Will ‘Cars 2’ cross Oscars finish line in first place?

On a per picture basis, Pixar is the most successful movie studio ever, both creatively and commercially. Since 1995 — when it pioneered computer animation with the original “Toy Story” — the company has released 11 films through its partner, Disney, that have grossed more than $6.3 billion worldwide. That is an average of almost $600 million for each title. And since the Oscar for Best Animated Feature was introduced in 2001, six of the 10 winners have been Pixar pictures. Two more Pixar nominees did not prevail: “Monsters Inc.” lost the inaugural race to “Shrek” and “Cars” was outrun by “Happy Feet” in 2007.

Cars 2” pulls into theaters this weekend. While a Pixar sequel — “Toy Story 3” — claimed last year’s animated Oscar and even contended for Best Picture, the outlook for this follow-up film may not be as rosy. While “Cars” was well received, the Pixar pictures since then — “Ratatouille,” “WALL-E,” “Up,” and “Toy Story 3” — have been among the top-rated of the year. The early reviews for “Cars 2” are mixed.

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“Cars 2” must contend with a competitive slate of 2011 animated films. To date its toughest rival appears to be “Rango,” the Gore Verbinski-directed western featuring the voice of Johnny Depp as a deputized chameleon. However, a pair of sequels may also pose a threat: “Kung Fu Panda 2,” the recently released follow-up to the 2008 Oscar contender, and “Puss in Boots” (opening November 4), which was spun off from the Oscar-winning “Shrek” franchise. And Oscar champ Steven Spielberg helms his first animated film, “The Adventures of Tintin,” which is due out in December. He used the same performance-capture technology that James Cameron pioneered in “Avatar.”

“Cars 2” will face a familiar challenger as well: “Happy Feet 2” (November 18). The first installment of that environmentally friendly film won its Oscar the same year as “An Inconvenient Truth” claimed Best Documentary and spearheaded the green movement. Perhaps Oscar voters thought it would send the wrong message to reward a film like “Cars,” whose characters live off of fossil fuels. If “Happy Feet 2” dances away with another Academy Award, Pixar may decide to cast “Cars 3” exclusively with Priuses.

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