The 20 animated features submitted for the 2014 Oscar race are a bountiful group of films that should guarantee the maximum five nominations. Perhaps the biggest surprise is what isn’t submitted, and that would be anything from Pixar—the first time that’s happened since the company merged with Disney eight years ago. Pixar is a perennial, responsible for a record number of Oscar winners in the animated feature category, including The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3, Brave… well, you get the picture. But last year the Pixar film that was submitted, Monsters University, failed to make even the top five. That opened the door for some less-than-usual suspects to get a nomination.

Of course, in the end, Disney—which owns Pixar—won anyway with its homegrown Disney Animation smash Frozen. Quite distinct from a Pixar film, Frozen represented the full-blown return of the Disney Animation label after a nomination the year before for Wreck-It Ralph. This year, the studio’s certified hit Big Hero 6 will try to keep the streak going. It combines heart and brains, with a touch of Marvel, and has emerged as a late-inning challenger. The toon has been a winner at the boxoffice as well as with critics and audiences, but since Frozen took the Oscar earlier this year, two in a row might seem like a long shot for Disney.

So without a Pixar toon to make even the eligibility list, what is emerging as The One To Beat this year? Actually, it’s something of an odd group, as no one film seems to have grabbed the zeitgeist as much as Frozen did last year. If there ever was an opportunity for Disney arch-rival Dreamworks Animation to pounce, that time is now with How to Train Your Dragon 2, the sequel to the 2010 best animated feature Oscar nominee (which almost certainly would have won had it not run into the Pixar juggernaut Toy Story 3). Dragon 2 received just as lavish reviews as its predecessor when it came out this summer and features the kind of stunning animation and production values that often win here. Plus, voters might think it is payback time for not rewarding the original. DWA topper Jeffrey Katzenberg—in between dealing with acquisition and merger rumors for his company—has mounted an expensive campaign to avoid DWA being a bridesmaid in the category it helped christen in 2001, when Shrek won the inaugural animated feature Oscar. Since that year, Pixar really has rolled over DWA. And when it wasn’t Pixar, it was Paramount, Disney, or Warner Bros. DWA did prevail in 2005 with Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit: The Case of the Were-Rabbit, but that was not a homegrown DWA product. It bears reminding that 2005 was the last year, until 2013, that Pixar didn’t have a nominee in the race.

Speaking of Warner Bros., if anything can swallow the Dragon, it is Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s delightful smash hit The Lego Movie, which was released at the beginning of the year but hasn’t been forgotten by its studio, which is doing a full-court press with Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members. No one really saw this one coming: a movie based on Lego toys? It sounded dubious but has won hearts, minds and laughs (and, of course, loads of money). The fun pic could be poised to upset the race and bring the Burbank-based studio its first animated Oscar since Happy Feet managed to pull off a rare victory against a Pixar title (Cars) in 2006. If ever there was a worthy successor to the Looney Tunes legacy that put Warner Bros. on the map in animation, it is this wacky film that already is promising a sequel.

Another good bet certainly is the stop-motion gem The Boxtrolls, released by Focus Features and hoping to become Oregon-based Laika Studio’s third nomination out of three tries in the category—an enviable track record. Following Coraline and ParaNorman, the studio’s period piece—based on the classic children’s book Here Be Monsters—fought back after getting pummeled by some grouchy critics when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September. It recovered to get nice notices stateside and did quite well at the boxoffice, though not in the league of offerings by DWA, Warner Bros. or Disney. Gorgeously animated and with a voice cast that includes Sir Ben Kingsley (in fine form), Boxtrolls should get a nom—and deserves the love.

The other major studio films in the race this year are almost all under the umbrella of 20th Century Fox, which, through its distribution deal with Dreamworks Animation, also has released Penguins of Madagascar and Mr. Peabody & Sherman. Since Katzenberg strongly believes in not cannibalizing DWA’s chances of a nom, neither of those titles will be getting an awards push. But Fox also has a few homegrown toons, including its sequel Rio 2, which probably has a better Oscar shot for Janelle Monae’s tune, “What Is Love?” in the best song category. Fox also has the Latino-themed The Book of Life, which was produced by Mexico’s brilliant Guillermo del Toro and directed by Jorge R. Guiterrez. The pic features some stunning animation work but probably is a long shot for a nomination.

There is some international love for other entries in the category, most notably a few from Japan, including Giovanni’s Island as well as the final film from the great Isao Takahata, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, a beautiful but overlong hand-drawn effort being released stateside by GKids. GKids is the rare independent company that in past years has figured out how to play with the majors in this race. The fact that Kaguya likely represents one of the last efforts of the legendary Studio Ghibli won’t hurt. But the distributor has an even better shot this year with the Irish-themed Song of the Sea from director Tomm Moore, who scored GKids’ first Oscar nom in 2009 with his film, The Secret of Kells.

Also on the international front is Latvia’s Rocks in My Pockets, a personal work from director Signe Baumane that also is the country’s submission for best foreign-
language film. From France is Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart (from producer Luc Besson) as well as the hit, Minuscule-Valley of the Lost Ants.

But don’t discount the chances of animation hero Bill Plympton, who is back in the race with Cheatin’, a film the revered two-time Oscar-nominated veteran drew by hand, frame by frame. CGI enthusiasts beware.

And so let the best toon win (or at least get nominated). Here’s how I think the category will look for nominations: Big Hero 6, The Boxtrolls, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Lego Movie and Song of the Sea. But since this category has been known to surprise, don’t take my prediction to the bank just yet.