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The youngest Oscar

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the creation of a new awards category for best animated feature, one obvious response was to wonder why it had taken so long and to reflect on all the wonderful pictures that might have won, going back to Snow White and Fantasia more than 60 years ago.

But this pleasant exercise in speculative film history would quickly have run into two major problems. The first is that a single studio, Walt Disney Pictures, would hold a near-monopoly not only on past winners but on the whole field of nominees. The second, and more serious, is what to do about the long span of time, roughly from the mid '50s to the mid '80s, during which in most years it would have been difficult to scare up enough worthy candidates to give the award at all.

Looking back over its history, one can think of the full-length animated movie as a genre, like the western or the musical, that has gone through fertile and fallow periods _ a dazzling heyday, a long decline and now a vibrant renaissance. But genres _ even broad ones like comedy, drama or action picture _ are too narrow a basis for award-giving, and the newest Oscar might, in this light, look superfluous.

After all, there are plenty of people who think that two of this year's nominees _ Monsters, Inc. from Disney and Shrek from DreamWorks _ could be credible contenders for best-picture honors. The same might have been (and indeed was) said in recent years about Chicken Run (2000), Toy Story 2 (1999) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), the only animated feature ever nominated in the best picture category, in 1992.

Of course, animation is different, not a genre but a distinct art form based on an evolving, expanding set of technologies, the newest and flashiest of which _ computer-generated figures frolicking in virtual three-dimensional space _ will hold sway at the Oscars tonight.

The kinetic, brightly colored beings that populate films like the three nominated this year _ Shrek, Monsters, Inc. and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius _ may not be so easily contained. The birth of the youngest Oscar may be the film industry's ambivalent response to the suspicion, at oncedelightful and dismaying, that at present, animated features are, to paraphrase Tigger, what movies do the best.

In each of the past few years there has been at least one animated feature that has, in terms of imaginative integrity, original storytelling and sheer cinematic pleasure, put most of its big-budget live-action competition to shame. To place such pictures in a special, cordoned-off zone, like the fairy tale figures exiled to Shrek's swamp, looks like a way not only of recognizing their special powers but also of protecting from cartoon competition the less magical creatures that perennially dominate the best- picture category.

Cartoons have always had a place in Hollywood, but as Robert Zemeckis' Who Framed Roger Rabbit suggested some years ago, that place has often been something of a ghetto, whose denizens are happily exploited for profit and routinely denied respect.

Cartoons have long been treated with condescension because they are widely perceived as an art form aimed at children, an enthusiasm adults outgrow and then look back on fondly. But in the past 15 years, the children nurtured on the Disney classics, the Warner Brothers shorts and the Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning marathons have brought their youthful enthusiasms with them into the pop-cultural mainstream. The sublime artistry of the animators of the past has been institutionalized, and their followers have been busy paying them homage, sending them up and trying to outdo them. The child's play of the past has been recycled and revised, and animation is, all of a sudden, no longer a cultural byproduct, but a dominant force.

One of those responsible for this revolution is Roger Rabbit himself. Zemeckis's melding of live action with cartooning was, in 1988, a dazzling glimpse of a cinematic future in which the boundary between the forms would become ever blurrier. But it was also a nod to the medium's past, in particular to the sexy, anarchic anti-Disney tradition of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery. Meanwhile, the Japanese subculture of manga comics and short, cheap anime had crossed over into full-length features with the release of Akira in 1988. By the end of the decade, a revival of the dormant Disney tradition of lavish, romantic fairy tale adaptations, loaded with music and bravura production numbers, was well under way. The advent of The Simpsons in 1989 sparked an animation boom on television that continues to resonate in every corner of the broadcast spectrum, from Nickelodeon to Toon Disney to the Cartoon Network and beyond.

After a number of failed attempts from various quarters, most recently 20th Century Fox, the Disney monopoly is at last facing serious competition, from DreamWorks, which produced both Shrek and Chicken Run, and from Paramount. Some fruitful partnerships have developed between the studios and animation outfits like Aardman, the creators of Chicken Run, and Pixar, which flowered at Disney just as the studio's trademark two-dimensional animated epics were sliding (once again) toward piety and predictability. Paramount has benefited from the fact that its Viacom sibling Nickelodeon owns a roster of kid-culture franchises including Rugrats (which has been spun into two movies so far), Blue's Clues (coming soon) and the ubiquitous and hugely popular Spongebob Squarepants (brace yourself). Jimmy Neutron will be Nickelodeon's first attempt to reverse-engineer a franchise, moving from big screen to small; the series is scheduled to have its premiere this fall.

It is often said of the best animated movies that they appeal simultaneously to children, to their parents, and to adults and teenagers in search of novel, accessible entertainment. The appeal may be simultaneous, but it is not identical. The youngest children, experience the form as a set of sensory stimuli, a parade of pleasing (or frightening) shapes, colors and sounds. Their older siblings grasp archetypal characters and situations and also attitudes and allusions they have picked up elsewhere. And adults, of course, respond to these things too: to the symphony of slamming doors that provides the climax of Monsters Inc., to the princess and the dragon in Shrek, to the collective attempt to rescue Woody from the clutches of the greedy collector in Toy Story 2.

The magic of the old Disney features lay in their ability to conjure, in adult viewers, some of the rapture associated with picture books and bedtime stories. Snow White and Cinderella were not children's movies, any more than the Technicolor musicals and melodramas they mimicked and transcended.

Adults today, perpetually uncomfortable with their own maturity and terrified of aging, cloak their nostalgia for childhood in irony. Shrek is both a fairy tale and a debunking of fairy tales. Monsters Inc. is both a sendup of primal fears and a celebration of the corporate workplace. Jimmy Neutron, a Tom Swift for the 21st century, lives in a town called Retroville.

Does he get the joke? The pop culture of the present, made by baby boomers and their followers, endlessly recycles the consumerism of the past, celebrating its comforts and mocking its kitschiness in a single gesture. If the signature of the Disney classics was a lush, sometimes claustrophobic innocence, the hallmark of today's animation may be a frenetic, equally confining sophistication. We've seen it all before, and we ain't seen nothing yet.