Walt Disney would be thrilled.

As fans celebrate the 100th anniversary of the animator's birth, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has officially announced a new category: Best Animated Feature.

"It's been an award people have been plugging for four or five years," said John M. Pavlik, director of communications for the Academy.

The Academy on Wednesday announced nine films eligible for nomination: Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Marco Polo: Return to Xanadu, Monsters, Inc., The Prince of Light, Shrek, The Trumpet of the Swan, Waking Life, Osmosis Jones and the yet-to-be-released feature Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.

The list will be narrowed down to three films and announced with the rest of the Oscar nominations on Feb. 12, 2002.

Disney had a virtual lock on the animation market for decades, since Mickey Mouse first entertained moviegoers with jumpy, black-and-white short films. But developing technology has greatly expanded the options for today's animation buffs, and runaway successes like Shrek and Monster's Inc. have earned the genre more respect in Hollywood.

Animated films were once relegated to the ghetto of scientific and technical Oscars — or were honored with original score awards, which go to the pop stars that write tunes for the movies.

Now animators hope the Oscar nod will finally lend their craft the legitimacy they've been missing.

"I think it's the greatest. It's wonderful the Academy would give animation its due," said Industrial Light and Magic animation director Tom Bertino. "It's something whose time has come, and it's long overdue."

Although most of this year's films are for child audiences, some speculate the Oscar will help animation break out of the children's movie box.

"The stigma of animation as a kiddie medium is something I, and everyone I know, tries to shake off," said Bertino, who has been in the business for over 20 years. "Cartoons were always meant for all ages."

Bertino blames television for relegating animation to Saturday morning cartoons. But TV can also take credit for helping break that stereotype in recent years, with huge hits like The Simpsons and South Park, all of which feature sharp, adult humor.

"The sweet spot in the business has been in the family and extended family area," said Shrek producer John H. Williams. "But I think it will go well beyond that when the storytelling and the market proves itself."

Animated movies targeted at older audiences have fallen flat this year in comparison to their counterparts for kids. Both Final Fantasy, which was panned by critics, and Richard Linklater's indie film Waking Life, were dwarfed by the creatures of Monster's Inc. and Shrek.

But industry insiders are still hopeful the Oscar will provide an incentive for even more sophisticated scripts and films.

"I'm very confident that it won't just be family entertainment in a few years," said Williams. "Costs are going down in [the] computer animation area and there will be more kinds of stories. I think the potential of CGI animation is so vast and so uniquely capable of creating a big world of imagery. It's capable of creating [imagery] that's very difficult to do in live action."

But animators insist the tools are secondary to the artistry, and Williams thinks the world's most well-known animator would approve of the advances.

"[Walt Disney] was always looking to push the envelope of new technology and looks, and coming up with new inventions of style and approach. I think he'd be totally embracing it."