The question of who will be the winner of the fifth annualanimated feature Academy Award is a hotly contested and intriguing one.

Four films stand out as the frontrunners - Howl's Moving Castle, Chicken Little,Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbitand Tim Burton's Corpse Bride - and each represents a different form of animation. Howl's Moving Castle is classical 2-D, Chicken Little is 3-D CG, Wallace & Gromitis claymation and Corpse Bride is stop-motionpuppetry.

In the five years since this category launched it is thefirst time such adiverse range of styles are facing off against each other. Bizarrely allfour tell sinister stories of the macabre.

Two other mainstream CG animated films stand out this year -DreamWorks Animation's enormous hit Madagascarand Fox/Blue Sky Studios' Robots -while The Weinstein Co is soon to unveil another called Hoodwinked! That's not to mention the UK CG animated feature Valiant, Japanese epic Steamboy and Disney's 2D Pooh's Heffalump Movie.

Competitive year it may be, but the category rules areclear. Only when there are at least 16 animated films released for a minimum ofseven days in theatres in the county of Los Angeles can there be five nominations.If there are only eight to 15, there will be three nominations. 2005 falls intothe latter category, meaning some outstanding animated films will be lockedout.

The animated feature nominees are voted on by the BestAnimated Feature Film Award Screening Committee, a group of about 100 or sovolunteers from active Academy membership. Obviously volunteers are screened,so members involved in the production, promotion or distribution of submittedfilms may not be admitted. Those on the committee are required to see 80% ofthe submitted films before voting on the nominees.

Once the nominations are established, the entire votingmembership of the Academy is allowed to vote in this category. Members of theanimated branch of the Academy traditionally compose over 50% of the committee,so their influence cannot be underestimated.

Some giants of the global animated stage are up this yearand animators will be hard-pressed to choose between HayaoMiyazaki, Aardman Animations and Walt Disney FeatureAnimation not to mention DreamWorks Animation and Blue Sky Studios. Thenthere's upstart Tim Burton and his critically-acclaimed Corpse Bride. Will animation lifers warm to Burton'seccentric vision'

Certainly Miyazakididn't disappoint fans or critics with his stunning Howl's Moving Castle - repurposed by Disney for UStheatrical release with the voices of Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, JeanSimmons, Lauren Bacall and Billy Crystal. As visuallyinventive and narratively complex as Miyazaki'sprevious films, Howl's creates another mesmerizing fantasy world dominated bythe extraordinary moving castle itself and a lead character who spends most ofthe film in the body of an old woman.

Miyazaki ofcourse already won the Oscar for his masterful Spirited Away in 2002, so perhaps it's time for AardmanAnimations to win. Aardman's last feature Chicken Run would surely have won in2000 had there been a feature animation category in that year. Not that theUK-based studio is short of Oscars, having won three for Creature Comforts (1990) and two for Wallace & Gromit shorts TheWrong Trousers (1993) and A CloseShave (1995).

But the team led by Nick Park (with the backing ofDreamWorks Animation) is a lead contender for a fourth for its already belovedfeature The Curse Of The Were-Rabbitwhose exuberance, wit and unique Aardman claymation style garnered some of the year's mostenthusiastic reviews.

Burton's animated film - the first he has co-directed (withMike Johnson), after just writing and producing 1995 smash The Nightmare Before Christmas - is a deliciously dark stop-motionproduction using 12-inch tall puppets created by UK puppet-makers Mackinnon andSaunders. The film introduced several new techniques for the medium including anew "skin" for the puppets and a gearing mechanism inside the heads of themodels to enable more facial expressions.

The film could win Burtonhis first Oscar nomination.

Chicken Littlerepresents the first CG animated movie exclusively produced by Disney - themulti-Oscar-winning Pixar stable is of course onlydistributed through the studio.

A zanily cheerful family film with less of the sinisterovertones of the other frontrunners, it still containselements such as an alien invasion which reflect the anxiety of the times. Thecommittee has tended to vote for all-out Disney kids' movies in the past withnominations going to Lilo & Stitch and Brother Bear as well as the Pixar titles.

Madagascar, Robotsand Valiant, while all exuberant andbeautifully crafted, failed to net the critical praise which a three-nominationyear might require. Madagascar grossedover $500m worldwide, so its prize might be in its box office success; Robots, the second feature from Fox'srelationship with Chris Wedge's Blue Sky Studios, looked stunning but failed togenerate the across-the-board appeal of IceAge; Valiant, the first feature from John Williams' Vanguard Entertainmenthad a muted landing in the US and is unlikely to make a shortlist of three insuch a competitive year.

With no finished print available at press time, Hoodwinkedremains an unknown quantity, although foreign buyers of this independentlyfinanced comedy talk of a smart, amusing and creative affair. Conceived anddirected by Cory Edwards and Todd Edwards, and occasionally dubbed The TrueStory Of Red Riding Hood, the film is a spoof on apolice crime thriller and picks up at the end of the fairy tale with the forestcops investigating a disturbance at Granny's house. Played like a crimethriller, the film boasts the voice talents of Glenn Close, Anne Hathaway andAnthony Anderson among others.


US release date Film title (USdistributor)

Feb 11 Pooh's Heffalump Movie (Buena Vista)

Mar 11 Robots(20th Century Fox)

Mar 18 Steamboy (Screen Gems)

May 27 Madagascar(DreamWorks)

June 10 Howl's MovingCastle (Buena Vista)

Aug 19 Valiant (Buena Vista)

Sept 16 Tim Burton'sCorpse Bride (Warner Bros)

Nov 4 Chicken Little(Buena Vista)

Dec 25 Hoodwinked(Weinstein Co)