Big Hero 6
Disney’s Manga/Anime-styled, Marvel-adapted animation was one of the biggest hits of 2014, and it’s reasonable to have fairly high expectations of Mouse House animated fare, particularly since John Lasseter assumed oversight (when he’s not pumping out Cars sequels, that is). But Big Hero 6 is merely adequate. Stylistically it’s different, but not different enough, while the story is surprisingly dead-set, lacking the wit and fun of Pixar’s The Incredibles. What it does have is an adorable robot. But that’s requiring a lot of robot to go a long way.
Don Hall and Chris Williams don’t have the most illustrious animation CVs, although Williams has a story credit on the (for Disney) leftfield Emperor’s New Groove. He co-directed the decent but unremarkable Bolt (which pretty much sums up Big Hero 6), while Hall delivered the most recent Disney the Pooh (whatever the content of stories, they’re still cursed with that wretched non-AA Milne cutesy animation).
Inspired by the Marvel comic of the same name (the details are liberally changed), this is an origins move in which a bunch of science geeks (or nerds as they are defined here) transform themselves into superheroes with the aid of technology (the most miraculous aspect is that they are blessed with boundless budget and resources, and presumably an extraordinarily effective 3D printer). The villain is also science geek, just an older one (even though this isn’t part of the official Marvel roster, it retains the classic Marvel failing of matching its heroes against similarly capable villains, as George RR Martin recently opined).
Some of the ideas here are quite neat; the Japanese/American future city of San Fransokyo is integrated far more subtly than ninety percent of the exposition clumsily introducing the characters and their situations (it highlights how Pixar have honed this sort of thing so finely, when it’s done as clunkily as this; “They died when I was three, remember” says Hiro of his dead parents). Generally, the background suggests a future world where on the one part resources aren’t a problem (one can enrol in university at the drop of a hat, and a kid living with his café-owing aunt has the aforementioned unlimited resources) while on the other there’s an underworld where robot fighting for money is illegal. It’s a more interesting environment than anything Hall and Williams subsequently follow through with.
The only surprise character-wise is that they introduce Hiro’s brother Tadashi, attending the robotics class at the local university, only to kill him off and provide Hiro some motivation. It isn’t a surprise in the Disney tradition (see Bambi, The Lion King etc.) but in the Marvel universe of dying and never staying dead it’s actually permitted a degree resonance (of course, every other character, including the villain’s daughter and loveable huggable robot Baymax, is subject to resurrection).
Tadashi’s death fuels Hiro’s quest for revenge against the rather dull bad guy (James Cromwell as Professor Callahan) in a rather lame Kabuki mask who caused the fireball that killed his brother. What motivates the Professor? Why, only that he too wants revenge against Krei Tech, and more specifically Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk) for losing his daughter in a teleportation experiment that went wrong. Do you see, kids? It’s a moral lesson in not being ruled by your darker emotions. The problem is, there’s no modulation here, and it comes across as patronising, underestimating the target audience’s ability to digest such ideas.
The motley assortment of science geek pals of Hiro are unmemorable cardboard cut-out types; the tough athletic tomboy (GoGo), the whacky dipstick (Honey Lemon), the stoner dude (Fred) and the scaredy cat Mr Normal (Wasabi). There’s no real journey for them to become heroes; it’s a quick montage and an initial setback (“We can’t go against that guy. We’re nerds”) and they’re there. If this is a rallying cry to nerds everywhere, well, it’s a long-since thoroughly mined seam. They’re all a bit too hyper and irritating, like they’ve consumed too many E numbers. The worst offender is Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph).
Science geeks nerds as heroes might have be seen as a rallying cry encouraging the adults of tomorrow to enrol in chemistry and physics classes, except the science here is a magic wand waving as it comes. It’s also convenient. Hiro invents the entire tech used by the villain, yet as the creator seems to have no means of taking back control of his inventions. The fast-paced approach of animations means this is at least not bloated, but this also makes its attempts at advancing the plot and providing emotional content rudimentary or one-note.
That said, Baymax is a deceptively simple but superb piece of design. A Staypuft/Michelin inflatable medical robot designed by Tadashi, Hiro imbues him with superhero skills. His medical related lines and diagnoses are, courtesy of Scott Adsit, consistently the highpoint of the picture, from his quest for diagnoses (“On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your pain?”) to his slurred drunk act when his battery is running low (treating the family cat as a “hairy baby”) It’s easy to see on that basis why this became such a big hit; he’ll go down in the pantheon with Wall-E and R2D2.
Big Hero 6 is fine enough. It’s pleasant, frenetic, and wholly run-of-the-mill, with comedy that one-sidedly springs from its most appealing character. It’s mystifying that this one scored Best Animated Picture Oscar over the laudable How to Train Your Dragon 2, a movie that actually managed the whole “loss of a loved one/revenge” character arc with a sense of depth and refinement.
Addendum 08/07/22: In his/her/its Disney+ series (Baymax!), the robot appears to be outdoing Turning Red for the Mouse House imposing inappropriate and/or woke/progressive material on the kids. The robot goes to buy period products and meets a trans man talking about his preferred tampon. Doubtless, we’ll get a cartoon documenting Pluto’s scooting problems in sordid detail before very long.