By Nate Freiberg

Let’s travel back in time a year to see what I wrote about the Best Animated Feature of 2009:

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.

Let’s see … if we were to add a year in all the appropriate places, switch Up to Toy Story 3, change ‘Original Screenplay’ to ‘Adapted Screenplay’ and swap ‘Original Score’ with ‘Original Song,’ we’d be all set for this year’s award, wouldn’t we?

The little exercise above isn’t so much a function of laziness on my part, but rather an indication of how little things have changed. It could be argued, in fact, that Toy Story 3 stands an even better chance of claiming the golden statuette than Up did thanks to its status as one of three nominees as opposed to five. That’s because only 15 animated films were deemed eligible by the Academy this year, and 16 are needed for there to be five nominees.

You don’t need me to tell you that Toy Story 3 will make it four in a row for Pixar — this is once again the biggest lock of any Oscar category. With the Best Picture field having been extended to 10 nominees last year, one wonders if Animated Feature has already outlived its short usefulness. If an animated picture grabs an overall nod, do we need another category to tell us it’s better than its brethren? Something to think about, no doubt.

So, with acknowledging tips o’ the cap to Despicable Me, The Dreams of Jinsha, Idiots and Angels, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, Megamind, My Dog Tulip, Shrek Forever After, Summer Wars, Tangled, Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue — and to a much lesser extent, Alpha and Omega and Cats and Dogs: The Legend of Kitty Galore — let’s take a look at this year’s crop of animated features.

When DreamWorks Animation started bombarding the airwaves with commercials for How to Train Your Dragon last winter, skepticism was prevalent. Vikings? Dragons? Looked like yet another desperate bid by DreamWorks to come up with colorful characters in a “new” setting on the heels of its 2009 March release — the flat Monsters vs Aliens. It came as a big surprise, then, when the first critic reviews started to stream in — all were positive.

Lauded for its detailed visuals and skilled use of 3D, Dragon excels in a similar way that Avatar did: It artfully brings the exhilirating feeling of flight to the big screen (which likely served as the determining factor for its selection over fellow audience favorites Tangled or Despicable Me). The story is a winner as well. Though the supporting characters are a little uninspired, the relationship between Hiccup the young Viking and the injured dragon Toothless is genuine. A surprise hit, Dragon is arguably DreamWorks Animation’s best to date.

The Academy has proven adept over the last 10 years of also nominating an under-the-radar gem in this category, bringing to light obscure, hand-drawn films — usually of foreign origin. Last year, we had the French-Belgian-Irish co-production The Secret of Kells, and for 2010, we’ve got The Illusionist, a French/British picture.

Featuring virtually no dialogue, the film is directed by Sylvain Chomet, who also helmed 2003 nominee The Triplets of Belleville. It chronicles the journey of an unemployed French magician faced with becoming obsolete and passé as modern cultural shifts shove him out of the public’s imagination. Traveling to Edinburgh, he finds one appreciative fan, at least, in the form of a young Scottish girl. Beautifully evoking 1950s Scotland, the movie is able to convey the pair’s relationship through action and expression without speech getting in the way. With a warm, nostalgic feel that looks as if it were lifted from a children’s picture book, the movie’s basis in reality is a rarity for animated pictures these days. Dubbed “understated yet compelling” by Picktainment’s Tom Boorstein, it doesn’t have a chance of winning since voters aren’t required to see all animated nominees, but its inclusion here may help generate the audience it deserves.

Despite having been released 11 years after its predecessor, Toy Story 3 hasn’t had any trouble keeping the Pixar train going, finishing 2010 as the year’s highest-grossing film. It’s the first animated movie to have accomplished the feat since Shrek 2 in 2004. And to Pixar’s credit, it’s hard to argue that lofty perch isn’t deserved.

Avoiding the common problem with most sequels of recycled and tired storylines, the Toy Story franchise hasn’t skipped a beat. The plot remained organic and fresh in the third installment, making great use of the audience’s familiarity with the characters to further develop the likes of Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Rex and Hamm, among others. Though not as poignant or transcendent as Up or WALL·E were at their best, the film did enhance the series’ emotional resonance and at the end of the day, functioned as great entertainment. And while there are no plans for a Toy Story 4 at the moment, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the adventures resume down the road. On Feb. 27, the movie’s universal acclaim and Pixar pedigree will carry it to Oscar animated glory. Let’s just hope, though, that Randy Newman’s hokey “We Belong Together” isn’t similarly rewarded.

Road to the Oscars Series:

January 27: Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

January 29: Animated Short – Savanna New

January 31: Documentary Short Subject – Christa Youngpeter

February 1: Documentary Feature – Rebecca Rose

February 3: Foreign Language Film – Savanna New

February 4: Animated Film – Nate Freiberg

February 7: Visual Effects – Ani Khashadoorian

February 9: Sound Mixing – Dennis Callahan

February 10: Sound Editing – Sasha Mitchell

February 11: Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 12: Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 13: Makeup – Katie Mae Peters

February 14: Costume – Jax Russo

February 15: Art Direction – Steve Neumann

February 16: Film Editing – Hannah Depew

February 17: Cinematography – William Paul Jones

February 18: Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 19: Adapted Screenplay – Sasha Mitchell

February 20: Supporting Actress – Kacy Boccumini

February 21: Supporting Actor – Rebecca Rose

February 22: Actress – Rebecca Rose

February 23: Actor – Kit Bowen

February 24: Director – Adam Spunberg

February 25: Picture – Kit Bowen

February 27: The Academy Awards