Although there were more than the usual number of snubs and surprises in this morning’s Oscar nominations, easily the most animated cries of shock came in, well, the Animated Feature category.

Ipete_hammond_300x100f ever there was a sure thing going into today’s nominations, it was that Warner Bros’ blockbuster toon The Lego Movie not only would be nominated but was the presumed front -runner for the win. It’s a real shame for talented director-writers Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, who also got screwed by the Academy animation voters when they were overlooked for 2009’s Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. But this snub was bigger, HUGE.

bighero6Shockwaves not only hit the room but among those working on rival films — the ones that did get nominated. A Disney source emailed me immediately, “WHAT? No  Lego? Big Hero 6 can win now!” A source connected with DreamWorks Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon 2 said virtually the same thing. With the 800-lb. Lego Movie out of the way, they expect to go for the win. No movie has been enjoying more of a roller-coaster awards ride than Dragon 2. Last week it was shut out of a BAFTA nomination, but then Sunday night it became the surprise winner of the Animated Feature Golden Globe, something DWA chief Jeffrey Katzenberg predicted to me he would probably lose since they had previously gone 0-for-10 with the HFPA. Not to be outdone, a campaign source with Focus Features’ and Laika’s The Boxtrolls also was busy with emails. “I am stunned I can’t even think straight. Totally new animation race now…we are in it to win it. Game on!”  Indeed.

SHow to Train Your Dragon 2o what caused this earthquake? Blame it on GKIDS, the little New York distributor of mostly foreign-based toons, which again played David to the studio’s Goliaths and was the only distributor to land two Animated Feature noms this year with the Japanese The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya and the Irish Song Of The Sea, both old-fashioned hand-drawn films that slayed the giant in the category.

boxtrolls 1A publicist representing GKIDS was practically giddy about the turn of events when I saw them this morning at the Academy. The GKIDS triumph falls right in line with the true independent spirit of these 2014 Oscar nominations. That indie vibe that dominates the Best Picture race clearly crept into this animated race as well.

So what does it all mean? With cash-conscious indies dominating the big Picture races, the companies behind the higher-profile animation nominees — Disney, DWA and Universal’s Focus — have deep pockets and might be inclined to start an all-out ad war to try to position their film as the new front-runner. All of them are sensing a win, and that means a revved-up campaign to become king of the toons this year.

Song-of-the-Sea-5Animated Feature might become one of the most interesting races to watch. Katzenberg’s DreamWorks Animation won the first-ever Animated Feature Oscar with Shrek in 2001, but other than distributing the 2005 winner Wallace & Gromit In The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, DWA films consistently have been bridesmaids since, if in the race at all. This is a chance for redemption.

Focus, through its long-term relationship with Travis Knight’s Oregon-based Laika, now is 3-for-3, having scored previous nominations for the company’s Coraline and ParaNorman. You can bet they now are thinking third time’s the charm and will probably put up the dollars to get that point across for Boxtrolls. And then there is the true heavyweight in the category, Disney, which after a big win last year for Frozen,  preceded by six wins and annual nominations for Pixar, will be out to prove that the homegrown, reignited Disney Animation label is definitely for real. A Big Hero 6 victory would do the trick. No film has taken this prize without at least a The-Tale-of-The-Princess-Kaguyacorresponding BAFTA nomination.  Big Hero 6 has one. So does Boxtrolls. But Dragon 2 does not. Awards consultants will be looking for all sorts of signposts like this to take the measure of the race. And after causing such a fury with its two noms today, could GKIDS — which doesn’t have nearly the campaign budgets of its competitors — actually translate one of them into a win  If it does, the most likely beneficiary might be The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, which could be the last film from legendary director Isao Takahata and the penultimate movie from Japan’s revered Studio Ghibli. The film is by far the longest of the nominees, clocking in well over two hours, but it could turn out to be a sentimental favorite.

Like they say, “Game on.”