John Young
March 04, 2011 AT 05:00 AM EST

You couldn’t find juicier Oscar bait. One wide-release movie entered the Kodak Theatre with the year’s highest domestic gross ($415 million) and the top percentage (99) on the review-aggregating site Rotten Tomatoes, plus a tender coda that reduced grown men to tears. How could the Academy resist giving it Best Picture? Only one problem: Toy Story 3 is an animated movie.

It took 64 years before an animated pic, 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, earned a Best Picture nom — and the Academy still seems hesitant to award a cartoon the top prize. ”A movie’s medium shouldn’t dictate what makes it a Best Picture,” says Disney/Pixar honcho John Lasseter, ”and you don’t find a movie that touched people as deeply [as Toy Story 3] every year.” Adds Bonnie Arnold, producer of another Animated Feature nominee, How to Train Your Dragon, ”These films aren’t made by HAL the computer. All the functions of filmmaking take place in animation, too.”

Toy Story 3 didn’t go home empty-handed — it won Oscars for Original Song and Animated Feature — and that could be part of the problem. The Best Animated Feature category, established in 2002, may make voters reluctant to reward a film like Toy Story 3 (or 2009’s Up) twice. ”If you want to be judged as one of the year’s best movies, then you’ve got to raise the stakes,” says one longtime Oscar strategist, ”and having the [animated] category doesn’t do that.”

But as films like Avatar and Alice in Wonderland continue to blur the line between live action and animation, more artists are working in both formats. Directors such as Gore Verbinski (Rango) and Steven Spielberg (this December’s The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn) are helming ‘toons, while Pixar vets Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton are working on their live-action debuts. ”There’s a lot of cross-pollination” now between the two types of filmmaking, says How to Train Your Dragon codirector Dean DeBlois, ”and that’s helping to open people’s eyes.”

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