Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2014)

53. Big Hero 6

When Disney bought Marvel Comics whole sale a few years back, the fan community’s reaction was mixed. The prevailing theory, which has since proven true, was that this would be a mutually beneficial partnership for both companies. Disney would gain access to perennially popular and iconic (and profitable) characters. Marvel, meanwhile, would be backed by the Disney merchandising army and wide-reaching distribution. At the time though, some fans were less enthusiastic. Some wondered what part of our collective childhoods Disney would snatch up next. Others voiced an ultimately unfounded concern that the Mouse Factory would “Disney-fy” the Marvel properties. That thought process has finally blossomed with the fifty-third (Or fifty-fourth, if you think “Dinosaur” counts) Disney Animated Feature. “Big Hero 6” is the “Disney-fication” of a Marvel property in the best way imaginable.

“Big Hero 6” is very loosely adapted from a Marvel comic so obscure the company has never felt the need to collect the team’s original mini-series. By picking a title under-loved and unknown even to hardcore comic nerds, Disney probably preemptively defused any fan boy scrutiny. It also allowed them to do anything they want with the characters. Disney’s “Big Hero 6” is about Hiro, a boy genius and robotics expert, who has a very close relationship with his older brother, Tadashi. While Hiro is initially interested in illegal robot fights, Tadashi introduces him to his college friends, each science geniuses in their own rights, each perfecting high-tech devices. Won over, the boy quickly devises a collection of advanced nanobots. On the same night, Tadashi perishes in a tragic fire at the college. Several months later, Hiro rediscovers Baymax, the lovable medical robot Tadashi invented. Realizing that a mysterious villain is using his nanobots for unsavory ends, Hiro outfits the cuddly Baymax with battle armor and turns the rest of his brother’s collages into high-tech superheroes.

“Big Hero 6” essentially combines the best qualities of Marvel and Disney into one fantastically entertaining work. During a time when some studios are doubling down on dark and gritty superhero stories, “Big Hero 6” is a joyously fun, family friendly, comic book yarn of a film. The film is frequently hilarious, from Baymax’s deadpan delivery of dialogue to Fred’s enthusiastic embrace of his comic book destiny. The film explores the possibilities of a comic book universe. It throws a bunch of crazy ideas at the audience. Robots, nanotechnology, laser beams, floating magnetic wheels, advanced polymers, teleportation, and even some references to kaiju movies are all tossed at the audience. “Big Hero 6” blends these divergent elements together seamlessly and assumes the audience is smart enough to get all of it. While the movie is an origin story and does pause for some brief superhero angst, it is mostly concerned with the limitless possibilities of being a superhero presents.

It also helps that “Big Hero 6” takes place in a fully formed fictional world. Breaking the film off from the mainstream Marvel Cinematic Universe allowed the film’s producer to create a more cartoonish and stylized world. The film is set in the city of San Fransokyo, which is exactly what it sounds like. The blending of the two iconic cities is made obvious in the opening shot. The camera pans over the city’s bay, passing a version of the Golden Gate Bridge made out of Shinto temple gates. The buildings of the hillside city are painted with oni and Japanese kanji. Hiro’s bedroom is decorated with Japanese robot toys, at least one of which heavily resembles Mazinger Z. The trolly cars and polished buildings represent California while the cultural identity is more like that of Japan. But San Fransokyo is also a city of the future. It’s close enough to our own time that the buildings, fashion, and vehicles resemble those of today. Yet little touches characterize the sci-fi setting. Airborne wind turbines float above the city, Hiro and Baymax resting upon one during a key scene. Robotics are a common enough feature that people don’t find the sight of Baymax waddling down the street unusual at all. Without drawling too much attention to it, “Big Hero 6” creates a fun, exciting world for its characters to run around in.

Baymax is undoubtedly the MVP of “Big Hero 6,” a fact Disney surely recognized before slapping the cute, cuddly robot’s face on all the posters. Inspired by real health care robotics technology, Baymax doesn’t readily resemble any of pop culture’s previous robots. Inside of hard and mechanical, he’s soft and fluid. He inflates like a balloon, his whole body resembling a fluffy marshmallow. His cute, simple face allows for unlimited expression while also being simple enough that a little kid could draw it. He slightly resembles a classic iPod and, in a cute nod to this, the robot charges by simply standing in a docking bay. While in battle mode, Baymax more closely resembles a classic Japanese fighting robot, with his tiny head, stubby legs, robust body, rocket fist, and elegant wings. Smartly, the secondary design doesn’t disguise Baymax’s adorable center. Underneath the slick, red armor, Baymax is still his cuddly self. The robot has a funny physicality too. His legs rub together, squeaking, as he walks. One moment, he flips overhead, his tiny feet kicking in the air. An incredible pratfall has the robot reaching for a step and landing on his head instead. None of this would have been possible without Scott Adsit’s impressive vocal performance. Adsit’s deadpan delivery and low-key line reading often makes unextraordinary lines uproariously funny. While appropriately robotic, Adsit brings a real warmth to the character. The audience laughs at Baymax’s antics but they love him too. I have no doubt that Disney is going to sell a crap ton of plushes of the cutesy character.

Despite Baymax obviously stealing the show, “Big Hero 6” is Hiro’s story. His arc is fairly typical, one of grief giving way to revenge giving way to a deeper maturity. The character is likeable enough though, Hiro having a proper sense of wonder at what happens. His quick wit and problem solving abilities makes him a properly enjoyable protagonist. The scenes of Hiro and Baymax sleuthing out a mystery makes me wonder if “Big Hero 6” could have been a wacky take on the bog adventurer genre. His relationship with Tadashi is touching if not horribly unique. The two are orphans, like a lot of other Disney characters, and Hiro loosing Tadashi seems to rub it in a little too much. The chemistry between Ryan Potter and Daniel Henney mostly covers up any of these rough patches.

The rest of the Big Heroes are less distinct but equally lovable. My favorite is probably Fred. Unlike his teammates, Fred isn’t a scientific genius but instead an enthusiastic fanboy of superheroes, anime, and giant monster movies. His apartment is filled with artwork, action figures, and Super Sentai masks. This makes him the audience surrogate for all the nerds in the audience. Accordingly, he is outfitted with a fire-breathing kaiju suit. T.J. Miller’s performance is hilarious, milking maximum hilarity from each tossed-off line. GoGo Tomago, the team’s thrill seeker, is given a strong personality thanks to Jamie Chung’s vocal delivery. She’s a simple character, of few words, but dynamic and intriguing. The remaining members of the team, Honey Lemon and Wasabi, probably get the short stick. Wasabi, voiced by Damon Wayons Jr., is cautious and panicky, the one most concerned about the danger the heroes find themselves in. Genesis Rodriguez’ Honey is upbeat, energetic, and girly and nerdy in equal measures. They aren’t defined much beyond those characteristics. Better yet, though, the film sells the camaraderie among the team. My favorite moment has all five gathering around Baymax in an impromptu group hug.

As an animated action film, “Big Hero 6” is a blast as well. The film’s villain, unnamed in the film but referred to as Yokai in all the merchandise, has a dynamic gimmick. His army of black nanotechs create a black flood of stabbing or smashing objects. The good guys getting around these obstacles leads to a lot of fun. The best action sequence has the team confronting Yokai in his island base. Each hero gets to show-off their abilities against the bad guy. Fred leaps around and breaths fire, GoGo races around on her floating disks, Wasabi slashes through the villain’s weapons, while Honey attempts to block his attacks with her fancy foam bombs. The finale has the good guys rethinking their abilities, using creativity to stop the bad guy. Impressive visuals accompany the action. Hiro racing around the city on Baymax’s back is exciting, the world swooping around them. The final act has the two entering an another dimension, which is a spellbinding visual, creating a true sense of otherworldly beauty.

Once a viewer gives the emotional heart of “Big Hero 6” a good look, one realizes it’s a story about living through a loss and letting go of grief. After Tadashi’s death, Hiro is crestfallen. He didn’t have much to begin with and lost the person who meant the most to him. When Baymax reappears, Hiro is presented with a walking, talking example of his brother’s legacy. Baymax, meanwhile, is designed to heal. He repeats throughout the film that his purpose is to help Hiro work through his grief. In one of the film’s more syrupy moments, Hiro reprograms the harmless Baymax into a vessel of violence, consumed by his revenge. He immediately regrets this. The film justifies this moment with a touching moment where the robot presents Hiro with the last known recording of his brother, allowing Tadashi to communicate with his younger brother from beyond the grave. In time, it’s revealed that even the villain is motivated by the loss of a loved one, bringing things full circle. The last act of the film has Hiro literally letting go of his grief, accepting his loss and moving on pass it. Because this is Disney, and the savvy studio isn’t going to kill off the film’s most popular character, the Big Heroes are reunited by the end. “Big Heroes 6” earns this, I feel. It would have been too cruel to rob Hiro of all his friends.

The mystery of the villain’s true identity is fairly easy to figure out. A name actor is cast in a supporting role that would otherwise be a waste of his talent, so of course he’s the bad guy. Otherwise, “Big Hero 6” is speedy, funny, touching, exciting, and visually gorgeous. The characters are lovable while the film functions as a highly entertaining comic book adventure. It continues Disney’s current run of fantastic animated features. [Grade: A-]

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