Pixar (Merida)

With the fall/holiday season just around the corner, the Oscar animation race is even more wide open than last season, when "Rango" jumped out early and never looked back, grabbing the Academy Award. In fact, most of the eventual nominees may not have been released, which makes it hard to pin down how strong a year it will be. But that also underscores the current state of the industry: as the technical craft improves and commercial pressures increase, animators and distributors have to fight against complacency.

The big question at the moment is: How many nominees will there be? I'm figuring there will be the requisite 16 releases to nominate five, including the four titles Gkids will qualify before the end of the year. My preliminary thinking is that "Brave," "Frankenweenie," and "Rise of the Guardians" will get nominated, with "The Lorax," "Hotel Transylvania, "ParaNorman," "Wreck-It Ralph," "From Up on Poppy Hill," and "Zarafa" fighting it out as the most likely contenders for the remaining two spots.

Here's a recap of 2012 thus far:

Pixar 's "Brave" offered its first female protagonist, a powerful mother/daughter conflict, and the studio's most exquisite setting in medieval Scotland. Despite its detractors, "Brave" is much better than "Cars 2" and is currently the top grossing animated movie of the year (outpacing "Wall-E" with $230.1 million).

"The Lorax" tackled the most personal of Dr. Seuss stories with an eye on environmental relevance, striking visuals, and entertainment value. Producer Chris Meledandri might not have pulled off a "Despicable Me," but he clearly bested "Horton Hears a Who!"

"Ice Age: Continental Drift" proved to be another global box office hit for Fox/Blue Sky while upping the action and danger for the popular trio of misfits: Manny (Ray Romano), Diego (Denis Leary), and Sid (John Leguizamo). The venerable franchise underscored that families -- no matter how unorthodox -- need to stick together, no matter their conflicts, which is the essential ingredient that makes it resonate worldwide.

"Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" turned out to be a franchise best for DreamWorks. Indeed, the zany antics of Alex (Ben Stiller), Marty (Chris Rock), Melman (David Schwimmer), and Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) were much more surreal set against such dazzling eye candy in Monte Carlo and Rome. And the unflappable French baddie cop (voiced supremely by Frances McDormand) made the best human foil yet for the animals.

"The Pirates! Band of Misfits" certainly raised the bar significantly for Aardman's stop-motion craft. The puppets were slicker, the sets more extensive, the overall look more vibrant, and the VFX more authentic. This was a far cry from the Oscar-winning "Wallace and Gromit." If only the swashbuckling Bristol wit scored more forcefully with American audiences.