HOLLYWOOD - The setting was Spago in Beverly Hills. The decor was Far Far Away. The restaurant was transformed into the mythical land at the heart of Shrek 2, ostensibly to promote the DVD launch of the highest-grossing animated film in history.
But as the paparazzi flashed away at Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers and Julie Andrews, three of the stars who provided voices for the film, and as hundreds of industry insiders milled about sipping wine and munching stir-fried lamb in lettuce cups, another reason for the evening became apparent: The Oscar campaign for Shrek 2 was shifting into gear.
In a year when no single live-action movie has emerged to overshadow the competition, some animated films may have a shot at best picture nominations.
Their prospects would be considered unlikely, except for the perception among academy members, if not the public, that there is a dearth of Oscar-worthy live-action films this year. Contenders, including Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ; Collateral, starring Tom Cruise; Ray, starring Jamie Foxx; Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson; and Sideways, an independent film, will certainly make a run for a nomination, but their success remains uncertain.
To date, though, only one animated film has received a best picture nomination in the Academy Awards' 76 years: Walt Disney Co.'s 1991 fairy tale Beauty and the Beast.
"How can you keep avoiding it when it's like the elephant in the room?" asked Andrews, who supplies the voice of Queen Lillian in Shrek 2 and won the Oscar for best actress for 1964's Mary Poppins. "There are so many great animated movies these days. ... The technology is incredible. They are doing things that never could have been done before."
As the genre continues to push its creative boundaries and deliver blockbuster box office receipts, it is increasingly difficult for academy voters to discount animated movies. Indeed, the lines between live-action and animation films continue to blur, thanks to technological advances in computer graphics, stronger scripts and Oscar-winning stars and directors willing to lend their names and talents to a genre once dismissed as cartoons.
This may be the year, said Jon Bloom, chairman of the executive committee of the academy's Short Film and Animation Branch: "I think it's possible ... with the terrific crop of animated pictures we have."
Among the movies in the running are Shrek 2 from DreamWorks; The Incredibles from Pixar Animation Studios, which ranks as one of the best-reviewed movies of the year; and The Polar Express from Warner Bros.
Despite wildly mixed reviews - The Polar Express has been called everything from enchanting and delightful to a train wreck - Warner Bros. President Alan Horn made no secret of the studio's plans to seek Oscar nominations for best picture and best animated feature.
The growing popularity and sophistication of animated movies led the academy to give the genre its own category a few years ago. The first Oscar for animated feature was awarded in 2002, to Shrek. The new category was welcomed by many in the animation community, but others wondered whether it was an attempt to ditch the competition.
"A vast majority of academy members are in live-action, and they don't want these animators to get the awards they are working so hard toward," said Kevin Koch, president of the 1,900- member Animation Guild and a character animator on Shrek 2.
Although animators are now able to bask in Oscar's spotlight, some worry that animation has been marginalized in the eyes of the academy.
"The downside, in a year like this, is that a film like The Incredibles or Shrek 2 is probably going to get passed over for best picture ... because the academy members can shove it off into its own little slot," Koch said.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.