Rise of the Guardians marks the last big animated release of the year, which means the Oscar race is finally on and up for grabs. 2012 has seen a very impressive line-up of stories and techniques in the animated world, proving once more that the level of sophistication in the medium is worth the praise and is not a realm relegated only to kids. In fact, most of these films appeal to adults just as much, maybe because of their storylines or the stars behind the voices. Whichever it is, the Best Animated Feature Oscar will be fiercely contended this award season. This year it seems like the scale could tilt to any one of the possible nominees, probably due to the lack of a definitive frontrunner. Since there were more than 16 eligible films submitted the category will most likely have 5 nominees. This could be a mix of local films and a couple of foreign ones, or a full-on American lineup, which is a possibility with several great animated films produced this year by the giants of animation. The Academy follows a trend of nominating a couple of foreign entries almost every year, the only one of these to win the award being Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away in 2002. Therefore, for most of these films, a nomination is already a great achievement. Excluding franchise sequels like Madagascar 3 or the latest Ice Age, most of the big releases have a chance at a nomination. Here’s a shortlist of these films and their Oscar gold possibilities. *The films are listed in chronological order by release date.

Brave

Pixar returns with a film about a red-haired heroine in medieval times. In essence, Brave is a princess film closer to the beloved Disney classics rather than the edgier, character-driven Pixar ones. Merida is a young princess who refuses to be lady-like and accepts an arranged marriage to satisfy her mother’s wishes. She decides to take the reigns of her destiny and sets out to change her mother’s mind. This royal rebel soon finds herself while saving her family from an unwanted curse. The animation is, to say the least, gorgeous. Scotland serves as the inspiration for Pixar, and it is impressive. The film has heart and a well-intentioned message, but it stays away from the innovation the audience expects from the studio.

Advantages: Pixar is always a contender, being the most successful studio in this category, with six wins, this no luck (take into account the fact that the award has only been given for the past decade). Also two of Pixar’s films have managed to sneak into the Best Picture category since it was broadened to a maximum of ten films. In its on merit, Brave is a great film, a visual wonder, and a heartwarming family flick — that’s always a plus.

Disadvantages: Unlike most Pixar films, Brave has not yet achieved frontrunner status. In past years, the ceremony became requirement as Pixar’s entries were locks to win the award. This year, it seems like Brave will earn a well-deserved nomination but the competition is much more open. If it fails to win the award, it would become one of the few Pixar films to do so in recent years, the others being the two films from the Cars franchise.

ParaNorman

The latest film by Oregon-based stop-motion production company Laika tells the story of Norman, a young kid who is ostracized by his parents and peers because he claims he can see and communicate with spirits. As if this wasn’t enough, his strange uncle bestows him the mission to protect the town from an ancient curse that involves and angry witch and Victorian zombies. Extremely original and masterfully crafted, this spooky stop-motion film feels like a PG version of a ghost story. It is packed with slow-burning and sometimes adult-friendly jokes, plus its message of tolerance feels authentic and not preachy, treating kids like complex individuals and not picture-perfect, cookie-cutter angels.

Advantages: Laika has already obtained a nomination in this category with their 2009 film Coraline. Added to this, the Academy seems to appreciate the labor that goes into the stop-motion technique, nominating 4 of these films since the inception of this category, with Wallace & Gromit: The Cure of the Were-Rabbit being the only winner.

Disadvantages: Although very entertaining and unique, the film received mixed reviews from critics, which puts it in a shaky place fighting for a spot against the foreign animated films that the Academy likes to nominate. Another thing to consider is the fact that the film came out in a year filled with spooky/funny animated films like Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie.

Hotel Transylvania

A Romeo and Juliet-like story set against the world of an overprotective parent who happens to be Dracula himself. Dracula owns a hotel for monsters, a haven for those misunderstood creatures of the night. More than a vicious bloodsucker, this Dracula, voiced by Adam Sandler, is a worried dad who is trying to protect his only daughter from the malice of humans. The film thrives on the stellar voice casting which includes Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James and Steve Buscemi. Aided by a handful of original gimmicks and comedic gags, the film turned out to be an unlikely box-office hit, becoming the highest-grossing film ever to be released in September, surpassing Sony’s expectations.

Advantages: The film is an achievement of director Genndy Tartakovsky, who is better known for animated series like Dexter’s Laboratory. Most of the positive reactions towards the film praise the originality of the animation, and the on point direction. We will see if these prove to be substantial enough reasons to lure voters into a nomination.

Disadvantages: Hotel Transylvania received mixed to negative reviews from most critics, who criticized its thin plot and the basic nature of the story. Sony Pictures Animation has only obtained one nomination with 2007’s Surf’s Up, and it seems unlikely this year will be their second because of the tough competition.

Frankenweenie

Director Tim Burton resurrects the story of a boy playing God to bring his puppy back to life. Originally explored by the filmmaker in a live-action short early in his career, the story here is told using stop-motion animation in black and white, which enhances the gloomy aesthetic of the film. Victor Frankenstein is an introverted kid who enjoys performing experiments and making his won short films. When his beloved dog Sparky dies in an accident, he takes it upon himself to bring him back to life. One of the most original animated films in recent memory, the film has Burton’s style imprinted all over it. By taking such a gruesome subject matter and making it into something charming, the iconic director scores a delightful story about friendship that reminds the audience why they love his films so much.

Advantages: This is certainly one of the best Tim Burton films in the past few years; it resembles the dark beauty of his earlier work, which critics and audiences seem to appreciate. Certainly a top contender in the category, Frankenweenie would be the Academy’s best excused to finally grant Burton an Academy Award. Technically it is an amazing artistic labor of love that should not be dismissed by voters.

Disadvantages: The film is almost certainly a lock for a nomination, but its chances at winning might be at risk because of the recent praise Rise of the Guardians and Wreck-it Ralph have received. Nevertheless, Frankenweenie is surely one to watch as one of the top contenders for the award.

Wreck-it Ralph

Disney delivers a quirky homage to the video game world with its latest film about a villain who wants a taste of the glory of being a hero. Wreck-it Ralph, voiced by John C. Reilly, is a good guy at heart who just wants to be liked by the other characters in his game, and to achieve this he must prove to them he can be a hero by earning a medal. In his quest throughout the arcade universe he encounters characters like Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun (Jane Lynch) and the sneaky but adorable Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) who helps him reach his goal. The story is not necessarily complex, but it proves to be highly entertaining and appealing to the gamer crowd that grew up during the 80’s and 90’s. Cameos by multiple iconic characters like Street Fighter’s villain Zangief or Sonic make the film more memorable (and pop culture-friendly). Overall a cheerful, be-yourself story that has connected with young and not-so-young audiences alike.

Advantages: The critical consensus was very positive towards the film, praising the different styles of animation in each of the video game settings, as well as its brilliant way to incorporate the nostalgic with the current in a cohesive product.  Wreck-it Ralph boosts up Disney’s possibilities at scoring an Academy award.

Disadvantages: The studio has only been successful via their partnership with Pixar but never on their own, although during the Disney Renaissance of the 90s, prior to the inception of the category, they took the music awards almost consecutively for their films’ songs and scores. A nomination seems viable, and if it the film scores a win it would be come the first from Disney to do so. However, it feels like the vibrant colors and retro feel might not be enough to beat the more sophisticated competitors.

Rise of the Guardians

As the holiday season kicks in, the final animated release this year comes from DreamWorks Animation. Rise of the Guardians tells the story of Jack Frost, voiced by Chris Pine, and his partnership with a group of legendary childhood heroes. The film gives classic characters like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter bunny a modern twist, making them into action-figure-like superheroes. This stylistic choice was probably an attempt to attract the hard-to-amuse, technology-savvy new generation of kids. The film does take advantage of the voice acting work of A-list Hollywood stars like Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman, Isla Fisher, and Jude Law, which is always a must in this type of big budget project. Through its 3D magic, the story tries to shine some “cool” light onto these legendary protectors in order to reignite the imagination of kids, which is the fuel for the Guardians to exist. A nice concept indeed, very fitting for this time of the year.

Advantages: The film is based on the book series The Guardians of Childhood, and it uses a storybook-inspired animation that sets it apart from other run of the mill films. It also has received some very positive reviews praising its visuals and idealistic theme. Furthermore, the star power in the film can improve its Oscar chances at least for a nomination.

Disadvantages: Holiday-inspired films have not done too well in this category. Both The Polar Express and last year’s Arthur Christmas failed to land a nomination despite their highly positive reviews. On the other hand, some critics have argued that the film is weak in terms of story and that it serves more like a showcase for each one of the heroes than as a unified story. Nonetheless, a nomination is still a feasible possibility.