Pete Hammond badgeAlmost from the start, the race for the 2015 Best Animated Feature Oscar has been one movie’s to lose. Even before it opened in June, there was heavy betting and anticipation that Pixar/Disney’s Inside Out was going to be unbeatable — the 800-lb. gorilla in the contest and one of the best, most complex films ever to come from Pixar. That started right after the film was screened first for the exhibition community at CinemaCon in Las Vegas in April. In fact, talk for this movie has gone beyond Best Animated Feature and into the Best Picture race, which has seen only three cartoons (Beauty And The Beast and Pixar’s Up and Toy Story 3) crack the code of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ most prestigious category.

good dinosaurMost often, Oscar voters look upon the Best Animated Feature category as the toon version of Best Picture and leave it at that. Talking to Academy members in this wide-open year, though, one of the most frequently mentioned choices for Best Picture is indeed Inside Out. It’s story of the six human emotions, ranging from joy to anger to sadness, not only is incredibly original, but it also has gained gravitas as a pic that sparks conversation between parents and kids. The fact that it also became a worldwide box office smash certainly doesn’t hurt its cause.

Pixar always is a fixture in the animated race, but took last year off largely because of production delays with The Good Dinosaur that pushed that film’s release to this year, marking the rare instance when the company has not one but two films in contention. According to the Academy, 16 animated films qualified this year, and, assuming all of them fulfill the rules, it’ll be just at the wire of the number that triggers a full category of five. If both Pixar titles get in, as I suspect they will, it will be a landmark year for the Northern California-based company, which is considered the gold standard in animation these days. So, could we actually have a situation where Pixar cancels itself out in the final vote? Not likely. AltThough Good Dinosaur has been doing well critically and at the box office, it is no match for Inside Out and will have to settle — at least awards-wise — for being in its shadow, a pace-setter but not a winner.

AnomalisaSo can anything possibly upset the front-runner and turn this race, well, inside out? The most likely prospect to do that comes from Paramount, which until the Toronto Film Festival in September didn’t even have a major Oscar contender this year except, perhaps, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation in some below-the-line areas. The studio’s pickup of the surreal  — and very adult — stop-motion animated Anomalisa was a surprise to some. It was almost as surprising as when the Charlie Kaufman-scripted and co-directed (with Duke Johnson) pic won a big prize at the Venice Film Festival. Even though the film seems more indie in spirit, Paramount has launched a major campaign, not only to land an Animated Feature nom—the rare grown-up ’toon in a position to do it—but across the board in other categories including Best Picture. Kaufman is a past writing Oscar winner for Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, but he has never been in the animated area before. The studio actually is putting less emphasis on its animated aspects and more on the human story the film presents—it’s about the seemingly mundane life of a man who finds himself thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Some critics groups, including Los Angeles, have even put the film above Inside Out in their own awards, and that could help raise the spoiler prospects for Paramount, which is going all-out.

With those three slots likely taken up, I would say the fourth spot almost certainly will go to Aardman and Lionsgate’s enormously clever—and wordless—Shaun The Sheep Movie. This spinoff of the character, which first appeared in Wallace & Gromit as well as his own TV series, is not only perhaps the most purely enjoyable and delightful animated film I have seen this year, but it also harkens to the comic style of such silent stars as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, or the films of Jacques Tati. Sure, Shaun the Sheep is a better-known star internationally than in America, but this shear charmer is likely to sweep the animation committee—which makes the nominations—right off its feet. It also helps that, despite somewhat light domestic box office, Lionsgate is running a smart campaign and making sure voters don’t forget the summer release.

peanuts movieThe fifth slot, in my opinion, is likely to go to 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky’s The Peanuts Movie, which managed to do something I didn’t think possible. It took the simple, hand-drawn charms of Charlie Brown and his gang, turned them over to CGI wizards, and made a movie even Peanuts purists could love by staying true to the spirit and time of the Charles Schulz creation. It helped that Schulz’s son and grandson collaborated on the script.

Competing for that fifth slot will be such other major studio ’toon hits as Sony’s Hotel Transylvania 2, which managed to improve on the original, and Universal and Illumination’s Despicable Me spinoff Minions, which became a huge summer hit due to its lovable cast of characters. DreamWorks Animation, often a finalist in this contest, had only a spring entry this year, Home, which did well at the box office but is expected to score Oscar love possibly only in the Best Song area with a Jennifer Lopez tune. Paramount’s The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water also is likely Sponge Out Of The Race, as it is hard to imagine much traction for this TV-turned-film property that skews way too young to interest the older voters of the Academy’s animation committee. They haven’t succumbed to SpongeBob in the past, and are unlikely to start now.

If there can be any upsets to the top five laid out here it will come, as usual, from the independents in the race. In past years, GKids has done very well and last year even landed two of the five nominees. This year its hopes are pinned to foreign imports: Japan’s When Marnie Was There and Brazil’s Boy And The World. GKids is the most likely candidate to upset the apple cart of the major studio behemoths, probably with the well-received Marnie. But there is another Japanese entry, The Boy And The Beast, that will try to make an impact, along with such low-budget hopefuls as Regular Show: The Movie and The Laws Of The Universe–Part 0. Also unlikely to crack the top five is Moomins On The Riviera, a very minor French-Finnish production based on a well-known Finnish comic strip aimed at the youngest viewers.

Kahlil Gibran’s The ProphetFinally, there is an animated adaptation of an extremely well-known book the world over, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, which is powered by the onscreen and behind-the-scenes participation of Salma Hayek and features a cast with, among others, Liam Neeson. Whether the approach of taking sophisticated material and trying to make it kid-friendly will work is anyone’s guess in terms of its Oscar potential, but the film is getting a significant PR push.