How Is Avatar Not an Animated Film?

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 2 2010 3:27 PM

How Is Avatar Not an Animated Film?

Among the nonstories coming out of this year's Oscar nominations is the fact that Pixar's Up has become the first film ever to be picked for both the best picture and best animated feature lineups . (That's not such an impressive feat when you consider that the latter category has only been around since 2001.) Somewhat more interesting is the fact that Up is only the second animated film to receive a best picture nomination, after Disney's Beauty and the Beast in 1991. An animated movie has been the highest-grossing film of the year at least a dozen times since the academy started handing out its awards. Yet no other cartoon—Disney, Pixar or otherwise—has ever had a shot at winning best picture.

Unless you count Avatar .

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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According to a Hollywood Reporter article from 2008, the film (then in production) was slated to end up 60 percent computer graphics , with plenty of special effects and animated backgrounds in the "live action" shots. For comparison, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? —generally considered to be an animated film —consisted mostly of live scenes and backgrounds with animated characters drawn in . So why wasn't James Cameron's CGI-soaked epic also nominated for best animated feature? 

In a smart analysis of this question posted to RopeOfSilicon.com, Brad Brevet reviews the academy rules on what makes for an animated feature film : "A significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture's running time."

If you trust that Hollywood Reporter number from 2008—and ignore all the CGI backgrounds and special effects in Cameron's live-action shots—then Avatar would fail the 75 percent test.  But so would another film that was on the shortlist of possible nominees : Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel . As Brevet points out, only six of that film's characters were animated: Alvin, Simon, Theodore, and their female rivals, The Chipettes.

Avatar may not have a chance at winning best animated feature, but Brevet reminds us that it's all but guaranteed the Oscar for best visual effects. "Why is the CG in Avatar considered visual effects," he asks, "while the CG employed for a Pixar or DreamWorks film [is] simply considered animation?"