Look who's up for an Oscar!

Animation moves into the spotlight with an award of its own.

Even before the first-ever Oscar for best animated film is handed out Sunday night, there's a touch of controversy about the award.

Why are there only three nominees, when most award categories have five?

Why do the three contenders – "Shrek," "Monsters, Inc.," and "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" – all represent the new breed of computer-generated cartoons, shutting out the old-fashioned hand-drawn kind?

And should this award even exist? The academy has gotten along for decades without giving cartoons their own category. Can't animations compete for the Best Picture prize like other films do – comedies, dramas, the works – and win or lose on their own merits?

There's an easy answer to the first question. Under rules drawn up for the new category, at least 12 feature- length animations must reach theaters in a given year for a slate of five to be nominated. The nominees drop to three if fewer than 12 animations are released – and the category will be passed over if the number is less than eight.

This seems fair, since categories such as documentary and foreign-language film also operate under special (if different) rules.

The second question raises trickier issues. All of this year's candidates are products of Hollywood's latest animation contraptions. They don't rely on hand-drawn pictures, or even on computer-enhanced versions of these. They're anchored in computer-generated imagery (CGI) from the "get-go," giving the illusion of a more "three-dimensional" appearance than traditional 'toons have.

No one claims these movies aren't animations, even if studios puff with pride over the lifelike realism they convey.

Still, they're a far cry from the classic style of a "Pinocchio" or "Lady and the Tramp," which were brushed to life by meticulous fingers in countless hours of painstaking labor.

Films in that handmade mold don't really exist anymore; even a traditional-looking cartoon like this year's "Return to Never Land" has obvious computer-bred qualities.

But several releases with a somewhat traditional 2-D look are slated for theaters this year, and older viewers have nostalgic affection for their time-tested ambience.

So some wonder why this year's contest is a three-way race of 3-D contenders.

Did it take CGI to finally call Oscar's attention to the value of cartoons? Or is this a sly slap at old-fangled animation, skewing public attention – and the box-office profits an Oscar win brings – toward the kind of product Hollywood now prefers to make?

The answer is probably no on both counts.

Animation advocates have long supported an Oscar for their field, but Hollywood tends to move slowly on this front – it's been almost 20 years since the academy last created a new award. As for charges of bias toward 2-D cartooning, it's likely that nominators simply went for the movies that most impressed them.

And remember that ticket-window grosses are never far from Oscar's mind.

"Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc." were monster hits. The more traditional "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" and the mixed-bag movie "Osmosis Jones" weren't.

'Nuff said?

Then there's that third issue, the most contentious of them all.

If animations are simply a genre, like science fiction or war movies, shouldn't they take their shot at Best Picture nominations with no special privileges? That worked for "Beauty and the Beast," nominated for Best Picture 10 years ago.

One response is that "Beauty and the Beast" is unique, since no other animation has even been nominated for best picture. By this argument, the rarity of that achievement shows the need for special treatment of cartoons.

Others point out that film history abounds with beloved cartoons that were elbowed out of consideration by inferior fare we scarcely remember today.

Perhaps such injustices grew from public relations problems linked to animation's longtime reputation as kiddy-market fare. And perhaps a distinctive category is just what's needed to set this situation straight.

What nobody can deny is that animations are much in vogue – and that no single audience is driving the phenomenon.

Little kids relish the experience of colorful, kinetic fantasies they feel were drawn (or programmed) just for them.

Adolescents and young adults, the studios' most coveted demographic group, savor the action-filled stories and smart-alecky humor of modern Hollywood animations.

They also like the violence and romance that pepper Japanese animé productions and other offbeat cartoons, which the academy may have to reckon with in years to come.

Then there's the adult audience, happy to recall childhood pleasures while being tickled by sassy in-jokes and double entendres, often tucked into PG animations for precisely that purpose.

Many of today's parents grew up with TV cartoons just as their youngsters have, from "Sesame Street" snippets to Saturday-morning marathons.

Could the freshness, humor, and cultural sophistication of "The Simpsons" be a factor in the academy's long-delayed decision to honor animation with its own award?

It's not a far-fetched theory.

As viewers await the animation envelope this Sunday night, questions are already percolating about the next sweepstakes a year from now.

Will enough cartoons be released to justify a full slate of five nominees? Will the 2-D style – not fully hand-drawn, but leaning toward the classic Disney look – enter the race via pictures like "Lilo & Stitch," about a little girl and her interplanetary dog, or "Treasure Planet," which transplants "Treasure Island" to outer space?

I also wonder if the animation category will prove flexible enough to cover the entire field it's meant to honor.

This year's three-film lineup doesn't include the idiosyncratic "Waking Life," for instance. Richard Linklater made it with a revamped version of the rotoscoping technique, whereby filmed live-action images are transformed into cartoons via high-tech tracing methods.

It's an animation – what else could it be? – yet it confounds conventional notions in both its eccentric style and its quirky, dialogue-centered screenplay.

True, it's an art film, and Oscar tends to tokenism (at best) when those ungainly beasts come within its money-oriented radar.

But if there's no place for a maverick cartoon like this on future nomination lists, the animation Oscar will do a poor job of serving American film in all its bedazzling variety.

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