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Up a favorite in quality Oscar race for animation

page43aLOS ANGELES--The animation category at this year's Oscars ceremony presents a crowded field of singing frogs, sly foxes and spunky kids, but despite some tough competition, the high-flying adventure movie "Up" is expected to float away with the Oscar.

  Disney/Pixar's "Up" this week became the only animated film apart from 1991's "Beauty and the Beast" to land a best picture nod, and the movie about a boy and an old man who fly off in a house tied to balloons is also nominated in the animated category.

  There, it's up against Twentieth Century Fox's "Fantastic Mr. Fox", the Walt Disney Co's "The Princess and the Frog", Focus Features' "Coraline" and European production "The Secret of Kells", which critics say was a surprise choice, because it played in only a handful of U.S. theaters.

  Filmmakers and critics say the nominated movies are all very different, all very good, and rival the dramas in the coveted best picture category. "Animation actually outdid the live-action movies this year, it's an extraordinarily competitive field in terms of quality," said Peter Hammond, a critic with Los Angeles Times awards tracker

  But Hammond said "Up" is the "overwhelming favorite" in the animated category. The five animated movies include two that came out in 3-D ("Up" and "Coraline"), two made with tiny figurines manipulated through a painstaking process called stop-motion ("Fantastic Mr. Fox" and "Coraline") and two hand-drawn films ("The Princess and the Frog" and "The Secret of Kells").

  "It's really cool, because I feel like a number of years ago all the films were in the same zone, all trying to do the same type of thing," said Pete Docter, co-director of "Up", which was made with computer-generated imagery.

  "And now it's so many different approaches to it, that it shows that animation is in a healthy place," Docter said.

  The Oscar field for animation was widened to five films this year, from its usual three, because of the amount of eligible films. Even so, Tom O'Neil of said some high-quality films failed to make the list, most notably Oscar winning Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo".

  Henry Selick, the director of "Coraline", agrees. "`Up' is a masterpiece and most likely will win, but there's a lot of great animated films, many of which did not get in the list of five nominees," he said.

  For his part, Selick said that to compete with the likes of Disney/Pixar, he had to "take a chance on a different sort of story, a different sort of look."

  "Coraline" is about a young girl who escapes mom and dad through a magical passageway in her home, but finds things were better with her real parents. For the film, Selick hired one crew member whose only job was to knit miniature sweaters for the characters.

  "The Princess and the Frog", a musical about a New Orleans waitress who falls in love with a foreign prince-turned-frog, is Disney's first hand-drawn animated film in six years. The film has made more than $100 million in the U.S. and Canada since its November release, and the Oscar nomination could help as it expands its overseas roll-out, which Disney said has already brought in more than $100 million.

  It looks like a success now, but in making "The Princess and the Frog" Disney was taking a chance that audiences would again go for a hand-drawn film, after years in which Pixar-style computer animation set the standard.