By BROOKS BARNES
LOS ANGELES — Figuring out which film will win the Academy Award for best animated feature is usually the easiest part of filling out a ballot for your Oscar pool. Go down the list of nominees — often only three, because so few make the cut — and find the one produced by Pixar. Circle it.
But this year, unexpectedly, animation is becoming a hotly contested race.
The biggest reason is “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Wes Anderson’s quirky adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel. The film, from 20th Century Fox and the producer Scott Rudin, is soaking up a surprising amount of awards attention.
“Up,” Pixar’s 3-D flying-house adventure, dominated the multiplexes last May and seemed to have the animation Oscar sewn up as recently as a few weeks ago. And it’s still the front-runner. The movie industry cooed that “Up,” Pixar’s sophisticated 10th feature, was another artistic triumph. Critics agreed, with review-aggregation Web sites suggesting that the studio’s campaign slogan for the film — “The Best Reviewed Film of the Year” — was only a (very) slight exaggeration.
Then a fox snuck into Pixar’s henhouse.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which features the vocal talents of George Clooney and Meryl Streep in a story about a dapper family man who can’t resist stealing chickens and cider, arrived in wide release on Nov. 25. Despite stratospheric reviews, the holiday rush and a soft box office performance — it cost just under $40 million to produce and sold $20 million in tickets —made an Oscar run seem like a long shot.
But “Up,” which has been estimated to cost $175 million and cruised to a $293 million gross in North America, lost two influential awards to “Fox.”
In a mid-December surprise, both the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association named “Fantastic Mr. Fox” the best animated movie of 2009. Similar awards from five other critics’ groups followed. The film is up for a Golden Globe on Sunday, as is “Up.”
“Nobody saw this coming,” said Jerry Beck, the author of 12 books on animation and an operator of the news blog CartoonBrew.com. “The animation in ‘Mr. Fox’ strikes some people as a bit funky, but the film is indisputably a piece of art — something that exhibits a really strong point of view from beginning to end.”
Many critics have been impressed that Mr. Anderson, whose other movies include “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) and “Rushmore” (1998) is thriving in a genre entirely new to him. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” was made using stop-motion animation, a painstaking process involving handmade models.
“It’s as if Wes finally found the perfect style through which to channel all of his obsessions,” said Scott Foundas, a former film critic for LA Weekly and now an associate programmer at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “You can really see the fingerprints.”
The producers of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” say they are just happy that there appears to be room at the awards podium for different styles of animation. “Up” was computer generated, or CG, in industry shorthand. Yet another contender, “The Princess and the Frog,” from Walt Disney Pictures, is a hand-drawn throwback to the heyday of the genre.
“ ‘Up’ is a brilliant movie, but the great thing that this year has shown us is that animation is more than just CG and 3-D,” Mr. Rudin said. With Mr. Anderson’s film, he added, “You feel like you’re being dropped into this perfect, handcrafted dollhouse, except that the dolls are George Clooney and Meryl Streep.”
The Oscar race is just hitting its stride, of course. Nominations will be announced on Feb. 2 and the awards given on March 7. In only the second time since the animated feature category was created in 2001, there will be five nominees. In recent years there have been only three. Rules state that a minimum of 16 films must be submitted to warrant five slots.
And “Up,” directed by Pete Docter, remains very much the lead contender for the best animated feature Oscar, a prize Pixar has won four times. “Up” has so far taken top animated honors from 14 awards groups, including the National Board of Review. It is expected to do well at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards on Friday.
Many awards strategists consider “Up” a strong candidate for a best picture nomination, especially with that field expanded to 10 nominees this year. No animated movie has ever won in that category, and only one, “Beauty and the Beast,” has been nominated.
A spokesman for “Up” had no comment. An executive at Disney, which owns Pixar, said there were no concerns about competition from “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in the animation category, partly because the Los Angeles and New York critics’ groups have weakened as indicators. “It’s not even a contest,” said the executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not have clearance to speak publicly.
Even so, Disney and Pixar may have their hands full. Aside from the unexpected competition from “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” there is “Ponyo,” an odd but haunting film from Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese anime master whose “Spirited Away” won in 2002. Other prominent contenders are Universal’s “Coraline” and Sony’s “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.”
There is a history of the academy recognizing the small and arty, awarding the top animation prize in 2005 to the stop-motion “Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit.” And the little-engine-that-could factor is against Pixar. “To an extent ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ is benefitting from being the underdog,” Mr. Foundas said. Liccy Dahl, Roald Dahl’s widow, said she was tickled that “Fantastic Mr. Fox” was succeeding on the awards trail. Mr. Anderson spent three weeks at her home in Buckinghamshire, England, working on the script, incorporating details like the kitchen floor and lamp shades into the production design.
“What I love about the film is the sense of humor — it’s so Wes Anderson,” she said.
A demure Mr. Anderson credited his creative team in a telephone interview, saying he was thrilled about the attention but that he never gave much thought to how the animation could serve his style.
“I was always just thinking about Roald Dahl,” he said. “How do we make this movie seem like it’s happening inside his imagination?”