The major players always seem to be the studio-labeled efforts, so I'd be a fool to not count those among the highest possibilities of the year's contenders. Highest among those, in my end, is Disney's Frozen. Yes, a return-to-form princess musical didn't work out so well for Tangled, and The Princess and the Frog, despite being wonderful, was an all-around box office disappointment. But something about this take on the Snow Queen seems to scream Oscar winner. With the Lopez/Lopez songwriting team on board for the songwriting (most notably the team behind the recent Winnie the Pooh theatrical release, which had a surprisingly great soundtrack), and Broadway diva Idina Menzel in the villain role, this looks incredibly positive on paper. But of course what I perhaps should've led with was Monsters University. After a rare (in fact, one-time) miss in the category for Cars 2, the studio proved it still rules the roost by pulling off the 2012 win for Brave out from under Tim Burton. I hesitate to bank on a sequel, though, and the original didn't exactly fare well, famously beaten (in one of the true Oscar travesties of the aughts) by populist Shrek.
And speaking of sequels, Universal's putting out what will surely be a massive summer tentpole, Despicable Me 2, and Sony Animation has Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. Neither of the original films managed a slot in the category, though the former surely came mighty close and would've been included had the field lengthened to five from three. And though the latter looks questionable at best based on preview material, the original was far better than anyone could've expected. The beginning of the year has additionally yielded a couple of contenders (surprisingly slim, though, considering the earning potential - though it's worked out in The Croods' box office favor). DreamWorks' cavepeople comedy has been moderately well-reviewed and has made enough money to warrant a sequel (no surprises there, come from DW). And after a long gestation Weinstein Company's Escape from Planet Earth did decent money from slim to no marketing. Rounding out the major studio efforts, Fox Animation's Epic could play well, though it gives off a Rise of the Guardians vibe, so chances are bad box office could sour its odds. DreamWorks' other annual effort, Turbo, has something of a Pixar vibe, which could bode well for its chances. The racer snail schtick also compounds the Despicable Me minion cuteness factor - always a good box office prognosticator. Finally, Pixar is selling out by throwing what was meant to be a direct-to-video companion piece to their Cars universe, Planes, in what will likely go down in flames later this summer. Don't expect it to have any kind of Oscar cache - lead voice Dane Cook should be the indicator that this was never meant to be seen by a wide audience.
And as per usual, rounding out the group are the foreign contenders. Studio Ghibli's Up on Poppy Hill saw a March release this year. With no Miyazaki on board, though, it might have some trouble finding a slot. Arrietty didn't have much luck last year. Also in contention is Zambezia, another talking animal picture that may or may not see a U.S. release. Hell & Back, a buddy comedy about a trip to hell, might be too irreverent for the primarily family or family-friendly voters. The Suicide Shop could see an American release this year after a generally well-received French debut last year, though the dark premise may not work for Oscar. Finally, South African Khumba is poised for a U.S. release courtesy of Millennium Entertainment, though it's looking awfully Madagascary, a formula that hasn't worked for voters in the past.
So where do we stand on the race? My thought is the current fivesome would most definitely include Monsters University, Frozen and Turbo, and rounding out the group for now, I could see The Nut Job and Despicable Me 2 getting a makeup nomination. But what do you think? Is this shaping up to be a far less interesting year for animation than last year, which boasted a quite healthy crop?