Through a time portal from the Twenty-Second century, young Soby (voiced by Sachi Matsumoto) observes his great-great grandfather: hapless, under-achieving fourth grader Nobita Nobi (Megumi Ohara). Hoping to help his ancestor avoid a future of failure and disaster, not to mention a legacy of bad debt lumped on their future family, Soby bestows Nobi with Doraemon (Wasabi Mizuta), his amazing blue robot cat. Armed with all kinds of astonishing gizmos and gadgets hidden inside a handy interdimensional pouch, Doraemon produces hi-tech solutions to Nobi's everyday problems to help him get the best of big bully Jaiyan (Subaru Kimura) and sneaky Suneo (Tomokazu Seki) and impress Shizuka (Yumi Kakazu) the cute girl-next-door. Through many mad misadventures it slowly dawns on Nobi that all the gadgets in Doraemon's pouch will not change the future unless he starts to believe in himself.
Released in Japan in time to mark the eightieth anniversary of Fujiko-Fujio, joint pseudonym of manga artists Hiroshi Fujimoto and Abiko Motoo, the creative team behind the enduringly popular Doraemon franchise, Stand By Me Doraemon marks the title character's first outing in computer animated 3D. Pretty much every Doraemon anime released since 1979 topped the box office charts in Japan but to say this new film was successful would be an understatement. It held the number one spot for five consecutive weeks, broke domestic box-office records (coming second only to Disney's all-conquering Frozen (2013)) and won Best Animated Film at the Japanese Academy Awards. In Hong Kong, fuelled by an outpouring of nostalgia after the death of Doraemon's long-time Chinese voice actor Lam Pou-chen, the new release broke the record previously held by Ring (1998) as the highest-grossing Japanese import. And in China Stand By Me Doraemon was even credited with easing relations between the two traditionally hostile nations. That is a wide range of achievements for a cartoon about a kid and his robot cat.
Co-directing with Ryuichi Yagi is the versatile Takashi Yamazaki, Japan's current go-to guy for effects-laden blockbusters (e.g. Space Battleship Yamato (2010), Parasyte The Movie (2014)) but also, uniquely for a former visual effects man, a dab hand at sweet, character-driven nostalgic comedy-dramas (notably his multi-award-winning Always: Sunset on Third Street (2005)). Which makes him a perfect fit for this beloved children's classic. Here Yamazaki, who also scripted, retells Doraemon and Nobita's origin story for a young generation and gently updates these cherished characters without sacrificing their original charm. In fact the one minor continuity flaw with the redrafted origin is that it obscures the reason why Doraemon has no ears (mice chewed them off while he was in storage). As with Blue Sky's recent computer-animated update of Charles Schulz's timeless Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie (2015) the characters remain recognizably themselves while the story wisely retains the unique combination of the magical and mundane that made the 2D anime and original manga so special. Which is not to say the animators do not relish the opportunities of the computer-animated medium. Doraemon's brain-bending gadgets (the Instant Wardrobe Camera, Memory Bread, Grabber Glove, Invisible Cape and old favourites the Helicopter Hat and Anywhere Door among others) open the door to some standout sci-fi set-pieces. The graphics are easily a match for any recent DreamWorks or Blue Sky film, imbuing the characters with a charmingly tactile, squishy-stretchy quality. Doraemon and Nobita have never seemed more alive.
Yet the real strength of Stand By Me Doraemon is that the filmmakers successfully imbue an episodic plot that recreates popular stories from the long-running saga (in fact the individual stories: "All the Way from the Country of the Future", "Imprinting Egg", "Goodbye, Shizuka-Chan", "Romance in Snowy Mountain", "Nobita's the Night Before the Wedding" and "Goodbye, Doraemon..." have all been animated before) with fresh layers of heartwarming emotion and pathos. Here the robot cat is initially reluctant to trade the smart, respectable Soby for a feckless loser like Nobita. Gradually he develops a moving paternal love for the klutzy kid that takes an emotional turn in the third act reminiscent of Snoopy Come Home (1972). Yamazaki also amps up the sweet adolescent romance as Nobi goes to desperate lengths to try to win Shizuka-Chan away from his oh-so-perfect-in-every-way polar opposite Ace (Shihoko Hagino). In a surprise twist the action jumps into the future where Nobita endeavours to save an older Shizuka from a snowstorm only for things to go drastically awry. Which leads to a neat SF idea wherein the child hero's 'future memory' motivates his adult self (Satoshi Tsumabuki) to come to their rescue.
The moral at the heart of the story is deeply Japanese: there are no short cuts in life, so kids owe it to themselves to knuckle-down and study hard. However Yamazaki's script tweaks the formula in a new poignant direction to show how empathy and perseverance count as much as talent or cleverness. But of course it is the madcap adventures, zany gags and insane gadgets that make this moral pill easy to swallow for generations of Japanese children.