Disney

Sometime last Sunday, the big movie story of the weekend changed from everything Interstellar (its science, its running time, the quality of its sound mix) to the fact that Christopher Nolan’s conversation-hogging blockbuster was trumped at the box-office by a puffy white balloon robot. Disney and Marvel’s Big Hero 6 took the top spot, leading to a bevy of “how did this happen?” articles.

Regardless of how it happened, now that it has, the future for the animated superhero tale is promising—so much so that it could end up with an Oscar. Right now, the Best Animated Feature category looks to be a fascinating, tough contest between Big Hero 6 and the surprise hit of the first half of the year, The Lego Movie.

To understand why it’s essentially a two-movie race, look at the field more broadly. According to movie awards sites The Film Experience and In Contention, the major contenders, in alphabetical order are:

Big Hero 6: With all the might of Disney and Marvel at its back.

The Book of Life: Came and went at the box-office without a whole lot of fuss.

The Boxtrolls: The latest from animation company Laika, who scored a nomination a couple years ago for Paranorman.

How to Train Your Dragon 2: The first one probably would have won in 2010 if not for a little movie called Toy Story 3.

The Lego Movie: Probably the success story—animated or not—of the first third of 2014.

Penguins of Madagacar: The Madagascar movies are reliable box-office smashes but have never been nominated at the Oscars.

Rio 2: Even when the first Rio got that odd Best Original Song nomination, the film didn’t make the short list.

Song of the Sea: The latest from animation distributor GKids, which gave us 2009 nominee The Secret of Kells, 2011’s Chico and Rita and A Cat in Paris, and 2013’s Ernest and Celestine.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya: The latest from Studio Ghibli, whose three previous nominees (The Wind Rises, Howl’s Moving Castle, and 2002 winner Spirited Away) were all directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

Of these nine movies, only two (Penguins and Song of the Sea) have yet to open, and neither one of them feels like they have the potential to become the kind of popular/critical hit to end up as the winner here. If I had to guess right now, I'd say your nominees are looking like Lego, Big Hero 6, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Boxtrolls, and either Song of the Sea or Princess Kaguya.

So who wins? Historically—the Best Animated Feature category has existed since 2001—there have been a few proven routes to the Oscar:

  1. Be a Best Picture nominee: Since the Best Picture category expanded beyond five nominees in 2009, animated films are suddenly welcome at the big table. Both Up in 2009 and Toy Story 3 in 2010 ended up among the 10 Best Picture nominees those years, and both walked to easy victories in the animated category.
  2. Be a massive blockbuster: Only two of the last 14 winners in this category have failed to crack $100 million, and in fact all but two of those movies failed to crack $200 million. If popularity isn't king in this category, it's at least a crown prince.
  3. Be Pixar: The animation studio has utterly dominated this category over the years, winning seven of the nine years in which it had a film nominated. Even a film like Brave, which had decidedly not set the world on fire like its predecessors, still managed to triumph in 2012 over a field that failed to produce a clear frontrunner. All things being equal, being Pixar sure helps.
  4. Don't be a sequel: The only sequel to ever win was Toy Story 3, and that one had rules 1-3 up there going for it. Otherwise sequels (or spin-offs, in the case of Puss-in-Boots) are zero-for-four.

So how do our prospective nominees line up?

You can rule out How to Train Your Dragon 2 due to Rule Four, and neither Boxtrolls, Song of the Sea, or The Tale of Princess Kaguya qualify for any of the four criteria. The only asterisk here, particularly for Kaguya, is to point to 2002, when Miyazaki's Spirited Away bested the field despite only $10 million at the box-office. That's the outlier example that gives all other art-before-commerce animated movies some hope. But beating out modest blockbusters like Ice Age and Lilo & Stitch and beating out two legitimate smashes is another story. So let's address the smashes.

Neither The Lego Movie nor Big Hero 6 will be cracking the Best Picture lineup, most likely, and neither are sequels nor Pixar. So is the race to Oscar ultimately a race to the highest box-office? Perhaps. The Lego Movie sits just north of $250 million, the third biggest domestic box-office take of the year. It's way too early to judge what the ceiling on Big Hero 6 will be, but we can compare opening weekends, and there we see that Lego took in $69 million in its first weekend, ahead of the $56 million that Big Hero 6 on a similar number of screens. It's not a perfect comparison. Lego came out in the dregs of February, when its biggest competition was the tepid Monuments Men. Big Hero 6 put up its numbers in a far more competitive November, beating out Interstellar, or haven't you heard? Obviously, the template for opening Big Hero 6 in November is last year's insane smash Frozen, but it's pretty clear that nobody's doing those numbers this year.

If Big Hero 6 can't out-dollar Lego, though, it's still got a trump card, and that card has mouse ears on it. Disney surely got a taste for winning with Frozen last year, and with Pixar not in the picture yet again, they're the brand name to contend with. Warner Brothers is far less pedigreed in this category, only having ever won with Happy Feet in 2006, and that was up against Cars, which even the Pixar fans were disappointed by. Moreso, the fact that Big Hero 6 will be far fresher in awards voters' minds can't hurt it. Perhaps The Lego Movie will be able to combat that with a few rousing renditions of "Everything Is Awesome" (a likely Best Original Song nominee) along the Oscar schmooze circuit.

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