By Nate Freiberg

If ever there were a reliably predictable Academy Award, Best Animated Feature is it. For at least the last six years of the award’s young eight-year history, there’s been a heavy favorite in the field and that favorite has gone on to win. There’s no indication that this trend is about to change heading into Year 9.

Up — which is also nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score and Best Sound Editing — is poised to become the fifth Animated Feature winner for Pixar and third straight following Ratatouille and WALL·E. Since it is the only animated film among the 10 Best Picture nominees, it’s unclear how any argument can be made that it’s not logically also the best animated feature.

The lack of inherent drama associated with the race aside, 2009 was perhaps the best year for animated films yet. In prior years, it was more or less a fait acompli as to which three films would land nominations due to a lack of options. This year, the field is so deep and so strong that not only does the award have five nominees for the first time in its history, but several films that would have ordinarily locked up spots on the ballot were left out in the cold this time around.

So with acknowledging tips o’ the cap to 9, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Mary and Max, Ponyo and A Town Called Panic – and to a much lesser extent, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, Astro Boy, Battle for Terra, A Christmas Carol, The Dolphin: Story of a Dreamer, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Monsters vs. Aliens, Planet 51 and Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure – here’s a look at the merits of this year’s nominees:

In line with the same stop-motion, dark visual style as such films as The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, Corpse Bride and the aforementioned 9, comes Henry Selick’s Coraline. An early February release, the film’s box-office gross may have been tempered somewhat by its darker material and subject matter – thereby scaring away a younger, repeat audience – so it’s nice to see the Academy recognize a quality animated picture which features more mature material. Particularly admirable is the brave choice to make Coraline a difficult protagonist with character faults rather than your standard sweet, angelic adolescent girl. Also to be enjoyed are the strange, whimsical supporting characters and the fanciful worlds they inhabit and create for themselves. In short, Coraline, which is based on the Neil Gaiman book, looks great, features a unique, intelligent storyline and is a nice break from your traditionally sugary and innocent, kid-centric animation.

Here is the trailer:

Director Wes Anderson is known for the offbeat, subtle humor he’s featured most prominently in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited, so it was a bit of a surprise to see him bring that same style to the animated arena with Fantastic Mr. Fox. Most who have seen the Roald Dahl, stop-motion adaptation, though, are glad he did. Buoyed by the voice talents of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Jason Schwartzman, the film — like Coraline — also skews a bit older, with witty dialogue, Anderson’s trademark comic timing and a level of sophistication imbued into a fairly simple storyline. Probably not the sort of film which will appeal to everyone, but those who like it are also bound to love it. It’s a shame stop-motion animation is a painstakingly long process, because it would be great to have more films like this out there.

Here is the trailer:

Five years after releasing the disappointing Home on the Range, Disney has returned to its traditional animated roots with The Princess and the Frog. An experiment to see whether the hand-drawn form is still a viable one commercially, the film has performed respectably, but not to the blockbuster, slam-dunk degree Disney had been hoping for, particularly after it opened to very positive reviews. Those who grew up with the musically-driven Disney triumphs of the early 90’s like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin may appreciate this return to form, but it’s an open question as to whether today’s kids, who are more accustomed to the visual splendor of CGI, have really embraced it. All the familiar Disney elements are here, including your fairy princess, colorful sidekicks and two Oscar-nominated Randy Newman songs. It might not quite measure up to the successful string that began with The Little Mermaid 20 years ago, but The Princess and the Frog still represents a successful return to form for the Mickey Mouse company.

Here is the trailer:

When pundits tried to nail down which five films would net nominations, a healthy segment thought that the little-known Australian stop-motion Mary and Max, which had but a very brief run in Los Angeles stateside, not only deserved a nomination, but would also land one. Well, that line of thinking was sound even if the target film was off the mark. Instead, we have a great surprise with the even lesser-known French/Belgian/Irish production The Secret of Kells (also known as Brendan and the Secret of the Kells). A ninth-century tale of abbeys, Viking attacks and mystical forests, the film often plays as challenging and dreamlike. Its relative obscurity and cruder, angular hand-drawn animation is sure to torpedo whatever remote chance it has at Oscar glory, but like The Triplets of Belleville and Persepolis before it, it’s nice to welcome a film with a different skillset and a foreign pedigree to the animated canon.

Here is the trailer:

Though critics differ as to where Up stacks up with Pixar’s best, everyone agrees that the fantasy tale of a man flying his house to South America with thousands of helium balloons attached to it is another standout achievement for the animation studio. On the heels of the quiet, dialogue-bereft WALL·E, this story continues to blend substance with style, getting off to such a heartwarming start that the 15-minute prologue has touched nearly everyone who has seen it. With skilled, nuanced voice work, charming characters and an imaginative storyline all rendered in beautiful CGI, Up easily overcomes it somewhat weaker final third. The superlative score by Michael Giacchino completes a great motion-picture effort, which joins Beauty and the Beast as the only animated films nominated for Best Picture (though  WALL·E almost certainly would have been received a nod had the field gone 10 deep last year). Also worth noting is that Up is the lone CGI entrant on this list, a minor upset given the dominance this technology has enjoyed over the past decade.

Here is the trailer:

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With Up the sure-fire winner here, it’s worth asking whether the move to 10 nominees for Best Picture may yet strip the Best Animated Feature award of its usefulness. Only time will tell.

Road to the Oscars series:

Podcasts – Kit Bowen, Nate Freiberg, Adam Spunberg, and Phil Wallace

February 4: Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

February 5: Animated Short – Kit Bowen

February 8: Documentary Short Subject – Christa Youngpeter

February 9: Documentary Feature – Nate Freiberg

February 10: Foreign Language Film – Paul Popiel

February 12: Animated Film – Nate Freiberg

February 15: Sound Mixing – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Sound Editing – Jeremy Martin

February 17: Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 18: Visual Effects – Mallory Pickard

February 19: Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 22: Makeup – Christa Youngpeter

February 23: Costume – Steve Neumann

February 24: Art Direction – Christa Youngpeter

February 25: Film Editing – Steve Neumann

February 26: Cinematography – Paul Popiel

February 27: Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 28: Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

March 1: Supporting Actress – Marla Seidell

March 2: Supporting Actor – Phil Wallace

March 3: Actress – Marla Seidell

March 4: Actor – Kit Bowen

March 5: Director – Adam Spunberg

March 5: Picture – Kit Bowen

March 7: The 82nd Annual Academy Awards!