Tuesday, November 11, 2014

We Can Be Heroes, Forever And Ever

Year: 2014
Director: Don Hall & Chris Williams
Cast: Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Daniel Henney
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

I doubt all hope is lost for traditional animation. The last hand-drawn Disney animated feature was Winnie the Pooh in 2011, not quite long enough ago to start carving the gravestone yet. But it is quite apparent that CGI animation is in vogue and we'll just have to go with the flow. It's true that Walt Disney Studios hasn't sufficiently produced digital animated pictures that in any way match the style and aesthetic of their early Golden Age work, but The Princess and the Frog was traditionally animated and look where that got them. It was decent, but nowhere near a masterpiece.

In today's world, we're just going to have to accept the computers for the time being and take the films as they come. Disney is far from its Renaissance in the 90's and while the films certainly have a higher baseline of quality than other studios, nothing has been quite as enduring a classic as The Lion King or The Little Mermaid. Since its last traditional feature, Disney has given us Wreck-It-Ralph - a decently charming pop culture-laden parable, and Frozen - a strikingly uneven, quasi-feminist, wildly popular half-musical that didn't even give Jonathan Groff a real song, the lunatics, what were they thinking. 

Neither of these films could be considered failures and both of them are quite amusing in their own right, but not really up to snuff with the reputation of the studio that produced them.

Big Hero 6 doesn't necessarily break the mold in that regard with its stock situations and comic booky sensibilities (this is the first Disney animated film to be based on a Marvel property), but within those parameters it leaps and bounds ahead of its peers. With a story holding the emotional weight of a cannonball, a nonstop pace, and a team of effortlessly diverse, effortlessly relatable characters, Big Hero 6 gives us hope for Disney's dawning age of Behind the Keyboard animation.

From Gus the Mouse to a computer mouse, we can't stop the company from evolving.

Big Hero 6 takes place in the futuristic city amalgam of San Fransokyo, which (in a filmic cliché I'm all too pleased to indulge in) becomes a character in and of itself as the story progresses. Bot-fighter Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is a precocious wunderkind, a savant, a prodigy, whatever language you want, really. His brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) wants to encourage him away from illegal bot-fighting and gambling so he takes him to his laboratory at the local university, where he meets young geniuses from around the world who are working in the field of robotics.

Said geniuses include Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), a nervous, straight-edged giant who specializes in laser technology; Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), a peppy chemistry genius who has somehow managed to survive in the world despite being made of toothpicks; and Go Go (Jamie Chung), an edgy rebel whose area of expertise is magnetic travel. Said geniuses adamantly don't include Fred (T. J. Miller), a school mascot who's best friends with all of them and has all the stereotypical traits of a stoner but with the edges blast-sanded off by the Disney corporate machine.

[ACT ONE SPOILERS TO FOLLOW] Following a student showcase in which Hiro applies to the school using a team of microbots that he invented, a fire erupts. When Tadashi runs inside to save his beloved Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell), he perishes in an explosion, leaving behind his little brother along with his creation - a cheery robotic health care provider known as Baymax (30 Rock's Scott Adsit, possibly the last man I would have expected behind the mic). When an unknown villain in a kabuki mask steals Hiro's microbots and begins using them for sinister purposes, Hiro must team up with his brother's friends to defeat him and save the town from total destruction.

Kabuki puns are harder to come up with than you think. Feel free to submit one in the comments.

But Baymax's endearing cuteness and eagerness to help Hiro overcome his trauma are more than just a pandering marketing ploy (though this is Disney, so we can't pretend it wasn't intended to function that way - the corporate machine is oiled with the blood of the cuddly). He functions simultaneously as a manifestation of Hiro struggling to overcome his grief and the remnants of Tadashi's altruistic spirit that remain on the earth following his departure from the mortal coil. It's a clever device but not so complex that it will go over its young audience's heads. The film's simplicity is a virtue, providing the ever sought-after link between adult situations and feelings and gleeful childish storytelling.

Some might say that the subject matter is a little too dark for youngsters, and they might be right to a point. Sitting through this movie without having a single tear well in your eye is a challenge on par with eating just one Lay's potato chip. But there's another side to the argument. We all want to protect our children from the bad things in life (look at me, pretending I'm old enough to actually have kids - what a tool), but that's not always possible. We can't prevent a kid from losing his or her parent or guardian and being forced to cope with a tough situation. 

It's films like Big Hero 6 that help children understand that loss can be heartbreaking but overcoming it and pulling oneself together is an important part of life. Hiro is a role model for any struggling kid, and the fact that he's Japanese-American (or, if we're engaging with the singularity of San Fransokyo... Jamerican? Americese?) is another brick in the still all-too-white media wall demonstrating that, despite our differences, the human experience is universal and we can triumph over adversity.

I don't know about you, but I'd want my kid learning that.

I'd also like my kid to learn how to power punch, but that didn't tie into my thesis.

So all that thematic stuff is nice and good, but on the surface level, Big Hero 6 is just as entertaining. From the second it starts, the pace of the film never flags, alternating between solid character moments (even the minor roles are engaging and lively) and action sequences that for the first time in a long while access the potential of the animated medium to provide sights and movements that live action photography is incapable of rendering.

Perhaps this is because it is based on a comic book, but Big Hero 6 relishes being a cartoon. It's still set in the real world realm of physics, but it pushes the envelope of what animated realism can mean in terms of action-adventure superhero movies. The showstopping action sequences bring a fresh eye to the medium and create a villain that has actual menace. At no point do you feel that he is not capable of actually hurting the characters, which raises the stakes so high that they reach out of the screen (side note: this film is not recommended for vampires).

Or adorable-haters.

The film's design combines modern comic book stylings with Japanese architecture and anime aesthetics to great effect. And despite anyone's potential qualms about the inherent ridiculousness of the portmanteau "San Fransokyo," the city itself only wows. Japanese animation is a huge influence on today's young artists and that new cultural ideal permeates Big Hero 6, combining the best parts of the art of two very different styles to provide a vibrant new world.

The plot is about as generically American as one can get ("We're just wimpy nerds, but we can learn to believe in ourselves and harness our unique skills as part of a team."), but the atmosphere is undeniable. It's a new type of family film sandwiched firmly between where we've been and where we're going. And it's a thrillingly fast-paced, delightfully funny glimpse at the future of animated film.

It's not perfect. It's a tad too meta in parts and there's a supremely jarring Fall Out Boy song shoved haphazardly in the middle, but Big Hero 6 is a ton of fun with a meaningful message wrapped inside. Highly recommended for children, adults, and humans everywhere.

And I just can't wait for the Big Heroes Avenging the Galaxy crossover in 2025.

TL;DR: Big Hero 6 isn't as high caliber as a Disney Renaissance film, but it carves its own path with nonstop fun and delightful characters.
Rating: 9/10
Word Count: 1429


  1. Brennan! I wanted to let you know that, following a rewatch (and a compulsive purchase of another overpriced Disney blu-ray), I have concluded that you were right. Well, I was closest without going over, so I think I wcould win according to Price Is Right rules, but the point is I undervalued it based on (what I do still feel) is a less than perfect ending. Anyway, it's not just very, very good, it is in fact a genuinely great movie.

    1. Hey! I'm glad to hear you came around!

      Now, if we could just talk about that Hawkeye thing...