Disney pens love letter to animation-loving Japan with robot film 'Big Hero 6'
Disney executives call their next film "a love letter to Japanese culture." No wonder: This nation can't get enough of animation, especially Disney's.
Walt Disney Animation Studios is practically bending backward to woo Japanese moviegoers after the stupendous success of "Frozen." The fifth-highest-grossing movie of all time made more than $250 million of its total in Japan alone, nearly a third of its overseas numbers and more than five times what it made in France, according to Box Office Mojo.
"Frozen" is third of all time in Japan, behind "Titanic" and Japanese animation classic "Spirited Away," delivering success that even Disney executives acknowledge was surprising.
Following "Frozen" into theaters in the country that is the birthplace of manga and Hello Kitty is "Big Hero 6," which stars a Japanese whiz kid as its hero, aptly named Hiro.
Disney shows its love for Japan by setting the story in a picturesque town that's a cross between Tokyo and San Francisco, San Fransokyo, complete with cable cars and futuristic trains.
"Big Hero 6" opened the Tokyo Film Festival on Thursday night — the first Disney animation film to have its global premiere in Japan. It opens at theaters around the world in November and December.
Its directors, Don Hall of "Winnie the Pooh" and Chris Williams of "Bolt," did a lot of research and tapped Japanese sources to help make San Fransokyo authentic, down to signposts, manhole covers and faces of passersby.
Williams said the world they created was inspired by Hayao Miyazaki, the animation legend who won an Oscar for "Spirited Away."
Hall said the mouth-less face of Baymax, the inflatable marshmallow-like robot, was inspired by a bell he saw at a Japanese temple.
"I saw a smile," Hall told reporters recently while in town for the Tokyo Film Festival. "I thought it would be the perfect face for Baymax."
The rubbery Baymax, designed to be a health care robot by Hiro's older brother Tadashi, becomes a companion for Hiro, and an embodiment not only of Tadashi's charming and loving persona but also of his message of peace, even after Tadashi dies in an explosion.
Despite Tadashi's intentions to devote Baymax to healing and cuddling, Hiro adds some of his own more conventional robotic-design touches, such as a powerful fist, metallic ware and sky-soaring rockets, as Hiro embarks on his mission of solving the mystery of Tadashi's death.
It's a safe bet that Japanese are enamored of all things Disney — and that they are willing to spend.
Disneyland and DisneySea parks, outside Tokyo, had 31 million visitors last year, up 14 percent from the previous year, nearly all Japanese. Each spent an average of about $100, or 10,000 yen, on admission tickets, eating out and goods purchases.
Mickey Mouse is so popular here the rodent's image is sold as traditional festival dolls, is a mascot wearing the blue uniform of the World Cup soccer team and is a familiar pattern on fashionable clothing in collaboration with design brands.
But can the new film duplicate the success of "Frozen"? It might take a super-Hiro.
"Big Hero 6" features fantastic music by Henry Jackman but not a potential smash single like "Let It Go." It also lacks fairy-tale princesses, which were a big part of the "Frozen" merchandising frenzy.
The new film is about brotherly love and a little boy's perennial fantasy, a loyal robot friend. But even in robot-innovator Japan, Disney half-heartedly showed a fluffy stuffed doll in Baymax's likeness. It wasn't even inflatable.
Roy Conli, who also produced "Frozen," was unfazed, emphasizing "Big Hero 6" was "a love letter to Japanese culture."
"We hope that Japan loves it," he said.
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