Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Not Snow White. Not Fantasia. It took over 60 years for the Academy to acknowledge the medium as a worthy candidate to fill one of its vaunted five slots. It took another 18 years and an extra five slots for such a film to breakthrough again. Now, what will it take for one to actually win it all? The answer may have just opened this past weekend.

It is way too early into the film year to be putting any long-term stock into what may even be nominated at this point. Never mind even winning. We are still a month away from Christopher Nolan's Inception, a film midway through July that is possibly only the third serious candidate for a Best Picture nomination. Shutter Islandmight be long forgotten by the time we make it to November, but chances are that Toy Story 3 will not be.
Admit it or not, but film critics help form if not entirely predetermine the Oscar race. Six of the last seven Best Picture winners have scored a 90% or higher approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

2004: Million Dollar Baby (204 positive reviews vs. 19 negative = 91%)
2006: The Departed (209-17 = 92%)
2008: Slumdog Millionaire (199-14 = 93%)
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (224-14 = 94%)
2007: No Country For Old Men (210-12 = 95%)
2009: The Hurt Locker (193-6 = 97%)

Toy Story 3 is currently at 98% with 162 positive reviews vs. a rather astounding 3 negative. The only other wide release that even comes close to this tally is Dreamworks' How To Train Your Dragon, also with only three negative reviews and sitting pretty at 98%. Sure there are acclaimed documentaries and limited releases like Fish Tankand The Ghost Writer. But you have to go all the way down to Kick-Ass to find a live action film on over 1000 screens even close to such critical support. And it is at 78%. Naturally, these numbers could consist nothing of 3-star reviews, barely passing their way into the positive. But getting so many critics to agree that a film is worth seeing rather than not is rarer than one might believe. In 2009, only six films to get a release of over 1000 screens scored 90% or better. Three of them (Up, Precious, Fantastic Mr. Fox) were nominated for Best Picture or Animated Feature. The other three were Drag Me To Hell, Star Trek and Ponyo. The Hurt Locker never made it past 535 screens.

That alone should coast it along easily enough to a nomination. The way 2010 has gone so far, are we really so confident that ten other films are going to rob Toy Story 3 of a slot? Conservatively there are maybe only 20 films in the running to begin with and that is counting Shutter Island and Winter's Bone. Many of those are sight unseen and only drawing on the slimmest of hunches. What will make Toy Story 3 stand apart from the pack and what needs to happen for it to walk away?

Lee Unkrich's film is already destined to be one of the best reviewed films of the year. Screenwriter Michael Arndt already has one Oscar in his back pocket for Little Miss Sunshine. Six of Pixar's ten features have received a screenplay nomination, including five of the last six and the original Toy Story. It would be stunning if Arndt was not already reserved one of the Adapted Screenplay slots. It is announced as the final chapter in a trilogy that has earned some of the most consistent praise for any series. The Academy waited for The Return of the King to honor Peter Jackson's achievement and had no qualms nominating The Godfather's return to cinema after 16 years, a concluding chapter that even supporters agree is not on par with the first two. Many reviews of Toy Story 3 contain the words "equal" and "best of."

We never like to factor box office into the equation, but sometimes stupid things like that get rewarded. With over $110 million in the bank after just three days, Toy Story 3 shattered Pixar's previous best opening by, give or take oh, $40 million. It has a legit shot at surpassing Finding Nemo's $339 million to become their all-time grosser. If it can stretch through the summer and somehow overtake Shrek 2 as the highest grossing animated film ever at $441 million, watch out. Oscar does love a winner. Especially if the people responsible haven't won the big prize before. Sorry, Avatar.

Since Finding Nemo, only Cars has failed to receive at least four Oscar nominations. Ratatouille and Up both received five. WALL-E had six and was considered by many including myself (some might say foolishly so) as having the best shot at snagging a Best Picture nom in the five-slot era. Critics from Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Ohio and the Online Film Critics Society named it as the Best Film of 2008. Not just animated. Overall Best Film.

Critics may need to take the lead here come December. Many groups having adopted the ghetto-ized Animated Feature category should all fancy a new rule. If an animated film wins their Best Picture prize or factors into their final nominations for the big award, the Animated Feature category should be eliminated. Include it in the first round of voting, but if a film breaks through for Best Picture, bye-bye! And if it doesn't get nominated, the consolation prize is waiting for it. By circumstance, like Up at the Oscars last year, you have already announced the winner for Best Animated Film. We didn't see Fantastic Mr. Fox or The Secret of Kells nominated for Best Picture last year.

This is all just wheel-spinning at this point. The door has been swung open a little further to allow it a 10% chance, but the odds are firmly against a victory for Toy Story 3 at this point. Nobody has seen most of its potential competitors at this point and who knows what might get a last-month birth into the race. The conversation deserves a kick-start though and it begins now.