Disney animation—the part that doesn't involve Pixar—isn't exactly what it used to be, but it might be getting there with a little help from corporate wizardry and a whole lot of heart. Today Walt Disney Animation Studios announced Big Hero 6, which is not the fifth in a series but is that arm of the company's first collaboration with Marvel.
Now, of course, Disney owns Pixar, and Walt Disney Animation Studios is run by John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, who also run Pixar. But Walt Disney Animation Studios is not nearly the same as Pixar, even though Lasseter and Catmull are hoping to buoy it. "We're trying to build back that Disney name," Lasseter told Los Angeles Times reporter Rebecca Keegan. He added: "Success breeds autonomy. The more we can be successful, the more they'll keep letting us do what we want to do."
It's not that Disney is down in the dumps when it comes to animation; if anything, it's on the rise: Tangled started to help the studio emerge out of its slump in 2010, Wreck It-Ralph last year was a financial win, and "Paperman" won an Oscar. Big Hero 6 and the upcoming musical Frozen are part of what the L.A. Times's Keegan calls a "a continuing creative metamorphosis at the studio." But in the first decade of the 2000s Disney's animation had lost a lot of the critical and financial clout from its 1990s heyday. The Lion King was the highest grossing animated movie of all time, until Finding Nemo took that title away.
The animation studio's current metamorphosis includes embracing Disney's acquisition of Marvel Entertainment. But, interestingly enough, despite coming from Marvel, a big moneymaker for Disney in other ways, the CG-animated Big Hero 6 seems more like a passion project. The pitch came from director Don Hall, who dug through Marvel's archives and found this obscure tale of a boy and his robot who join a team of superheroes set in San Fransokyo. So in a weird turn of events, the first animated Marvel film from Disney seems to be not just an obvious cash grab but also—and tellingly—part of a plan to continue evolving the artistry of a legendary studio. Though embracing Marvel is completely new for Disney animation, there's also something nostalgic about the way Big Hero is being embraced. There's something "very Disney" about the story, Hall told the Times. It's a "kid and a robot story with a strong brother element."
The first look, below, doesn't give us much of a sense of what Big Hero 6 is going to be, exactly, other than to show how visually beautiful it will be. Presumably Disney animation's latest comeback attempt will try to have the same "this is for everyone" stamp that makes Pixar films, and even Wreck-It Ralph, so very successful. Big Hero 6 is due out November 7, 2014.