An animatronic robot of the character Wall-E is displayed at the world premiere of Disney-Pixar's film Wall-E in Los Angeles, California June 21, 2008. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

As the buzz on a best-picture nomination for WALL-E hit a fever pitch last year, one Pixar confided: This is it. This is our last chance. After this year, we're out of the awards game.

Well, perhaps not.

The Oscar buzz this year couldn't be higher for Pixar's Up, not only for best animated category but for best picture, thanks in part to a lucky-to-be-born late blessing of 10 best-picture nominations (up from the usual five).

A dual accolade would make history: The only instance of an animated movie being nominated for best film was Beauty of the Beast in 1991, long before the best animated feature category existed.

A double nomination also would create complications -- and not only for executives at Pixar and its Disney parent who might have to shell out some extra coin on a broader campaign.

Pixar and director Pete Docter might hope that the best-picture momentum will carry it to a victory in the animation category. But for some voters, it could slice the other way, prompting them to choose something else in animation because they've already put Up high on their best picture ballot. (In that sense, Up would be unlucky to be nominated twice.)

The Up conundrum isn't the only drama playing out this year. The animation race is more wide open than ever, thanks to a likely five slots, which are possible (though not mandated) if the Academy qualifies at least 16 animated releases. Some 20 films are said to have been submitted this year. That, in turn, could charge up more than a few dark horses.

There's real anticipation this year because of the possibility we're finally going to hit the magic number of 16, which would be a real bonus for many of the smaller pictures at the box office and on DVD, says Animation Magazine's Ramin Zahed. We say that every year, but this year there's a real feeling it could happen.

It's hardly a surprise the category has swelled, what with indies and studios ramping up their animation output. Every major studio besides Warner Bros. has a contender this year, including a few smaller companies not often seen in the race, like IFC, in the mix with Mary & Max.

That augurs for an awards season with more than just the usual competition between Pixar and DreamWorks Animation, Lasseter and Disney alumnus Katzenberg (juicy as that is). Sony is a real contender with Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and Focus is a contender twice over -- for Henry Selick's Coraline and for Shane Acker's 9.

The race also will offer the rare case of pitting classic Disney (as in the hand-drawn The Princess and the Frog) against the new, computer-generated Disney (Pixar's Up).

Indeed, the prize is becoming, more than ever before in its nine-year history, a referendum on format, at a time when the animation world is seeing technology and opinions proliferate (and, sometimes, create fissures).

Robert Zemeckis A Christmas Carol is likely to qualify, though its absence from a five-nomination field also could be seen as a rebuff to motion-capture technology. And 3D is likely to be a factor, though studios are taking different strategic approaches to the new technology.

Focus has opted to send out to voters the 3D version of Coraline, hoping that Selick's work is best seen that way. Pixar, however, won't send Up screeners in 3D, on the assumption that busy voters don't want to fiddle with a pair of glasses.

Japanese-style animation is making a return to the field with Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo. And if all that didn't create enough of a logjam, the animation race could be influenced by elements usually reserved for the live-action categories as voters pay more attention to Fantastic Mr. Fox because of the presence of Oscar perennials George Clooney and Meryl Streep.

The eligibility list will be announced within the next week. Then the cartoon antics will really begin.