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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - With the surprise snub of a front-runner and five nominees featuring dragons, trolls, robots and mythical creatures, the Oscar for best animated film may deliver the most exciting race this year.
Disney Animation's "Big Hero 6," DreamWorks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon 2," Laika Studios' "The Boxtrolls," Studio Ghibli's "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" and Cartoon Saloon's "Song of the Sea" will compete for the Academy Award for animated feature.
But the exclusion of Time Warner Inc-owned Warner Bros' "The Lego Movie," last year's top-grossing animated film with more than $257 million at the U.S. box office, stunned even those in the industry.
"It was a big shock to me. I saw the movie and loved it," said Dean DeBlois, co-director of "Dragon 2," about a Viking named Hiccup and his dragon, Toothless.
With no clear favorite, the animation race is likely between big-budget spectaculars such as "Big Hero 6" and "Dragon 2," and niche artistry of films such as "The Boxtrolls."
"Big Hero 6," an ambitious work from an animation studio often overshadowed by its more flashy Disney sibling Pixar, fused Japanese influences into a Marvel-inspired tale of boy genius Hiro who befriends a robot and forms a superhero ensemble.
"We're reaching a broad audience without compromising," said co-director Chris Williams. "We're making films that audiences want to come see, but they're still products of passion."
The animated film Oscar is a relatively new category, inaugurated in 2001 and dominated by Pixar, which has won seven Academy Awards in the category for films including "Finding Nemo" and "Up."
With no Pixar release this year and "Lego Movie" shunned, the nominees reflect stories that lie on the fringes of animation, rather than targeting a mainstream audience.
Japan's Studio Ghibli has earned Oscar nods for masterpieces such as Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away," which won in 2002, and is renowned for delivering mystical tales such as "Princess Kaguya," about a moon princess who comes to Earth, by the studio's co-founder Isao Takahata.
Cartoon Saloon's Tomm Moore, previously nominated for 2009's "The Secret of Kells," earned a second Oscar nod for "Song of the Sea" about the Celtic selkie, a mythical creature that lives as a seal in water but as a human on land.
"The selkie story is not necessarily a happy story, it's about the risk of falling in love with magical creatures, and there's parting and sorrow," said Eric Beckman, president of GKids, the U.S. distributor of "Song of the Sea" and "Princess Kaguya."
While animated films are aimed at a young audience, "Boxtrolls" co-director Anthony Stacchi said they didn't shy away from making edgier content with grotesque little trolls and repulsive villains.
"You do kids a disservice when you hide too much from them and don't let them see stories that have a full range of darkness and emotion," he said.
Stacchi's sentiment is echoed across this year's nominees, where each film melds grown-up themes such as losing a loved one, be it Princess Kaguya's parents facing her return to the moon, Saoirse's decision to stay on land or in the sea in "Song," or Hiro losing his brother in "Big Hero 6."
"We didn't veer away from some of the bolder, more emotionally resonant elements," said DeBlois, who drew on his own experience of losing his father at a young age to write about Hiccup's loss of his father in "Dragon 2."
"We want to feel the validation and pride of making something that feels timeless and resonant, and not just something that appeals to pop culture."
Editing by Mary Milliken and Eric Walsh