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.