Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Big Hero 6 - Making Superheros Cuddly

With Disney having purchased the entire Marvel catalog lock stock and barrel, it was only a matter of time before we saw a superhero film joining the Disney Animated Canon.  Luckily Disney's main studio resisted the temptation to animate a recognizable character for easy cash.  Imagine a big budget blood-soaked Wolverine cartoon coming out of the same workshop as "Winnie the Pooh".  Instead they picked one of the most obscure titles in the Marvel line-up.  The "Big Hero 6" comics were originally a minor team made up of various X-Men rejects, recycled scientist characters, and monsters that only appeared about eight issues.  Ignoring all of the comic canon and the live-action Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney tore apart that dull plotline to mold into their own original creation.

The animated film "Big Hero 6" is a delightful animated experience.  The comic book elements are retained mainly just to add a final action climax, though little about this movie is written or designed like a superhero film.  This is not a deconstruction of superheroes like "The Incredibles", but rather a movie which throws them at the last minute just to add flavor.  This is a movie about crimefighters with a bright world and a bright frame of mind - an old timey Golden Age of comics kind of tone in a movie set in the distant future.

Actually the main focus here is technology and robotics.  "Big Hero 6" takes place in the cyber-city of San Fransokyo, a fantasy world where the Pacific collapsed, merging San Francisco and Tokyo into one megalopolis.  Science is the prime mover of society.  The local university seems to be based entirely around young people using their minds and creating amazing inventions - and being cool while doing it.  Neo-Tokyo is a nerd paradise - one of the most positives views of the future that modern cinema will supply.  The heroes of "Big Hero 6" are not angry emotional wrecks as in a typical superhero film, but rather engineers brimming with optimism about what their creations can do for the world.  When an masked villain threatens the town, the young people gather up their respective creations to make a decidedly non-violent and protective team of superheroes, saving the world without wrecking it.

The most memorable character of "Big Hero 6" is not it's hero, a Japanese-America genius preteen named Hiro Protagonist Hamada (Ryan Potter), but rather a pudgy medical bot named Baymax (Scott Adsitt).  Baymax is like a giant balloon animal, big, fat, and incredibly awkward yet lovable.  This droid cannot quite bend all the way down, he's easily confused by corners, and his simple face seems to always have a look of mild confusion.  Disney does an amazing job creating a huge amount of emotional range out of a face made out of nothing but two black circles connected by a line.  The best comedy of the movie comes from Betamax's big cumbersome body attempting to be badass, such as trying to ninja run with his stubby legs.  Baymax's physicality and his programming make him the worst option for a battle droid, yet he is pulled into that curious role.

Marshmallow fury.
The dramatic element of the story involves Hiro's search for a mystery man in a kabuki mask who murdered his elder brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney) in a lab explosion.  Hiro is drawn to Baymax only because the Michelin Man-bot was Tadashi's senior year thesis project.  The big lug is Hiro's last connection to his lost family.  Baymax in turn sees Hiro's depression over Tadashi and is easily convinced that the best cure for the boy's grief is a little action and adventure.  Hiro and Beymax's relationship winds up virtually a word-for-word recreation of the (unfortunately) forgotten 2012 SciFi drama, "Robot and Frank", only with a squishier robot and a younger miscreant.  The robot is easily led well beyond his programming into all sorts of hyjinks, until suddenly Hiro is teaching him kung-fu and outfitting him with armor.

The Stay Puft Machine's second therapy for Hiro's misery is human contact with his social network.  That means joining up with Tadashi's college buddies, an odd-ball collection of inventors who all have at least one useful ingredient to add to the superhero stew.  One is a punk extreme sports fan with hover bikes.  Another is a cowardly big fellow with super sharp knives.  There's the calorie-filled super sweet tall blond girl.  Then there is Fred (T.J. Miller) who is just a straight up comic nerd that really knows nothing of science but hangs around, who is indulged by being given a kaiju suit that can breathe fire*.  The characters work well together, but unfortunately this crew is considerably less interesting than the dynamic of Hiro and Baymax alone.

And that really leads to a bigger issue in general with "Big Hero 6":  the superhero aspects are probably the least interesting parts.  Baymax's classical cartoon design is a flabby juxtaposition with the ultra-sleek world of San Fransokyo.  You can tell the innovative stuff was put in the robot designs, while the human artwork is just generic modern Disney.  Hiro's aunt Cass, a minor character, has the very same face as Rapunzel from "Tangled" and the princesses from "Frozen"**.  Sure there is the typical flying through the city moment once Hiro retrofits Baymax with Superman's powers, and sure it's delightful, but the movie loses energy once it decides to be more action blockbuster than sweet comedy.

Perky beauty, grim goth, big Black guy, short arrogant guy, and disgusting doofus. Are they the Teen Titans?
Still, the superhero perspective here is endearing.  The main characters are not actually warriors.  They act more like cosplayers, so they leave behind the psychopathy that a comic book film requires in the 21st century.  Rather than the horrible use of 9/11 imagery seen in last year's "Man of Steel", the final battle of "Big Hero 6" is simple, clever, and entirely without casualties.  The lone moments where Hiro even considers a truly violent solution is greeted by horror from every character around him, especially Baymax, whose very essence excludes killing.  How can a bubbly aid machine violate the Hippocratic Oath?  Why would a collection of happy STEM-degree students go around snapping the necks of supervillains?  More importantly:  How come Superman cannot be kid-friendly anymore?

"Big Hero 6" skillfully steps around questions of science 'going too far', portraying every advance as a bold new direction for the human race.  The natural creativity of it's star, Hiro, is rewarded  Even when the villain steals Hiro's inventions for his own nefarious purposes, the inventions themselves are not evil.  There is a douchy rich industrialist character who builds a portal machine.  Worst that results here is that a character gets stranded in a relatively harmless alternate dimension, forcing the heroes to save them.

And here we have yet another comparison to show why "Big Hero 6" is special.  In "The Avengers", a relatively positive superhero film compared with "Man of Steel", the final battle also focuses around a portal, and the hero dives inside.  Only when Iron Man jumped into space he was carrying a nuclear bomb to wipe out an entire invading alien race.  In "Big Hero 6" the visit is a self-sacrifice to rescue one lost person.  No murderous alien invasions wiping out Manhattan, no rampages, and no maniacs.  Just happy people saving the world with science, and cuddly robots healing the sick.  Sure, "Big Hero 6" is far from perfect:  the third act is messy, Baymax in his supersuit is far less endearing than Baymax in his white bubble body, and the action is a bit forced, but it does have an endearing quality.  Pleasant joy is an element that blockbusters did not need to get rid of after-all.


Review of the animated short film:  "Feast"

Every Disney movie is obligated by Article 137 of the Geneva Convention to be accompanied by a short film.  This time the short is called "Feast", a little wordless slice of life from the view of a dog and the food he is fed.  It is cel-shaded 3D animation, made with similar methods that created 2012's "Paperman" (my personal favorite short film of all time).  "Feast" eschews cartoony lines or borders.

Plot:  a little puppy is adopted by a young man, and shares in that young man's nasty greasy food habits, the dog is happy.  When the man dates a vegetarian chef, the dog has to suffer healthy less canine-friendly options like brussels sprouts.  The man breaks up with the girl, and suffers a deep depression accompanied by a feast of hideous food options, putting the dog in heaven.  However, the dog realizes his owner is lonely and chooses to reject the deep-fried paradise to get the man and woman back together.  Cute little movie - dogs are always awesome.  Thank goodness it ends just after the wedding, and first child, because if it had gone on much longer it would have had a really dark conclusion with a doggie funeral.

I give "Feast" an arbitrary number out of a slightly larger arbitrary number.  It's worth seeing.

* Could it be a reference to T.J. Miller's insufferable character HUD who ended up in the belly of a giant monster in "Cloverfield"?

** Making her MILFy beyond words.  I  U, Momma Cass.

PS:  Happy New Year, Space Monkeys.


  1. It's far too late at night for me to make any meaningful comprehension of detail, but HELL YEAH, BIG HERO 6 REVIEW! Honestly, I almost forgot it was a superhero origin story, due to the endearing bond between Hiro and Baymax. Unlike its contemporaries, BH6 actually isn't harsh or grimdark and focuses on overcoming tragedy and the pursuit of revenge in favor of altruism. Best animated film of the year in my book :)

  2. Big Hero 6 is an exciting, action-packed adventure with plenty of heart that both kids and adults alike will find entertaining.

  3. The film deals in a subtle and moving way with grief and teenage anxiety while serving up all the thrills of a big-budget animated movie with superhero protagonists.