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Animation feature nominees are unexpected

A scene from the Oscar-nominated 'A Cat in Paris.'

LOS ANGELES -- Two obscure foreign movies being released by a tiny New York company beat out Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg and Pixar Animation Studios to collect surprise nominations in Oscar's peculiar animated feature race.

The French thriller "A Cat in Paris" and Spanish musical "Chico & Rita" -- primarily hand-drawn movies little known outside the animation world -- bested high-profile projects from perennial academy favorites Spielberg ("The Adventures of Tintin") and Pixar ("Cars 2").

Three computer-animated Hollywood movies also made the list -- Gore Verbinski's western comedy "Rango," which Paramount is re-releasing for a limited one-week engagement, and the DreamWorks Animation titles "Kung Fu Panda 2" and "Puss in Boots."

"I'm amazed by the selection," said "Puss in Boots" director Chris Miller. "It's really wide open. It's been that way since the awards season kicked in. There's a lot of great films and different styles from some different countries. There's a lot of tradition in that part of the academy and respect for diversity."

For the first time since the animated feature category was created in 2001, the eligible Pixar film was not nominated.

"For the last few years we've had a Pixar front-running film that was miles ahead of the other films," said animation historian Jerry Beck, editor of the website Cartoon Brew. "But this wasn't their year. Visually and technically, 'Cars 2' has got all the craft, but story-wise it was a kids' picture."

"Tintin" was made using the hybrid filmmaking technique of motion capture, in which cameras record the movement of actors, then visual-effects artists and animators add to the performances. How to treat "Tintin" was a matter of some debate in the animation community, however. The same method was used to create the hyper-intelligent animals in the live-action movie "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," which received an Oscar nomination for its visual effects.

"I think there still is some confusion or a sense of not knowing where to place ('Tintin')," said Joe Letteri, senior visual effects supervisor at Weta Digital, which worked on both "Tintin" and "Apes." "Because there was no live action, it's all animation. And I think it fell through the cracks."

No one was more surprised by Tuesday's nominations than Eric Beckman, who runs the two-employee enterprise GKIDS with Dave Jesteadt. The company acquired both "A Cat in Paris" and "Chico & Rita" around their film festival premieres.

"Chico & Rita," an adult-oriented romance set in the world of Cuban music, is set to open in New York Feb. 10 and then expand nationally; "A Cat in Paris," about a house kitty leading a double life as a burglar, is slated for release in mid-2012, but release plans are "fluid" given the awards news, Beckman said.

"We were hopeful but it always felt like a long shot," said Beckman. "We tried to get the word out to people we think are on the animation committee. We don't really know who those people are."

Jesteadt learned of the company's two nominations while watching TV at the gym, Beckman said. "Dave ran right off the treadmill," he said.

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