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The 2014 best animated feature Oscar race might well come down to DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Disney’s Big Hero 6. Dragon was one of this summer’s biggest critical and commercial hits. Hero won’t be released until Nov. 7, the first weekend after Halloween. But Disney-Pixar chief John Lasseter, the film’s producer Roy Conli and co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams teased the movie Wednesday by revealing 25 minutes of footage at a gathering of Oscar bloggers at the Disney Animation building in Burbank, a clear indication that Disney intends to give the film a major awards push.
Lasseter, who took over the reins at Disney Animation nine years ago and has presided over its magnificent revival — highlighted by last year’s Frozen, which won the Oscar and became the highest-grossing animated film in history — said during his brief remarks that “this studio is on fire.” He also asserted that his mission at Disney has always been twofold: “creating new classic Disney films” while simultaneously “looking for other types of movies, too.” While Frozen was in the tradition of Disney fairy-tale classics, Hero represents the other sort: it is an action-adventure-comedy about a young boy who bonds with a robot.
Hero is the first film made on Disney’s new high-powered, patented rendering system, which produces images of a greater photo-realistic quality than has been possible before. It is also the first time since Disney’s $4.24 billion purchase of Marvel in 2009 that Disney animators have dipped into Marvel’s comic-book library, where they discovered the new movie’s eponymous six superheroes — or “supernerds,” as Lasseter called them — which were first featured in Japanese comic books of the same name. While Lasseter emphasized that the film was “made 100 percent here in the Walt Disney Animation Studio,” he also noted that Disney “worked very closely” with Marvel and dismissed any notion of a rift between the two companies. “We have a fantastic relationship with them,” he said.
Conli, who is best known for producing Tangled, emphasized that the new film is still a work in progress and won’t be locked and loaded for another six weeks. “The entire studio is up there finishing this,” he said, gesturing to the floors above the screening room. Even in its incomplete form, Wednesday’s audience generally agreed that the footage shown — the product of three and a half years’ worth of work, about a year less than most animated features take — was very impressive.
While asking the journalists present not to divulge any specifics about the film’s plot, Lasseter summed up the movie as “a simple story” with real “emotional heart.” Hall said of adapting the comic-book series, “We kept the title and we kept the character names, but we basically remade the story.” (I’ll just say that one should prepare for a lot of “How to Train Your Robot” references, since Big Hero 6 and How to Train Your Dragon both deal with humans bonding with nonhumans in moving ways.) While Frozen may have held a slightly greater appeal for girls than guys, Big Hero 6 probably leans the other way, as did the studio’s 2012 Oscar nominee Wreck-It Ralph — but crossover interest is still likely.
Is Big Hero 6 an awards film? It’s obviously necessary to see the final film to know for sure, but it’s hard to imagine that it won’t be, based on the quality of what was shown Wednesday and the fact that virtually every major Disney and Pixar release since the creation of the feature animation Oscar category in 2001 has been. Could it potentially follow in the footsteps of Disney’s 1991 film Beauty and the Beast, which, before an animation category existed, became the first animated film to be nominated for the best picture Oscar, followed in subsequent years by Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010)? Could it even win? “My dream is that an animated film will be a best picture, as well,” Lasseter said with a smile.
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