UPDATE: According Eric Beckman of the distributor GKids, the company plans a qualifying run for the film "A Cat in Paris," which would add one more film to the list of qualifiers and make it even likelier to reach five nominees.
For only the third time in the category's 10-year history, Oscar's Best Animated Feature race may have a full slate of five nominees.
And if it does, it could thank a Czechoslovokian film that crept in via the Best Foreign-Language film category.
A representative for the Czech Republic's entry, "Alois Nebel," told TheWrap Wednesday that the filmmakers plan to enter the graphic-novel-based drama in the animation race as well as the foreign-language race.
Its reps have been in touch with the Academy, and are currently working on the details of a seven-day qualifying run that will make the film eligible in the category.
Details have yet to be completed, and "Alois Nebel" is not yet a guaranteed qualifier. (It uses the rotoscoping technique, which might trigger discussion within the branch.)
But if it does make the cut, and if the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch approves the entries of "The Adventures of Tintin," "Happy Feet Two" and "Mars Needs Moms," the number of qualifying films will reach 16, the number required to trigger a full five nominees.
Filmmakers for those three films have been asked to tell the branch about their intent in using the motion-capture technique, which by itself is not deemed "animation" by the Academy.
But with Steven Spielberg directing "The Adventures of Tintin," and with "Happy Feet Two" being the sequel to a film that won the Animated Feature Oscar in 2006, most insiders in the category expect the films to be approved.
The Animated Feature category works on a sliding scale: It has three nominees if between eight and 12 films qualify, four if 13 to 15 films make the cut, and a full slate of five if 16 or more features are entered.
(In previous years, there was no provision for four nominees; fewer than 16 entrants meant three nomination slots, while more than 16 meant five.)
The Best Animated Feature category was created in 2001, and has had three nominees every year except 2002 and 2009, when it had five.
So far in 2011, eight films have qualified: "Gnomeo and Juliet," "Rango," "Rio" and "Hoodwinked Too" were released in the first four months of the year. The summer saw "Kung Fu Panda 2," "Cars 2," "Winnie the Pooh" and the animation/live-action hybrid "The Smurfs."
For the remainder of the year, "Puss in Boots" is slated to be released in October, "Arthur Christmas" in November and "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked" in December. The Spanish-language film "Chico and Rita" is also scheduled for a qualifying run, bringing the total to 12 before the three motion-capture titles, and before "Alois Nebel."
Regardless of the number of nominees, 2011 is considered a wide-open race in the category.
For the past three years, Pixar has been an all-but-certain winner with "Toy Story 3," "Up" and "WALL-E" -- but while the company's "Cars 2" is a likely nominee, it is nowhere near the critical juggernaut those earlier films were.
Meanwhile, Pixar's biggest competitor, DreamWorks Animation, released a sequel ("Kung Fu Panda 2") and has a "Shrek" spinoff ("Puss in Boots") on the way. Only three sequels have been nominated in 10 years, and only one, "Toy Story 3," has won.
In other words, it may be a good year for a weirder film like "Rango," or a complete wild card like "Alois Nebel."
Entry forms are due in the Animated Feature category by November 1. The Academy typically announces the list of qualifying films in mid-November.