Robert Zemeckis may not be a happy man right now.  The Oscar-winning filmmaker has never believed that his motion capture films "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf" were considered animated pictures so he'd never bow to studio pressure and submit them for the ultra competitive Best Animated Feature race.  This year that story has changed.

Rumors were circling for weeks that Zemeckis was being pressured to change his tune for his upcoming adaptation of "A Christmas Carol."  According to Kris Tapley at In Contention, Zemeckis has finally bowed to requests within Walt Disney and the industry at large to submit "Carol."  However, that's only part of a complicated equation as there is no guarantee "Carol" will be deemed eligible by the Academy's animation branch because it is motion capture.  Why would people like Disney and Pixar head John Lasseter, Focus Features and Fox Searchlight be rooting for it to make the cut?  Because if "Carol" doesn't qualify there may be only three animated feature nominees this year and some excellent films will get the shaft.  Oh, Oscar.  Here we go again.

In their infinite wisdom, the Academy created the Best Animated Feature to recognize some of the great films that weren't getting nominated for the traditional Best Picture category.  Sure, "Beauty and the Beast" had made the cut, but when the arguably superior "The Lion King" was overlooked a few years later the Academy realized it had a problem on its hands.  With a best animated short category in existence why not a feature one?  It finally came to pass in 2002 when "Shrek" beat out Pixar's "Monster's Inc." for the inaugural statue (much to the dismay of Lasseter and his Northern California crew).  In what seemed like a smart move at the time, the Academy set up a rule that there had to be a minimum of 8-10 qualifying films a year for the award to be even included in th show and that unless there were 16 eligible entries, only three nominees would be announced.  16 or more?  The traditional five nominees would make the cut.  Sadly though, the larger pool has only come to pass once, in 2003.

Fast forward to calendar year 2009 and you've got the strongest crop of nominees ever. And if 16 nominees aren't deemed A-O.K. by the Academy this time around two seriously good films will get left in the cold.  So far, the magic 16 are... (listed in no significant order)

1. "Up"
2. "Monsters vs. Aliens"
3. "Coraline"
4. "9"
5. "Ponyo"
6. "The Princess and the Frog"
7. "Mary and Max"
8. "Evangerion"
9. "Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs"
10. "Astro Boy"
11. "The Fantastic Mr. Fox"
12. "Tinkerbell and the Lost Treasure"
13. "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs"
14. "Battle for Terra"
15. "Planet 51"
16. "A Christmas Carol"

The Envelope's Pete Hammond notes there's also a chance a little known French contender titled "A Town Called Panic" that was acquired domestically by Zeitgeist, may have already qualified with the necessary one week theatrical release, but it appears no one can confirm that at the moment.  If not, you can put money down that Disney, Fox Searchlight and Focus will be more than willing to make sure it is as it could provide a "safety" 17th submission.

And that perhaps is the more pressing issue here. The Academy put in the 16 picture rule in place to make sure films that didn't deserve to make the cut such as the imported "Pokemon" releases wouldn't sour the artistic excellence on hand.  Instead, there have been too many years were worthy nominees have been denied recognition because it was only a three nod year. Granted, that's the Oscar game in all categories, but at this point it's just becoming silly. Either the nominating process should be determined on a year by year basis on a voting system or a committee of animation industry peers within the Academy should weigh in on a case by case basis.

For those playing the prediction game (and aren't we all), here are the top five candidates if the category is expanded.

"Ponyo"
"Up"
"Coraline"
"The Fantastic Mr. Fox"
"Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs"

If there are only three?  Well, "Up" is a lock, but beyond that it would be way too close to call (at least right now).  And here you thought all the excitement was just in the Best Picture race.

Do you think they should expand the Best Animated Feature category to five nominees this year? Share you thoughts below.