×

Film Review: ‘Stand by Me Doraemon’

Already a huge hit in Japan, Doraemon's 3D CG debut is ready to conquer America, thanks to a dub featuring the same voice cast as the popular anime series.

With:
Voices: Johnny Yong Bosch, Mona Marshall, Cassandra Morris, Brian Beacock, Kaiji Tang, Max Mittelman, Spike Spencer, Mari Devon. (English dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3331846/

What’s blue and white and read all over? That would be Doraemon, a time-traveling robot cat from the 22nd century who ranks as the all-time most popular comicbook (or manga) character among Japanese kids. Instantly recognizable with his bubble head and huge half-moon smile, Doraemon is bigger than Big Bird in Japan, where a preschool-targeted computer-animated feature, “Stand by Me Doraemon,” has been a massive hit among fans, reverently rehashing the character’s origin story and most popular adventures. Attractive to behold, yet bland as a stack of red-bean pancakes, the pic has earned $78 million since its release on Aug. 8 — impressive, yet still just half the domestic haul of most Miyazaki toons.

First unveiled at the Tokyo Film Festival, the English-language version could do surprise biz (especially on homevideo) in the States, where Disney XD helped popularize Doraemon by airing the 2005 anime series this past summer. The plot of the feature combines details from several different episodes, while the new dub — overseen by Bang Zoom! Entertainment — features the same (mostly grating) voice actors and Anglo-friendly tweaks developed for the show, including Westernized names for the characters and many of the gadgets the grinning cyber-cat brings with him from the future.

That means American kids who’ve been watching “Doraemon” on TV will have no trouble adapting to the movie, which marks another heavyweight collaboration between vfx gurus Takashi Yamazaki and Ryuichi Yagi (pioneers of computer animation in Japan, having previously co-directed 2011’s “Friends: Naki of Monster Island”). Here, the duo upgrade the series’ hand-drawn anime style — all clean lines and bright colors — to a robust CG aesthetic that falls somewhere between Pixar, with its warm, diffuse lighting and gummy skin textures, and “Jimmy Neutron,” whose big-eyed, bobble-headed characters look as though they’ve been pumped full of air. In Japan, the pic was released in stereoscopic 3D, and though the Tokyo fest screened it “flat,” that extra dimension could help break a U.S. theatrical release out of the arthouse circuit to which most foreign toons are confined.

So, just what is Doraemon? The big blue cat (performed by Mona Marshall) is basically the best friend a clumsy, lazy and all-around hopeless kid like Noby (Johnny Yong Bosch) could ask for. Popping up through Noby’s desk drawer one random afternoon, Doraemon announces that he’s been sent back in time by Noby’s great-great-grandson (Max Mittelman) to spare him the bad marriage and even worse future that awaits if someone doesn’t take drastic measures.

In the show, that proves to be an ongoing challenge, since the supremely uncoordinated kid is constantly getting into trouble. For the sake of the film, however, all can potentially be solved by addressing the franchise’s million-yen question: namely, whether Noby will end up with Sue (Cassandra Morris), the cute oval-eyed girl who’s always hanging around. Getting the answer won’t mean much to American auds, but for viewers back home, it’s effectively the same thing as hoping the upcoming “Peanuts” pic finally reveals whether Charlie Brown and Lucy get hitched.

Ideally, Doraemon’s task would be to give Noby the confidence he needs to improve at school, stand up to bullies and woo Sue when the time comes. But Noby is astonishingly inept at even the simplest tasks — like the time he studies extra-hard for a math quiz, only to discover that the teacher has scheduled a spelling test. Luckily, Doraemon comes equipped with a bottomless pouch full of cool inventions, including the Hopter (a propeller beanie that allows the wearer to fly around town), Time Kerchief (which rewinds the clock a few seconds to undo mistakes) and self-explanatory Invisible Cloak.

With toys like these, who can blame Noby for wanting to take a shortcut? And yet, while Doraemon seems to have the perfect device for every situation, that doesn’t stop Noby from goofing up how each of them is supposed to work, sparking a seemingly endless succession of “be careful what you wish for” lessons. After a gadget meant to make Sue fall in love with him backfires, Noby must use the same fourth-dimensional portal through which Doraemon traveled to leap forward and salvage his wedding day — scenes that borrow heavily from a 1999 short film, “Doraemon: Nobita’s the Night Before a Wedding.”

Plot-wise, the new feature plays things pretty close to canon, tweaking story details only slightly, but arranging them such that the momentum runs dangerously low about midway through. Sue has been rendered slightly cuter than her hand-drawn counterpart, with bigger eyes and a more comely chin, while Noby and Doraemon look plenty adorable with their tiny black irises, which reconfigure into all sorts of different shapes. At first glance, the quick-to-blush faces don’t look as though they are capable of much in the way of nuance, and yet the animators manage to convey some remarkably subtle expressions, particularly in the pic’s more emotional moments.

Japanese auds love a good cry (which explains why the movie poster features a closeup of Doraemon with tears in his eyes), and the film exploits Doraemon’s reluctant farewell, knowing that for domestic auds at least, it represents 45 years of memories. For foreigners, it might seem odd how often and how easily Noby cries. The poor kid really ought to pull it together: He’s constantly embarrassing himself, sobs at nearly every setback, can hardly manage to keep his pants up and overreacts so much that he makes hyperventilating action star Shia LaBeouf look calm by comparison. But then, that’s why he’s deserving of Doraemon’s help in the first place.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Stand by Me Doraemon'

Reviewed at Tokyo Film Festival (Special Program), Oct. 28, 2014. Running time: 95 MIN.

Production: (Animated – Japan) A Toho Co. (in Japan) release of a Shin-Ei Animation, Fujiko Prods., Shogakukan, TV Asahi, ADK, Shogakukan-Shueisha Productions, Toho Co., Dentsu, Shirogumi, Robot Communications, Asahi Broadcasting Corporation, Nagoya Broadcasting Network, Abe Shuji, Hokkaido Television Broadcasting Co., Kyushu Asahi Broadcasting Co., Hiroshima Home Televisios production. (International sales: Toho Co., Tokyo.) Produced by Keiichiro Moriya, Shunsuke Ohkura, Maiko Okada, Kiyoko Shibuya. Executive producers, Shuji Abe, Yoshiaki Ito, Michihiko Umezawa.

Crew: Directed by Ryuichi Yagi, Takashi Yamazaki. Screenplay, Yamazaki, based on “Doraemon” manga by Fujiko F. Fujio. Camera (color, 3D); music, Naoki Sato; production designer, Makoto Hanafusa; sound, Keiichi Momose; sound design, ArtisTree Media; visual effects supervisor, Takeyuki Suzuki; animation and visual effects, Shirogumi.

With: Voices: Johnny Yong Bosch, Mona Marshall, Cassandra Morris, Brian Beacock, Kaiji Tang, Max Mittelman, Spike Spencer, Mari Devon. (English dialogue)

More Film

  • Film Republic Adds Further Sales for

    Film Republic Inks Further Deals for 'God of the Piano' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Sales agent Film Republic has closed further territory sales on “God of the Piano.” Film Movement previously picked up North American rights to the film, as reported exclusively by Variety. Mont Blanc Cinema has taken the rights for Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay. Limelight Distribution is looking after the Australian and New Zealand releases, Hualu [...]

  • ‘Bears Famous Invasion’s Lorenzo Mattotti Brings

    Lorenzo Mattotti on MIA Title ‘Bears Famous Invasion of Sicily’

    Illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti is no stranger to film festivals. The artist – a long-time New Yorker cover artist and onetime Lou Reed and Michelangelo Antonioni collaborator – has designed posters for past editions of Venice and Cannes, and has contributed to films that played in Toronto and Rome. This year, however, he experienced the festival [...]

  • Dreamworks Abominable

    'Abominable' Release in Malaysia to be Abandoned

    Plans to release the increasingly controversial Chinese-U.S. co-produced animation film “Abominable” in Malaysia have been dropped, after the distributor said that it would not be cut. The film includes a scene which depicts a map showing the South China Sea and the so called ‘nine dash line’ which China uses claim to most of the [...]

  • Hui He

    RAI Com Takes World Sales on Italy/China Doc About Star Soprano Hui He (EXCLUSIVE)

    Italy’s RAI Com has taken world sales on high-profile documentary “Hui He, the Soprano From the Silk Road,” which is about the personal and artistic journey of one of the world’s leading sopranos and also marks a milestone Italian-Chinese co-production. Hui He was born and trained as a singer in the Chinese city of Xi’an, [...]

  • Bruce Springsteen arrives for the New

    Bruce Springsteen Returns to NJ Hometown for Surprise 'Western Stars' Introduction

    Bruce Springsteen returned to his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey to offer a surprise introduction to the first public multiplex viewing of his concert/documentary film, “Western Stars.” Dressed simply in a brown jacket, Springsteen took a moment to say a few words at the AMC Freehold 14 movie theater on Saturday night. “We knew we [...]

  • Backstage in Puglia del film SPACCAPIETRE:

    'Gomorrah' Star Salvatore Esposito Set For De Serio Twins' 'The Stonebreaker'

    Salvatore Esposito, the Italian star who plays young mob boss Genny Savastano in Italy’s hit TV series “Gomorrah,” will soon be hitting the big screen toplining upcoming drama “The Stonebreaker” by twin directorial duo Gianluca and Massimiliano De Serio, who are known internationally for “Seven Acts of Mercy.” The De Serio twins are now in post on “Stonebreaker” [...]

  • Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s

    Box Office: 'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil' Tops 'Joker,' 'Zombieland'

    “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” is on track to give Disney another first place finish after scoring $12.5 million in Friday’s domestic ticket sales. If estimates hold, the Angelina Jolie-led film should finish the weekend with about $38 million — well below earlier forecasts but enough to top holdover “Joker” and fellow newcomer “Zombieland: Double Tap.” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content