LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - An oversized personal health-care robot assistant might seem out of place next to the princesses and furry animals that have won over legions of fans, young and old, in animated films.
But for every young girl belting out "Frozen" princess anthem "Let It Go," Walt Disney Co is betting there's a nerd who will root for the geeks and robot fighting evil in "Big Hero 6."
Disney's big film this year leads a field of offbeat animated movies featuring little green monsters and a Day of the Dead love triangle that could lure new audiences to animation, an increasingly vibrant segment of the movie industry, both creatively and economically.
The Marvel comics-inspired "Big Hero 6," in theaters on Nov. 7, is centered in a futuristic world of robotics and takes place in Sanfransokyo, which imagines San Francisco fused with Tokyo.
"It coincides with nerd culture being popular in pop culture," said Don Hall, who co-directed the film with Chris Williams, both self-described nerds.
Princess tales and the animal world dominated animation until the late 1990s with movies such as "The Lion King" and "The Little Mermaid."
Since then, unconventional heroes and edgier humor have emerged to push animated fare beyond kids-only consumption.
There's the swamp-dwelling ogre "Shrek" from DreamWorks Animation SKG's and the child-frightening goofball monsters from Pixar Animation's "Monster's Inc." and Steve Carell's charmingly awful villain in "Despicable Me" - all which have gone on to sequels.
"Big Hero 6" is Disney's first animated foray into the Marvel world, inspired by an obscure comic of the same name.
The protagonist is scrawny teen robotics prodigy Hiro, who, after suffering a tragic loss, befriends inflatable waddling robot Baymax, designed to be a personal health-care assistant. Hiro and his university buddies use their scientific prowess to transform themselves and Baymax into superheroes to combat a Kabuki-masked villain.
"(Animation) is attracting more and more talented people and they're creating more sophisticated stories," said Williams, adding that studios like Pixar have "really done a lot to remove any stigma that animation is just for kids and families."
'DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT'
Animated films in 2013 accounted for $1.7 billion of the $10.2 billion in ticket sales at U.S. and Canadian box offices, according to movie tracking company Rentrak. Disney's "Frozen" alone has made $1.2 billion worldwide since its November 2013 release.
With animation making more money than ever before at the global box office and technological advances allowing such films to be made faster, competition is heating up for distinctive content.
"We know that we need to make a place for ourselves in the world and in the market, and we need to do something different," said Anthony Stacchi, co-director of independent Laika studios' "The Boxtrolls," about grotesque green misunderstood creatures with caring hearts.
Made for $60 million and distributed by Focus Features in September, "The Boxtrolls" has grossed $75 million worldwide.
When making "The Book of Life" with Twenty-First Century Fox's Twentieth Century Fox, the first major studio animated film rooted in Mexican culture, filmmaker Jorge Gutierrez wasn't worried about how it would resonate with non-Hispanic audiences.
"In order to be universal, you have to be specific," he said, citing France's "Amelie" and Brazil's "City of God" movies as "being of their countries, but are so beloved over the world."
"The Book of Life," which opened with $17 million in U.S. theaters last week, follows a love story centered on Mexico's Day of the Dead festival that flits between the living and the underworld realms of the dead.
Acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro, who produced "Book of Life," said the film "breaks a lot of molds" that have been set in Hollywood's animated fare.
"The problem is that people think animation is a genre for kids," Del Toro said. "I think American animation is all much more poor by not tackling other subjects."
While the movie is targeted to all audiences, Gutierrez did make "Book of Life" to represent the Hispanic community, a growing force in the movie industry, in film.
"The Latino audience ... has exploded, and they are hungry to see themselves up on the screen," he said. "They go to the movies more than anyone ever thought."
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Alan Crosby)