Pete Hammond

It may only be August but already there is some subtle jockeying going on around the Oscar race for Best Animated Feature.

Not taking anything for granted after their Cars 2 failed to make the final cut of five nominees last year, Pixar pulled out all the stops this weekend with a sensational concert event at the Hollywood Bowl, a three-night engagement that may also inadvertently help Disney/Pixar’s orchestrated (in this case, literally) attempt to keep their big 2012 toon entry Brave front-of-mind  in the awards hunt. With the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra led by conductor Thomas Wilkins, Pixar In Concert (which will also be playing in other venues around the country)  featured several parts of scores from past Pixar Oscar winners and nominees like the  Toy Story trilogy, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, A Bug’s Life, WALL-E, Up, The Incredibles, Cars 1 & 2, Monsters Inc and in the prized penultimate spot in the program, a beautiful suite from Patrick Doyle’s score of Brave. Extremely well-edited segments from each of the films accompanied the musical performances and seemed to dazzle the packed Bowl crowd on Saturday, the night I caught the action. Pixar’s Oscar winning composers Randy Newman (Toy Story) and Michael Giacchino (Up) were in the audience and also at a pre-concert reception and dinner Disney/Pixar threw for a large press crowd that included several awards-watchers and bloggers, plus a big chunk of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association among others. If anything, the smartly produced concert reminded people of the remarkable legacy Pixar has built in their 13 films. The music (which also included Pixar scores by Thomas Newman) has won three Oscars, ten more nominations and ten Grammys and certainly sounded spectacular at the Bowl.

Six of their films have won the Best Animated Feature Oscar (including four in a row between 2007 and 2010) and obviously Pixar is hoping to make it seven with Brave, which with a $223 million gross to date is the top domestic animated money maker so far in 2012. With just a 77% fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes  though it tops only Cars 1 and 2  in critical opinion for the entire Pixar canon, at RT at least so it is no slam dunk.

One of those movies hoping to topple it is Focus Features’ ParaNorman, which got a splashy world premiere and party at Universal studios on Sunday afternoon. The comic horror toon comes from Laika Entertainment which scored an Animated Feature nomination for Focus with Coraline in 2010 and the studio plans a big push for another one with this clever, beautifully animated and very funny takeoff on horror films. In it Norman, a not-so-normal kid sees dead people ala The Sixth Sense. As Laika’s President, CEO and lead animator Travis Knight (son of Nike’s Phil Knight) explained the stop motion film was all hand made, just like Coraline, or as he said considering the painstaking process required,  ”the worst possible way  to make a movie”.  He introduced directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler (who also wrote the script). “I want to give a big thank you to all the popular kids in school who made my life so miserable that it was possible for me to write this. I’m making movies now and you’re not”,  laughed Butler.

Focus Features chief James Schamus told me the experience on both of these Laika films was extraordinary for him. ParaNorman took two years to make.  ”When you go there and see how they do this it is just incredible, no matter what you think of the movie. It’s an amazing experience to see”,  he said.  He seems to be eagerly awaiting awards season as Focus has several contenders including the hit Wes Anderson comedy, Moonrise Kingdom, Pride & Prejudice director Joe Wright’s reunion with Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina and Hyde Park On Hudson with Bill Murray as President Franklin Roosevelt, a performance Schamus is really high on. It will play the Fall Festival circuit before opening in December.

As for ParaNorman , it was very well-received Sunday and early reviews have been strong. Its only drawback in the Oscar race is facing two upcoming toons that are also in the horror genre making the  novelty of the setting  not quite so novel this year, but it is getting the jump on both of them by debuting August 17th. Disney opens Tim Burton’s black and white stop motion entry Frankenweenie October 5th and Sony unveils Hotel Transylvania  a week before that on September 28th making this year’s animated race a potentially pretty frightful one.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.