The race for best animated feature is usually fairly easy to predict. With a few exceptions, you can AwardsLine.LogoBWalways count on Disney/Pixar to win or place. The studio has had a pony on this track nearly every year the category has been in existence since 2001 (when DreamWorks’ Shrek became the inaugural winner). In fact, Pixar has won the prize an astonishing seven times, most recently last year when Brave triumphed. In off-years, other studios have had a shot, too, with Warner Bros. winning for Happy Feet and Paramount for Rango. And although several independent lower-budget toons have been nominated recently, the win usually goes to the higher-profile studio offerings. Pixar-LogoThis year, there are lots of indies entered, but expect the battle to continue among the titans, especially studios who are pouring money into campaigns for their box office behemoths. So when it comes to predicting a surefire winner, there just doesn’t seem to be one this year.

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A late-breaking entry into the race has been Disney’s musical Frozen, which hasDisney's Frozen wowed critics and has been cleaning up at the box office throughout the holiday season. That, plus a huge push by Disney may be propelling it to the top of the pack. In the vein of Tangled and The Little Mermaid, Frozen comes from the creative team behind last year’s Wreck-It Ralph and carries a long pedigree of the studio’s tuneful toons, which have enjoyed a string of enormous successes over the past two decades. The fact that the songs come from the same group that delivered The Book Of Mormon also gives it a hip factor. Voters might want to reward Disney for returning to its roots, but ratcheting up the material. Disney also has Planes, a modest late-summer performer that is basically another sequel of sorts to the Cars franchise and won’t fly high in this company. But more promisingly on the subject of “planes,” Disney has famed Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, which is the fictionalized biography of the man who created the Zero plane used during World War II. wind risesThat plot point could turn off older voters, who might not find romanticizing the creator of aircraft used to bomb Pearl Harbor a big plus. Still, it’s a beautifully made film and has the cachet of being what Miyazaki says is his swan song. The director won the second animated feature Oscar in 2002 for Spirited Away and could be an attractive alternative to the big studio tentpoles in the race. It has also won numerous awards from critics groups, although Frozen has been doing well on that front too even if it isn’t quite the same kind of “critics darling” as the Miyazaki.

Related: Boston Film Critic Protests Miyazaki Toon ‘The Wind Rises’

despicable2Considering Despicable Me 2 has grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide and become Universal’s most successful movie ever, the studio is backing a major campaign for Chris Meledandri’s sequel with Q&As, parties, ads and lots of attention paid not only in this category, but also for Pharrell Williams’ snappy song “Happy.” Williams has been performing at various industry functions the past few weeks, increasing the song’s (and the film’s) profile. For U, this is an important statement because the first Despicable Me was not even nominated. The studio is betting that voters won’t overlook the success this time around.

Related: Annie Award Nominations Unveiled

croodsDreamWorks Animation’s Jeffrey Katzenberg is equally determined to see that his worldwide hit, The Croods, also is not overlooked. It represents the first release in the company’s new distribution deal with 20th Century Fox, and Katzenberg points out that it is currently the number-one grossing nonsequel animated film of the year, with nearly $600 million at the worldwide box office. Also, the studio has been pouring plenty of money into an awards campaign that features numerous screenings, Q&As and a lavish party in which everyone took home Croods cupcakes. DWA hired a consultant who works on the Weinstein Co.’s campaigns and also made a point of being one of the first screeners sent to Academy voters this year (only Mud arrived sooner). It is competing with Frozen and Despicable Me 2 in the Golden Globe, and Critics Choice Movie Awards and at the Annie Awards. DWA’s other eligible film, Turbo, also went out through Fox but was overwhelmed by summer competition and isn’t being campaigned significantly. In fact is is MIA on the awards circuit. That’s a shame because it had much to offer, but clearly box office returns are a big factor for studios in deciding how much to invest in going after the gold. On its own, Fox also had the May release, Epic, another original from director Chris Wedge, the man behind the studio’s giant Ice Age franchise, which should probably be enough to justify Fox’s big campaign, even if critical response was middling and box office not huge compared to other studio behemoths in the race.

MONSTERS UNIVERSITYOf course the reigning champ of the category, Disney/Pixar is still in the game with their sequel Monsters University, another major box office performer over the summer, so don’t count it out. It has an Annie and CCMA nomination and won the Hollywood Film  Animation Award early in the season. Co-star Helen Mirren hosted a big Beverly Hills party for Academy members and other industry voters this week to give it some more heat. Mirren walked around rhyming, “Eat! Drink! Vote For Monsters Inc!” Of course that is actually the name of its 2001 predecesor which was nominated for animated feature in the category’s first year. It received four nominations overall and won best song for Randy Newman’s “If I Didn’t Have You.” Pixar is supporting it in a big way and doesn’t want to be left out of a race they are accustomed to dominating. 

Another sequel, Sony’s Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2 is also in the running, but like Despicable Me 2 is fighting against perceptions that the original film was overlooked. Sony also has the same problem with its other entry, The Smurfs 2, which, although it was submitted for consideration, might be disqualified for having too many live-action elements. Add to that the fact it was a box office underperformer, and prospects are bleak.

Relativity Media is a newcomer to the animation race with its Thanksgiving-themed Free Birds. Despite modest returns at the box office, don’t expect much come Oscar time.

Among the independent films submitted perhaps the one with the best chance of breaking into the ernestcontest is GKids’ entry, Ernest And Celestine, a foreign-language charmer about the relationship between a bear and a mouse. It was in Cannes a year and a half ago but GKids has finally brought it to America and it could be a spoiler. It has a key Annie nomination along with GKids other entry this year, the Japanese A Letter To Momo. Other lesser-known titles aiming to be Davids versus Goliaths include The Fake, Khumba, The Legend Of Sarila, O Apostolo, Puella Magi Madoka Magica The Movie—Rebellion and Rio: 2096 A Story of Love And Fury.

If all of these titles ultimately are deemed eligible, it will trigger an animated feature category with five nominees instead of three. And in as wide open a race as this one, that’s the outcome for which everyone is hoping.