NEW YORK " Among the tales of depravity and violence that dominate this year's Academy Awards race sits the bright and shining "Ratatouille." A rat never seemed so sanitized.
The Pixar film landed five Oscar nominations and was ranked by many critics as one of the year's best, yet was never a serious contender for best picture. Instead, it was relegated to the relatively new category of best animated feature, which the academy began dolling out in 2002.
Directed by Brad Bird, "Ratatouille" has garnered an aggregate score of 96 on Metacritic.com, ranking it above "Pulp Fiction," let alone this year's best picture candidates: "No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood," "Juno," "Atonement" and "Michael Clayton."
And its other nominations across three different disciplines " best original screenplay, best score, best sound mixing and best sound editing " suggests the kind of broad consensus that often results in bigger awards like best director or best picture.
Its five nominations rank as the most ever for a computer animated film, and rate second among all animated films, only surpassed by the six received by Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." That picture, done in the traditional Disney style in 1991, stands as the only animated film to ever be nominated for best picture.
If not for the best animated feature category, it's safe to say "Ratatouille" would have been strongly considered for best picture. Brad Lewis, the film's producer, is quick to point out that he has no sour grapes with the academy " and that he's ecstatic about the five widespread nominations.
Still, he has to wonder.
"Ultimately, it makes it perhaps too convenient for people to look at an animated film from an isolated perspective," said Lewis. "Somebody can say, 'You know what? We have a place for that, so we don't necessarily have to give it broader consideration."'
Tom O'Neil, a columnist specializing in awards coverage for the Los Angeles Times' "The Envelope" Web site, has pondered whether "Ratatouille" " which he calls the best reviewed movie of the year " is the equivalent of "Beauty and the Beast," only it had to deal with the specialized category.
"Is this a case where it's penalized and ghettoized because there's a separate category for animated fare?" O'Neill said. "It seems to have the same respect in the industry and among film critics as 'Beauty and the Best."'
"Ratatouille," made by Walt Disney Company and its Pixar Animations Studios, is also not a conventional animated movie. Its framing is largely based on the techniques of classic filmmaking, and the story of a rat who dreams to be a chef has been called a Joycean "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Rat."
"I don't think people when they walk out of 'Ratatouille' the first thing that they're thinking about is 'I went and saw an animated film today,"' said Lewis. "It's partly because we're telling more sophisticated stories and I think it's because we have a more sophisticated filmmaking tool."
"Ratatouille" also has the support of that great international critical body: the French. The film, which is set in Paris and imbued with French culture, was No. 1 at France's box office for six weeks in a row " surpassing a record set by "Titanic." After making $206 million at the domestic box office, "Ratatouille" made $410 million internationally.
Those totals are much greater than any of the best picture nominees, which combined haven't grossed as much domestically as "Ratatouille."
New York Times film critic A.O. Scott listed "Ratatouille" as one of the five films that deserved to be nominated for best picture. He earlier called it "a nearly flawless piece of popular art, as well as one of the most persuasive portraits of an artist ever committed to film."
That judgment is notable in part because it doesn't make use of the word "animated."
Lewis, who's working on directing a film for Pixar, cited fellow nominee "Persepolis" " an animated French language film about a girl coming of age during the Islamic Revolution " as proof of the breadth to animation today. (The third Oscar nominee is the more standard family fare of "Surf's Up.")
"The type of filmmaking that's taking place in the animation category is very broad," said Lewis. "And it's perhaps traveling beyond what people felt the parentheses of the industry were before."
And considering the increasing role that digital animation and computer-generated imagery play in the making of nearly all movies today, it's becoming difficult to firmly say what is and isn't animated. Just as "Ratatouille" reflects live-action filmmaking, live-action films like "King Kong" and "Transformers" often reflect animated works.
"It's folly to have a separate animated category because it hurts the chances of a movie like 'Ratatouille' for being in the best picture race," said O'Neil. "But considering the academy history and the fact that only once did they have the guts to do it, at least the little rat is getting the chance to be a big cheese in one category."