The studio behind the animated fantasies "Bambi," "Dumbo" and '"The Lion King" has a new kind of hero tale on the way — a Marvel Comics one. Walt Disney Animation Studios on Thursday announced plans to release "Big Hero 6," an action-comedy inspired by a little-known Japan-set Marvel series about a team of state-sanctioned superheroes.
"Big Hero 6" will be the first partnership between two pedigreed entertainment companies — Mickey Mouse's 90-year-old animation studio and Spider-Man's 74-year-old publisher — since the Walt Disney Co. acquired Marvel in 2009. Directed by Don Hall ("Winnie the Pooh") and due in theaters on Nov. 7, 2014, the movie will center on a boy and his beloved robot companion who join a team of crime fighters in a mythical mashup city called San Fransokyo.
The CG-animated comic book story — and Disney's upcoming fairy tale musical "Frozen" — are part of a continuing creative metamorphosis at the studio, one begun seven years ago with the arrival of Disney Animation President Ed Catmull and Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter."Wreck-It Ralph," ($471 million worldwide box office), 2010's modernized Rapunzel story "Tangled" ($590 million) and the black-and-white short film "Paperman," which won an Oscar this year.
With the release of "Frozen" in November, Jennifer Lee, who shares credit with Chris Buck, will be the first woman to direct a feature at the studio.
"We're trying to build back that Disney name," Lasseter said by phone. "Success breeds autonomy. The more we can be successful, the more they'll keep letting us do what we want to do."
Lasseter and Catmull arrived after Disney acquired their company, Pixar Animation Studios, and installed them as executives — a period when Disney Animation was suffering from an identity crisis. The earnest, hand-drawn fairy tales that had endeared Disney films to generations of audiences had fallen out of favor, and executives' attempts to craft a new Disney fell flat with a string of titles including the 2000 comedy "The Emperor's New Groove," the 2001 science-fiction adventure "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" (2001) and the 2004 western "Home on the Range." Other studios, most prominently Pixar and DreamWorks Animation, were filling that void with more modern takes on family entertainment such as the "Toy Story" and "Shrek" films.
"We had a clear goal to revitalize the studio," Catmull said. "We believed very strongly that they actually had the talent here and all that was missing was the concept of how to use the talent."
The new team instituted management practices that had worked at their pioneering Emeryville, Calif, start-up. They launched a "story trust" of directors who consult on one anothers' projects, rebooted a defunct short film program to spur innovation and eliminated layers of executives a filmmaker needed to hurdle to get to the studio chief.
Perhaps most significantly, they told artists and animators accustomed to a studio-wide culture of avoiding risk that failure was an inevitable part of trying something new.
"Pixar seemed so out of the ordinary that I was a little skeptical that it could be re-created," said "Wreck-It Ralph" director Rich Moore, a "Simpsons" alumnus whom Lasseter and Andrew Millstein, the animation studio's general manager, wooed to Disney in 2008. When Moore accepted an invitation to visit the company's hat-shaped animation building in Burbank, he was surprised by the start-up-like environment. "It felt scrappy.... My brain almost couldn't compute — how can a studio as big and old as Disney have this feeling of freshness and tenacity?"
After the Marvel acquisition, Disney Chairman and Chief Executive Robert A. Iger was encouraging the different divisions of the company to think of ways to make use of Marvel's properties. The cable network Disney XD, for instance, launched a block of shows featuring Spider-Man and the Avengers. Hall, a comic book aficionado, began to dig through Marvel's library, looking for ideas.
"I was looking for something on the obscure side, which would give us more license to make it our own," Hall said.
Hall looked at several properties and ultimately pitched three before Lasseter settled on "Big Hero 6." In the series, created by Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau in 1998, Hall found a story with Disney-friendly elements — a child hero, humor — and a distinctive tone that played well with the animation studio's many Japanophiles, including Lasseter.
"The storytelling aspects are very frenetic, very visceral," Joe Quesada, Marvel's chief creative officer, said of the comic. "It takes tropes of Japanese culture, manga, anime. There are giant dinosaurs that invade a city, big robots, youth fashion, cutesy stuff in the vein of Hello Kitty."
In an earlier era at Disney, ideas for new films came primarily from executives. As with "Big Hero 6," "Frozen" came from a director's pitch; Buck, who directed "Tarzan" at Disney in 1999, first proposed the notion of adapting the Hans Christian Andersen tale "The Snow Queen" to Lasseter in 2008.
"One of the things that was very important to me was to bring back the sincere fairy tale," Lasseter said. "I didn't understand why the previous leaders felt like the modern audience wasn't interested in the sincere fairy tale anymore."