Oscar predictions: Best Animated Feature race packed with 22 entries – ‘Zootopia,’ ‘Moana,’ ‘Finding Dory’ …

This year, the Best Animated Feature race at the Oscars looks to be at its most competitive and exciting since the category’s inception back in 2001. Sure it didn’t start out so well with the release of “Norm of the North” last January, but since then, there have been many great features to talk about in this ever-competitive race. With 22 entries, there can be up to five nominees.

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One of the strongest contenders this year is Walt Disney’s “Zootopia” and for good reason. One of the best-reviewed Disney films in recent memory with its thought-provoking themes of racism and class structure, it also made a killing at the box office, becoming only the fourth animated feature to gross $1 billion worldwide. The Mouse House has walked away with the award for the three of the last four years — “Brave” (2012); “Frozen” (2013); “Big Hero 6” (2014) — and it could very easily take it again. Several critics deem this modern masterpiece as the studio’s best since the Disney Renaissance, and it could also surprise in other categories like Original Screenplay and Picture. However, it may have trouble getting in due to its early release date (March 4). Remember two years ago when “The LEGO Movie,” another wildly inventive and critically acclaimed gem, got snubbed; it was released in February. Other than that, “Zootopia” could very easily take this category come Oscar night.

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But watch out for “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Laika’s fourth theatrical effort is by far their most acclaimed of the bunch and given the calibre of their previous features — “Coraline” (2009),  “ParaNorman” (2012) and “The Boxtrolls” (2014) –all of which were nominated, that is saying something. True the box office was less than stellar, but don’t discount the terrific story and cast. Laika meticulously crafts all their features so beautifully and with such detail that it will be almost impossible for the Oscar voters to pass up an opportunity to reward the studio with their fourth straight nomination, and maybe even their first win.

But the other three slots are anyone’s guess.

Pixar is in contention like they always are, this time with “Finding Dory.” You can make a strong argument for it either being included or snubbed. On the one hand, no Pixar sequel has ever been nominated for the category outside of “Toy Story 3”. While the reviews for “Finding Dory” were pretty good they weren’t as ecstatic as usual, and some voters may not be drawn to the familiarity of this sequel to “Finding Nemo,” which won the award back in 2003. Indeed, some voters may think that that should be enough for the franchise. But “Dory” did receive the best reviews for a Pixar sequel since the “Toy Story” series and it, like “Zootopia,” has grossed over $1 billion. Out of the other three animated films to reach this mark, “Toy Story 3 and “Frozen” both won the category but “Minions” was snubbed. And of course, it’s Pixar. Just that name alone and the fact that they have won eight times before should be enough to secure itself a nomination, but you never know.

Disney has another strong contender coming soon with “Moana,” an original Disney Princess story from veteran story artists Ron Clements and John Musker. People have expected this to be another typical masterpiece from the company ever since the first trailers popped up. The fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame is writing the original music could be enough of a draw to get people in the seats. “Moana” doesn’t come out until late November so we won’t know how great it is yet. However, seeing that Disney has been on a roll since the release of “Tangled,” I expect its going to be very good!

Find out what will win at the Oscars this year

There’s also some interesting submissions from around the world. Any of the selections from GKIDS — “April & the Extraordinary World,” “Miss Hokusai” and “My Life as a Zucchini” could make it in to the final five as could “Long Way North,” “Mune: Guardian of the Mune,” “Phantom Boy” or “Your Name.” Netflix’s “The Little Prince” has been getting stunning reviews but had trouble playing in the English-speaking countries. And of all the foreign entries, “The Red Turtle” has several of our Oscar experts thinking this category is over and done.

Of course with every year comes the also-rans. I’ve already mentioned “Norm of the North.” In addition, “The Angry Birds Movie,” “Ice Age: Collision Course,” “Ratchet & Clank” and “Storks” are all long-shots.

That leaves the ones that, honestly, I am not that sure about.The first two “Kung Fu Panda” films got nominated, and “Kung Fu Panda 3” is just as great as its predecessors. However, its January release and the overall competition are its greatest detriments. “The Secret Life of Pets” got so-so reviews but it did gangbusters money-wise. Upcoming releases “Sing” and “Trolls” have both gotten good reviews but I am not sure how they’ll resonate with the voters. And then there is the raunchy summer release “Sausage Party,” which recently announced it will be launching an Oscar campaign. Remember, academy voters haven’t been shy about embracing R-rated animation before, with nominations for both “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” and “Anomalisa.”

Predict the Oscar nominations now; change them till January 24

Be sure to make your Oscar predictions. Which five animated features do you think will  rate with academy voters? Weigh in now with your picks so that Hollywood insiders can see how each film is faring in our Oscar odds. You can keep changing your predictions right up until just before nominations are announced on January 24 at 5:00 am PT/8:00 am ET. Be sure to read our contest rules. And join in the fierce debate over the Oscars taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our forums.

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