It might seem odd at first that Marvel’s logo isn’t plastered all over Big Hero 6. No doubt, it feels like we’re in the middle of the era of the superhero blockbuster, and the Marvel movies have sort of cornered that market. Even their weirdest cinematic attempts (say, movies featuring talking, gun-toting raccoons sprouting the nerdiest space fantasy jargon) have been able to draw in droves of people, and their announcements of upcoming projects elicit the same reaction you see from One Direction fans when one of the boys appears shirtless. I don’t think it would be baseless to think that Disney — a company obsessed with their logo and the legacy their logo brings — would be all about playing up the Marvel angle.
Big Hero 6 is based off this old Marvel comic from the late 90s created by Steven Seagle and Duncan Rouleau. It was an… interesting book. Definitely a product of the 90s. There had been a couple miniseries and a manga-inspired take on the characters, but mostly, the title sort of fizzled out and disappeared into the back of the Marvel archives — until Disney decided they wanted to use more of their newly acquired Marvel properties and pushed their creatives to find a new superhero vehicle to produce.
Yet Big Hero 6 has little interest in being a superhero movie, and almost no interest in being a Marvel movie. Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams want this to be a Walt Disney Animation Studios movie, which works 100% to this movie’s benefit. Freed from the confines and conventions of Kevin Feige (did you notice how Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Solider, and The Avengers all had, like, the exact same climactic battle?) and instead pursuing the pathos and wonder favored by John Lasseter, Big Hero 6 is able to move and breathe and stretch out in different directions. In fact, they ditched practically everything from the comic save the character names. Even though it follows a fairly typical supergroup team-up plot, thanks to an emotionally driven story and some fantastic animation, the movie feels like a new and fresh experience.
Big Hero 6 focuses on 14-year-old super genius Hiro Hamada (whose name obviously stems from the same logic as Speed Racer), voiced by Ryan Potter. Hiro spends most of his time hustling these back alley robot fights, though his ridiculously supportive older brother, Tadashi, keeps pressing him to enroll at The San Fransokyo Institute of Technology to fully explore and develop his talents. Tadashi, meanwhile, is part of this undergraduate science prodigy collective, and has been working on developing this giant, fluffy personalized robot nurse named Baymax, voiced by
Pete Hornberg Scott Adsit.
Because this is a Disney movie, tragedy strikes, and Hiro separates himself physically and emotionally from the rest of the world. That is, until he simultaneously starts to develop a bond with Baymax while uncovering a plot involving stolen technology he had previously developed. And although there’s been plenty of wonderful visuals and top-notch animation up to this moment, this is the point where the story truly takes off.
There’s this prestige, this sense of importance and acclaim that accompanies a Walt Disney Animation Studios release. This is a studio that has always sought to add the best and most innovative talent to their rosters. This is a studio who immediately started developing new technologies to help make their animated features work well: like the cel animations for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or the multi-plane camera for Pinocchio. Sure, there’s always been a sort of set world Disney prefers to inhabit, a status quo of wistful waifs and charming men that they’ve only recently been actively subverting, and they’ve hit that arrogance of being the best and therefore untouchable only to produce trite, forgetful movies on more than several occasions.
However, for good or for ill, Disney is the pinnacle of animated film, who have always pressed themselves to tell a strong story while delivering astounding animation, and I think working on a major Walt Disney Animation Studios project helps push the animators and artists to produce their best work.
The animation in Big Hero 6 maintains these standards. You can feel the weight of each character, get a sense of who they are from their subtle, almost invisible gestures. The 3D animation is able to capture the movement of environment, character, and camera in a seamless and spectacular manner and delivers a breathless experience. A mid-movie car chase feels more dangerous and thrilling because all these elements, along with some sharp scriptwriting from Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson, and Jordan Roberts, work in perfect synchronization with each other. And, yeah, while big moments with high octane action provide the most noticeable accomplishments, small beats like Baymax learning how to fistbump or when he first diagnoses Hiro, provide an equally impressive animated performance. It’s subtle, realistic, and feels right. Our eyes get so accustomed to these precise perfections that when the animators need to bend reality a bit, it blends in smoothly.Continued below
This was the same sensibility Disney was able to deliver when they were still working in traditionally drawn 2D animation (which, to my mind, remains among the most impressive cinematic techniques). I think that all this attention to detail has gone a long way to explain why so many Disney movies have been so successful not only connecting with audiences but resonating longer as well.
The design and environment of the movie help contribute to its lived-in sense. Lately Disney has been alternating between movies aimed at boys (Wreck-It Ralph) or movies more targeted toward girls (Frozen) and I think who they’re aiming for is evident from their backgrounds and set pieces. (Side note: you will find plenty of girls who love Wreck-It Ralph and just as many boys who crumble into balls of emotion at the end of Frozen, but there’s no denying there remains a specific and generalized sense they want to target, while still trying to appeal to as broad an audience they can.) Big Hero 6 does fit into the category of “boy movie,” and features a more clustered and crowded setting, bounding with frenzied energy, than than the quieter and more mysterious woods from Frozen. San Fransokyo reminds me a lot of the constantly-in-motion metropolises of Speed Racer and Tekkonkinkreet, and is as restless as the central cast. The expansive and wider environment feels like a world you want to explore more, and it’s almost disappointing sometimes that we can’t just ungroup from the film and wander through the streets. The original comic series kept the action in Tokyo, but I think if the Disney animators had chosen to feature that real city, the energy and fun wouldn’t have existed.
The colors are bright and vivid and the cinematography work from Julio Macat keeps the film sweeping along, swooshing in and out of buildings and around sets while still maintaining enough sense of place that you never feel lost in even the most chaotic sequences.
But, for all the strong designs and cool backgrounds and astounding animation and visuals and colors, none of this would have worked if Hall and Williams hadn’t been willing to spend so much time developing an emotionally packed and resonating story. Like how ET and The Iron Giant hit so close to the heart, Baymax becomes this emotional figure because he’s a substitute for larger feelings and absent people. The scenes that deliver the most lingering impact are generally the quieter ones, where Hiro’s trying to figure out his place in the world after a devastating tragedy.
It’s also that central relationship that helps us understand Hiro’s eventual acceptance into the group of undergraduate science prodigies — a diverse and fun group of people that probably comes closest to actually being representative of any given groups of friends. Actually, I think the diversity of the characters helps the movie seem more feasible. I like that Go Go, who has been developing a hover bike, has these huge thighs from constantly pedaling. I like that Wasabi is both awed and terrified by the action around him. I like that the blonde girl, Honey Lemon, has a Spanish accent. And you get a strong sense of their chemistry and relationship toward each other immediately, and it makes it even more painful and resonating when Hiro distances himself from them.
Paying attention to the emotion of the thing and the pathos from the relationships helps the movie kind of get over many of the shortcomings in its plot. I understood the parallel between Hiro and the villain character, Yokai, and the way they both dealt with loss, but I don’t think the movie spent enough time selling his importance to the overall narrative. Much of this can also be sort of waved away because the movie is an origin story and the bigger and more important beats have to involve the characters learning to come together, work with each other, and move on in light of unfortunate events. I will say, though, that Yokai, did have a stronger and more interesting arc, as small as it was, than Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy. Or, come to think of it, most of the villains of the major Marvel movies. Yokai’s ultimately not as memorable as Ursula or Scar or Cruella deVille, but he does provide enough of a reflection to Hiro, and what Hiro could become if he made a lot of bad choices, that helps make him necessary.Continued below
Since this is Disney we’re talking about, I’m sure there are more adventures featuring these characters, whether in subsequent releases or on television or in comics. Marvel has basically refused to republish the comic or bring back any of the characters, which seems like a silly decision to me, but hey, interoffice politics. I think I would be okay with this being the only story featuring these characters. Like with The Incredibles, there’s this clear and distinct story that feels complete and filled out, and adding more to that risks detracting from the earnestness and purity of this movie.
Final Verdict: 8.8 – Big Hero 6 provides some spectacular animation, has a giant heart, features a great cast of characters, and hits some truly emotive moments that helps the movie overcome some of its story shortcomings. Walt Disney Animation Studios has been producing a string of strong movies recently, and this is another one that firmly lodges itself onto that list.
POST SCRIPT: Big Hero 6 is, in accordance with tradition, preceded by a six-minute short called “Feast.” And oh my God it’s wonderful. Not only is the whole romantic comedy from a dog’s appetite’s perspective an original way to tell a pretty typical story, the short’s a triumph of montage. Heart. Melted.
In addition to that, the movie also features the same 2D/3D animation process we saw in “Paperman” a couple years ago. It’s an interesting blend of techniques that captures the emotion and feeling of 2D animation while retaining the precision of 3D animation. The rumor running through my favorite animation blogs goes that this might be how Disney approaches Moana in 2016. It’s a cool look and its been interesting to see it develop in these shorts. I can’t wait to see how much more it evolves.