Fourteen feature films were announced for the shortlist for this year's animated feature Oscar in early November. The range was wide. Of course there was the latest Pixar extravaganza, Wall-E, and the two annual DreamWorks Animation films Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. Blue Sky Studios' early-year hit for Fox Dr Seuss' Horton Hears A Who! made the list as did Disney's Bolt, which is the studio's first in-house picture to bear the stamp and influence of Pixar genius John Lasseter.
The shortlist also included three other US titles: Universal's upcoming mouse adventure The Tale Of Despereaux, Exodus Film Group's Igor, distributed worldwide by The Weinstein Company, and Fathom Studios' Delgo, which opens through Freestyle Releasing on December 12.
The remaining titles, however, represent an intriguing blend of international film-making talent. Masahiro Ando's samurai animation film Sword Of The Stranger is from Japan, as is Mamoru Oshii's fantasy The Sky Crawlers, which had its international premiere at the Venice film festival in September. There is Ari Folman's critically praised Waltz With Bashir from Israel, which takes the political charge of last year's Persepolis into new realms of animated daring.
Guillaume Ivernel and Arthur Qwak's Dragon Hunters from France, Ben Stassen's Fly Me To The Moon from Belgium and Tatia Rosenthal's $9.99 from Australia round out the international complexion of the group.
Because there are fewer than 15 films this year, there will only be three nominees and conventional wisdom in animation circles has it that two of the three slots are already taken.
Pixar Animation Studios, which has won three of the seven animated feature Oscars to date, will inevitably score another nomination for Andrew Stanton's magical Wall-E, easily one of the most acclaimed, and instantly beloved, films of the year.
And DreamWorks Animation should surely snare a nomination for Kung Fu Panda, one of the company's most satisfying films to date, which blended its traditional formula of all-star cast (Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie) and contemporary references with a more thoughtful and emotional storyline about the panda finding his calling in life.
Which film will take the third slot is the mystery in this category. Critics may point to Waltz With Bashir, Folman's quietly devastating portrait of young Israeli soldiers and their unwitting complicity in a horrifying massacre. The film could be the first documentary to be nominated as an animated feature and few on the animated committee will not be haunted by the memorable imagery Folman employs. Like France's submission of Persepolis last year, Waltz With Bashir has also been submitted to the foreign-language category by Israel.
At time of writing, Bolt and The Tale Of Despereaux had yet to be screened, so either one of those could knock out Bashir, although Horton Hears A Who! and Madagascar 2 were not considered sufficiently breathtaking by animators to expect nominations.
As for the remaining international titles, it will be a challenge for them to snag a nomination in the face of such potent Hollywood competition. But certainly the Japanese films should not be ruled out at this stage. As Hayao Miyazaki proved with Spirited Away in 2002, an Oscar is winnable for a Japanese animated film.