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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Does 'Mr. Fox' really have a shot at stealing the Oscar from 'Up'?

January 13, 2010 |  1:31 pm

If nothing else, the hard-working publicists at 42 West had to be happy to see the New York Times' Brooks Barnes floating the idea that "Fantastic Mr. Fox" was suddenly a serious rival to Pixar's "Up" for the Oscar for best animated feature, since the story's headline alone -- "Look Out, Pixar, Here Comes 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' " -- might stem the flow, at least for a few minutes, of the constant barrage of 'what have you done for my movie lately' phone calls from "Mr. Fox" producer (and 42 West client) Scott Rudin. 

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According to Barnes, whose story ran in Tuesday's NYT, the Wes Anderson-directed film has turned the animation category into "a hotly contested race" because it has received good reviews and, well, because it was named the best animated movie of the year by both the New York and L.A. film critics groups. It seems like a pretty thin argument to me, especially since, according to Rotten Tomatoes, the popular aggregated review site, "Up" has easily rung up better reviews than "Mr. Fox," earning a sky-high 98 to "Mr. Fox's" also-impressive 93.

As for the N.Y. and L.A. film critics, they aren't an especially accurate barometer of animated-film Oscar glory. As recently as 2007, both the N.Y. and L.A. critics gave their animation awards to "Persepolis," while the Oscar went to Pixar's "Ratatouille." In 2003, both N.Y. and L.A.'s awards went to "The Triplets of Belleville," while the Oscar for best animated feature went to Pixar's "Finding Nemo." 

When it comes to animation Oscars, Pixar is a pretty tough brand name to beat. In fact, the last time that the N.Y. and L.A. critics agreed with the academy was in 2006, when they both gave out animation awards to "Happy Feet," which went on to win an Oscar, though of course "Happy Feet" didn't have the Pixar mojo behind it. But the most obvious reason why Pixar's "Up" remains the heavy animation favorite has to do with a dirty little secret that Barnes barely mentions in this story -- the academy shuns movies that don't do well at the box office.

If a film is perceived as a box-office failure, the academy keeps its distance, being wary of rewarding films that are viewed as having been completely rejected by rank-'n'-file moviegoers. And even though I'm a big admirer of "Mr. Fox," it has floundered at the box office, only making $19.5 million in the U.S. and a paltry $16.2 million overseas, numbers that are dwarfed by "Up's" hefty grosses. In fact, since the inception of the best animated feature in 2001, I could only find one movie that made less than $200 million in overall box office, 2005's "Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit," which made $56 million in the U.S. and $129 million overseas. (2002's "Spirited Away" only made $10 million in the US, but it earned an astounding $265 million overseas.)

When it comes to the academy, whose slogan should be "Everyone loves a winner," I'm betting that "Mr. Fox" is still a serious long shot for a big animation win. It's a lovely film, but obviously so is "Up." Faced with the choice between a well-made movie that's struggling at the box office and a well-made Pixar film that has conquered the multiplexes all around the globe, the academy is going to pick the movie with the seal of box-office approval every time. 

Photo: "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

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