Will this be the last year for Best Animated Feature at Oscars?

The Academy’s Best Animated Feature category started with noble intentions, but 2011 could easily be its final year as animated films make stronger showings in the top categories.

The initial reasoning for the category was that animated films weren’t taken seriously enough to break into major races. In the Oscars’ first 74 years, only “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) ever broke into the Best Picture race and only “Toy Story” (1995) had been nodded for its screenplay. In the first year of the Animated Feature category, the winner “Shrek” (2001) was also nominated for screenplay. The scripts for Animated Feature winners “Finding Nemo” (2003), “The Incredibles” (2004), “Ratatouille” (2007), “Wall-E” (2008), “Up” (2009), and “Toy Story 3” (2010) all followed suit.

This year, only 18 films qualify for Best Animated Feature, yet those can yield five nominations (a success rate of 28%) if they score at least 7.5/10 with a screening committee. Compare that to the Best Picture category where 248 films fought for ten slots last year (a success rate of 4%). One of those Best Picture nominees was “Toy Story 3.” The year before that, “Up” contended for Best Picture.

A solid third of this year’s 18 qualifying titles are direct sequels including Pixar’s critical disappointment “Cars 2,” Happy Feet Two,” and “Kung Fu Panda 2.” While each film’s first installments reaped Oscar nominations, none of these sequels are sure things for the final ballot.

The only original titles that are truly in the mix are the upcoming “Arthur Christmas” and well-received releases “Rio” and “Rango.” Other films with buzz include “Shrek” spin-off “Puss in Boots,” which clawed its way to the top of the box office for a couple weeks. A charming feature-length version of “Winnie the Pooh” would be a pleasant nominee, but has only an outside shot. And Steven Spielberg‘s forthcoming adaptation “The Adventures of Tintin” seems more and more like a sure thing.

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Fortunately, no one is talking about other qualifying titles like “Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil,” Razzie contender “The Smurfs,” and “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked.”

A vocal minority on the board has pushed for the elimination of this award in recent years. A specialized category may not be needed as animated films are now viewed by Academy members as a more serious medium. The Best Animated Feature award becomes a consolation prize when these films might have otherwise won for their screenplays or even Best Picture. And with scores of animators admitted into the Academy in recent years, it is certain their genre will continue to contend in the top category.

The Academy would be wise to follow the Grammys’ lead after they recently cut and condensed dozens of categories. An actual competition between quality nominees is more respectable and engaging.

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