Ever since the first Best Animated Feature category was included in the Oscars, and Dreamworks’ irreverent Shrek snagged the very first award in 2001, the annual race for top toon has been fiercely competitive. Of course animators were pleased by the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ long overdue special recognition. But their worry is that no toon will ever win Best Picture now that the genre has its own prize.

Rich Ross didn’t greenlight Toy Story 3. But the recently promoted Walt Disney Studios chairman understands he has an obligation to the Disney/Pixar toon as if he did. “We’re going for the Best Picture win,” he affirmed. “The reviews have clearly said that it’s the best movie, and it’s the No. 1 box office hit of the year. It’s thrilling that there is a separate category for animation that allows animated movies to be recognized. But for some reason an animated film has never gotten Best Picture. We decided, if not this year, and not this movie, when?”

Toy Story 3 is one of the presumed frontrunners both for Best Animated Feature and Best Picture along with DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon. There have been only two Best Picture nominees ever: 1991’s Beauty And The Beast from Walt Disney Studios and last year’s Up from Disney/Pixar when the list of nominees was expanded from five to 10 for the first time since 1943. Neither won. “As far as Up last year, I think the strategy was you go for Best Picture and as a fallback end up as Best Animated Feature,” recalled Ross. “But with this movie, we wanted to come up with a campaign that kept our aspirations clear but at the same time used a tongue-in-cheek approach.”

To that end, Disney/Pixar has launched an ambitious advertising campaign aimed at Academy members to associate past Best Picture winners with Toy Story 3 by having the toon’s characters enact some iconic images from West Side Story, On The Waterfront, Shakespeare In Love, Titanic, and more. The campaign uses the phrase  ‘Not Since’ and even has sequels in its sight, mimicking The Godfather 2 and Lord Of The Rings 3 in a not-so-subtle attempt to remind voters that it’s time for another sequel to win. Of course, Ross and his counterpart at DreamWorks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg,  have to overcome perceptions by many in the Academy that the Animated Feature category is enough recognition for this art form. But other genres of films like horror (Silence Of The Lambs) broke equally insurmountable barriers in terms of AMPAS perceptions that certain kinds of movies can’t win. “I feel very confident we have a movie everybody loves and I want to make sure with our campaign that people don’t feel the consolation prize is the appropriate prize for a movie like Toy Story 3,” Ross explained.

Jeffrey Katzenberg also makes the case for a toon winning Best Picture by pointing out that the three best reviewed films of the year (if you go by Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer) have been Toy Story 3 (99%) and How To Train Your Dragon (98%), plus Sony Pictures’ live action The Social Network (97%). Dragon producer Bonnie Arnold says about her toon, “It’s just a good movie that is in competition with other good movies, no matter what the medium, whether it’s live action, animation or whatever.” And Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich echoes: “We look at our films like every other film. Yes, it is animated and we’re working in a specific medium. But our approach is very much the same as live action – production design, costume design, casting of actors, scoring, editing. We’re making movies.”

Best Picture aspirations aside, the other frustration for animators is that Academy rules allow only three nominees in Best Animated Feature in any year when there are just 8 to 15 submissions deemed eligible. Sixteen and over qualifiers trigger five nominations, which has happened twice (in 2002 and last year). But on November 15th, the Academy announced that only 15 films were in the animation race this year, even though 2010 was considered an exceptionally strong year for toons. Since two of the nominees are expected to be Toy Story 3 and How To Train Your Dragon, only one slot is open.

Here is the shortlist of eligible Best Animated Feature entries in alphabetical order:

ALPHA AND OMEGA (Lionsgate) – If  Lady And The Tramp were thrown to the wolves, it might look like this sweet Romeo and Juliet-style toon that only did modest box office business. Against the heavyweights, its prospects of landing a nom are weak. 

CATS & DOGS: THE REVENGE OF KITTY GALORE (Warner Bros) – This sequel to the very successful Cats & Dogs took nine years to make it to the big screen. But critics savaged it and moviegoers ignored it.  No way for a nomination.

DESPICABLE ME (Universal) – This hit toon was a worldwide smash that also drew top reviews for Universal and its deal with Illumination Entertainment’s Chris Meledandri from the Ice Age franchise. It stands a real shot at landing that third spot.

THE DREAMS OF JINSHA (China United Film Company) – This epic Chinese animated tale from director Daming Chen about a contemporary boy transported back 3000 years in time played in Cannes but has little profile domestically. A long shot.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (Dreamworks Animation) – Critical raves and box office success represent Katzenberg’s best shot in years to reclaim glory in the category. It also has a longer but very real shot of slipping into one of the 10 Best Picture slots.

IDIOTS AND ANGELS (Bill Plympton Studios) – The determined indie Bill Plympton has been nominated twice for his animated shorts and now hopes to graduate to the Animated Feature division with this whimsical tale that few actually saw.

LEGENDS OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA’HOOLE (Warner Bros) – Watchmen and 300 director Zack Snyder tried animation with this stirring and visually stunning epic based on the dark children’s books. Will a newcomer be welcomed?

MEGAMIND (Dreamworks Animation) – It’s a funny take on the superhero genre with  a great voice cast including Will Ferrell, Brad Pitt, and Tina Fey. It might have a better chance if DWA wasn’t also promoting Dragon so heavily. There’s only so much room.

MY DOG TULIP (New Yorker Films) – A refreshingly literate though more traditional toon based on J. R. Ackerley’s touching 1956 memoir of his German Shepherd rescue. This could be the irresistible sleeper that dashes the hopes of higher profile entries.

SHREK FOREVER AFTER (Dreamworks Animation) – This supposedly final sequel to the DWA’s original Oscar winner drew mixed reviews  and good if not mind-blowing worldwide box office. But its chances of snagging a slot are virtually nil.

SUMMER WARS (GKIDS) – Distributor GKIDS grabbed a surprise nomination for the obscure Irish pick-up The Secret Of Kells in 2009 is hoping magic strikes twice with his Japanese anime about a mathematical genius but socially inept young high school boy.

TANGLED (Walt Disney Studios) – Disney’s 50th animated feature is a tuneful return to the kind of success they had in the 1980s/1990s. Whether this reinvention of Rapunzel is enough to match those heights remains to be seen. But it’s a serious contender.

THE ILLUSIONIST (Sony Pictures Classics) – Based on an unproduced screenplay by the late Jacques Tati, this beautifully animated French production comes from   Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets Of Bellville). The savvy award mavens at SPC are behind him.

TINKER BELL AND THE GREAT FAIRY RESCUE (Walt Disney Studios) – This straight-to-DVD and by-the-numbers sequel was only qualified by the studio in order to help reach the magic number of 16 eligible entries. The film’s chances are less than zero.

TOY STORY 3 (Disney/Pixar) – Pixar has won the Animated Feature Oscar the last three years running and is hoping to make it four in row with this critical and commercial blockbuster that is also a serious Best Picture contender. Can it go all the way?