Never can I remember the race for Best Animated Feature being as competitive as its been this year. Not that I think it's been a particularly stellar year for the medium. To me, the closeness of the race is due to all the nominees achieving roughly the same level of enjoyable mediocrity, with one standout clearly above the rest, but that doesn't mean it has the Oscar locked up.
The first nominee is Pixar's Brave. I liked the film quite a bit, but unfortunately the press angle focused more on the sour grapes between the studio and ousted director Brenda Chapman, and grumblings about it not being up to Pixar's usually high standards aren't helping either. But the beautifully animated film is nothing if not accessible, and a high profile in a tight race should help it out a lot. I believe it is quite formidable.
After his macabre short got him fired from Disney nearly three decades ago, Tim Burton brought Frankenweenie back from the dead in his most personal feature film in years. Critics liked it, but audiences mostly passed it over. Not everybody warms up to Burton's trademark aesthetic, which puts him at a disadvantage. Nothing would make me happier than to see him win an Oscar, but I get the feeling that will never be.
If the Academy is going to go for a creepy stop-motion feature, they're more likely to give their vote to Laika's ParaNorman. The film is a visual marvel with a relevant message, and it cleaned up more critics awards this year than any other toon. It might be perceived as to kiddish for the Academy's older demographic. I'd call it the dark horse to keep an eye on.
The longest shot in this category is Aardman Studios' The Pirates! Band of Misfits. The film was little seen and largely forgotten after opening last winter, but the animators clearly respect the output of the British clay-mation factory. Still, how many Academy members saw it? How many even remember it? I know I didn't think about it much after I saw it.
Finally, the one to beat heading into the contest seems to be Disney's Wreck-It Ralph. After winning big with the PGA and the Annies, this excellent post-modern fairytale is primed to bring the animation studio its first Oscar for Animated Feature, but probably by a slimmer margin than it should. For it to be such a tight contest when one nominee is so clearly superior to the rest concerns me a little, but the smart money is definitely on Wreck-It Ralph.
Will win: Wreck-It Ralph
Should win: Wreck-It Ralph
Should have been nominated: The Secret World of Arrietty