Big Hero

Baymax walks the streets of San Fransokyo in Disney's Big Hero 6. Credit: Disney Animation.

When Big Hero 6 outperformed Interstellar at the box office on both films' opening weekend, it sent a message: Disney (NYSE:DIS) Animation isn't the pushover it used to be.

The adventures of Hiro Hamada and the pudgy robot Baymax opened to $73.7 million in U.S. theater ticket sales versus just $47.5 million for Interstellar, a widescreen epic from director Christopher Nolan that's also the widest release in IMAX (NYSE:IMAX) history.

That Big Hero 6 still managed to win its first box office matchup is a huge though not uncommon achievement. Frozen set records last year. Wreck-It-Ralph delighted audiences the year prior. For the first time in decades, Disney's in-house animators are tops in the business. How did we get to this point? And now that we're here, what does it mean for Disney investors?

A Mouse House divided, but stronger than ever
Most of us who follow Disney attribute its cinematic success to the 2009 acquisition of Marvel Entertainment. That's not entirely unfair. By my estimates, the "MCU" -- or "Marvel Cinematic Universe," as it's known -- is responsible for $1.59 billion in box office and home video profits. Margins on sales of licensed merchandise have also improved since the Marvel deal.

Pixar films have also been a catalyst, though not as much as they used to be:

Pixar Animation
Date
Est. Budget and P&A
Worldwide Gross
U.S. Home Video

Ratatouille

6/29/2007

$215,000,000

$623,722,818

$192,548,684

WALL-E

6/27/2008

$250,000,000

$521,311,860

$190,849,162

Up

5/29/2009

$245,000,000

$731,342,744

$261,087,085

Toy Story 3

6/18/2010

$270,000,000

$1,063,171,911

$247,866,166

Cars 2

6/24/2011

$275,000,000

$559,852,396

$134,563,715

Brave

6/22/2012

$255,000,000

$538,983,207

$173,655,077

Monsters University

6/21/2013

$270,000,000

$743,559,607

$130,425,955

Sources: Box Office Mojo, Boxoffice.com, and The-Numbers.com.

Last year marked a turning point when Frozen easily outperformed Monsters University at the box office to become the top grossing animated movie in history. The adventures of Anna and Elsa also cost $50 million less to produce, market, and distribute, according to data supplied by BoxOffice.com.

Now we have Big Hero 6, released in a year without a comparable Pixar film. Early data from Box Office Mojo suggests the film is on track to become Disney Animation's second-biggest winner of the last decade, trailing only Frozen:

Disney Animation
Opening Date
Opening Weekend
Through Day 6

Bolt

11/21/2008

$26,223,128

$35,945,500

Tangled

11/24/2010

$48,767,052

$70,477,467

Wreck-It-Ralph

11/2/2012

$49,038,712

$58,572,670

Frozen

11/27/2013
(wide release)

$67,391,326

$96,437,874

Big Hero 6

11/7/2014

$56,215,889

$73,760,135

Source: Box Office Mojo.

See the pattern? Disney Animation's November releases are gaining traction as Pixar leans on old franchises to win in a crowded summer market.

Of course we can't be sure that Big Hero 6 will continue to win as it has, but an "A" CinemaScore reflects positive word of mouth that could influence on-the-fence moviegoers to give the film a try. Interstellar scored a "B+" by comparison.

Interstellar Matthew Mcconaughey Anne Hathaway

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway looking concerned in Interstellar. Will Big Hero 6 continue to outperform the acclaimed sci-fi epic? Credit: Paramount Pictures.

In-house animation: The next big catalyst for Disney stock?
We won't know for a while how well Big Hero 6 holds up versus Interstellar and other box office competitors. Fortunately, it won't matter. The film's opening weekend proves that Disney Animation is thrilling audiences again, and that's good for every area of the business since the House of Mouse has a way of making the most of successful properties.

For example, Frozen's Anna and Elsa now appear on Once Upon A Time on ABC. They're are also playable characters in Infinity, the toys-to-life video game that's sparked huge growth in Disney's Interactive group. (Division revenue was up 22% in fiscal year 2014 alone.) Baymax, Hiro, and the rest of the cast of Big Hero 6 are already due to get their day as toys thanks to a licensing deal with Japan's Bandai.

For Disney investors, that's the best sign of all. Licensing deals mean that in-house animation -- thought to be irrelevant when the buzz over Pixar reached a fever pitch a decade ago -- is once again making movies that matter. The resulting profits (and for Big Hero 6, there should be plenty) could prove to be a significant catalyst for this stock.

Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission. He owned shares of Apple, Google (A and C class), Netflix, and Walt Disney at the time of publication. Check out Tim's web home and portfolio holdings or connect with him on Google+Tumblr, or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.

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