I know everyone (including my new Deadline colleague Mike Fleming who will be reporting on the ground there for us) is winging their way to Toronto right now to see a bunch of Oscar hopefuls that I already saw in Cannes, Telluride or oh-so-cool private L.A. screenings (more on THOSE flicks as the fest unveils them). But I am also focused on checking out some contenders NOT on display in Canada. That’s exactly what I did yesterday in the not-as-exciting clime of  Burbank.  I came away feeling I’d found another strong entry in what is becoming a very strong awards season race for ‘toons.

That’s right. Wednesday Disney did something studios never do unless they know they have the goods. They flew in several members of the press–mostly those who cover animation for outlets with long lead times–to see the first ever screening of the big Thanksgiving holiday release Tangled. The musical weaves a new take on the Rapunzel fairy tale, in what represents Disney’s milestone 50th animated feature since Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs in 1937. John Lasseter told the gathered press, “You can feel the pride people in this studio have in Tangled. We just couldn’t wait for people to see it.”

It’s looking like there will again be five nominees for Best Animated Feature this year. Based the deservedly enthusiastic  press response to the work-in-progress print shown yesterday, Tangled could easily be among them. As will Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story 3, which remains the 800 pound gorilla in the race. Dreamworks is already aggressively campaigning for How To Train Your Dragon.

Tangled had to be shown in very rough form since only about 60% of the animation has been completed.  The 3D isn’t ready, and composer Alan Menken’s score isn’t in place yet although the songs are. Producer Roy Conli said they expect to have the finished print in a couple of months. It was an all day event. Several  artists explained different aspects of the production, extensive tours of the Disney animation building , and a  large lobby transformed into an elaborate forest setting where press were encouraged  to join in the “forest fun” with a turkey leg toss, frying pan ping pong and photo opportunities, among other things. Ya gotta love Disney, right?

Rapunzel is an idea that has been floating around apparently since the days of Walt but due to its hair raising nature has never been really possible to crack until sophisticated CGI technology made it easier to place those 100,000 pieces of follicles atop this latest Disney princesses’ head. The movie itself is also an attempt to revive the 80’s and 90’s heyday of big Disney animated musicals like Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas, with scores and songs from Alan Menken who won a whopping 8 Academy Awards for that quartet and performs similar duties here with his collaborator Glenn Slater. Tangled’s directing duo Nathan Greno and Byron Howard (Bolt) actually look at it a little differently than those hits. “This is not a big Broadway kind of musical. We look at it as more  in touch with classic Disney films of the 50’s where music is a key element in  the storytelling,” Greno told me when I sat down with the talented team late in the marathon day. “It has that classic 40’s and 50’s Disney kind of feel but at the same time we’re making these movies for a contemporary audience. It’s great to acknowledge our roots while being non-traditional but not cynical,” Howard added.

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For his part, Menken doesn’t mind the comparison to his earlier works at the studio that brought him all that Oscar gold but notes it differs because it really is the first CGI-3D animated musical.  Last holiday season Disney tried a more traditionally animated 2D musical  ‘toon  written by Randy Newman. “As good as it was, The Princess And The Frog underperformed, so the jury’s out. My hope is that Tangled will go through the roof, not just selfishly for me but for the form,”  Menken told me.

Menken says he tried to put a medieval  flavor to  the new songs mixing in influences like Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens  and 60’s folk rock although Donna Murphy who voices the evil Mother Gothel has a flat-out standout Broadway-style number called “Mother Knows Best”.  Mandy Moore is the voice of Rapunzel. Eventually there will also be an added end title rock-style song , a “sore point” for Menken who didn’t write it. Menken  feels  the song with the best shot for another Oscar nomination is “I See The Light”  which highlights the remarkable lantern sequence in the movie. “I was nominated for three songs on Enchanted (2007) which is probably why we didn’t win (Once‘s Falling Slowly was the victor). I would be happy to just have one,” he says.

Actually, it’s obvious Menken’s winning ways were  responsible for rule changes from the Academy’s music branch that make ineligible the kind of musical scores for which the composer regularly won Oscars. Only Alfred Newman’s 9 statuettes surpasses Menken, and a Tangled win this year would tie him. But his fellow musicians are not making it as easy as it once was. “Now they have made it so a score from an animated musical cannot be validated as best score in any way, not even underscore. I understand that songs do make a score jump out at you in a way underscores can’t compete, but I don’t agree with that. If there were more musicals we could have a Best Musical category but there just aren’t enough,” he says.

The Academy also tweaked the rules after Dreamgirls and Enchanted each scored three song nominations in successive years. Now it allows only two to be named from a given movie.  Last year, they didn’t even perform the nominated tunes on the show. What’s an 8- time Oscar winner to do with all this meddling? “For me the Oscars are a little strange because it’s really about actors anyway, those familiar faces,” he says. “ All that attention is really about big glamour. But I’m just happy to be part of the evening and walk away with my Oscar or two.”