‘Big Hero 6:’ Advance Film Review

I think the idea had people geeking out when Disney bought Marvel Comics four years ago. How cool would it be for Pixar to get their hands on the Marvel library? So far, that hasn’t happened, but the next best thing may have. Filmmakers Don Hall and Chris Williams (most recently they directed Disney’s new Winnie the Pooh) began looking through the deep Marvel catalog for ideas and inspiration. They hit upon an obscure book called Big Hero 6 as a jumping-off point for the next story they wanted to tell. I’ve never read any of those comics, so someone else will have a better idea of how far from the source they’ve traveled, but I’m under the impression they’ve made quite a lot of wholesale changes. And, while this isn’t a Marvel Studios production per se, it still has many of the now familiar tropes, a really fun Stan Lee cameo, and a post-credits sequence that blows Howard the Duck out of the water. Despite the Marvel jumping-off point, it’s still got many of the traditional hallmarks we associate with classic Disney. It’s definitely a hybrid, Disney’s first superhero movie.

At this point I’d love to talk to John Lasseter about the two animation studios he’s running. I’d like to get a sense of how Pixar and Disney Animation are supposed to be different. It was easy last year when Disney released Frozen, as that was a full-on, headlong dive into classic Disney formula, but with enough tweaks to freshen it up.  I’d like to get some explanation as to how Big Hero 6 is a different animal than what Pixar usually does. That’s not a knock on the film, it’s quite good, I’m just curious. If the studios aren’t really different, then why does the company keep them separate?

Our hero’s name is Hiro, a 14-year-old genius who graduated from high school at 13. Not one to apply himself, Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) would rather use his big brain to build robots to fight in an illegal underground fighting syndicate. His older, more responsible brother Tadashi is a robotics student and has developed a healthcare robot named Baymax in his university’s lab. After visiting the lab, Hiro becomes excited about attending college, but he must ace a demonstration first. Hero develops a swarm of micro robots he can control with his mind and is admitted to the university. This being a Disney movie, a traumatic family tragedy can’t be far away. Before you can say “Bambi’s mother,” a fire breaks out at the presentation and Tadashi is killed. Still grieving, Hiro is befriended by Baymax, who can’t really relate to Hiro’s distress. Together, they discover the fire was arson, set so a pretty cool villain could steal the microbots. Like a teenage Tony Stark, Hiro has soon designed armor for Baymax and Tadashi’s school pals so they can bring down the bad guy. Big Hero 6 is zippy fun.

I don’t think there’s any way to oversell Baymax; he’s really spectacular. We’ve seen the robot who doesn’t quite understand human idioms before, but not quite in this way. Baymax’s point of view is all about Hiro’s health, so he participates in all the mayhem as he sees it improving Hiro’s mental state. He’s also hilarious. 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit was an inspired choice for the voice, and Baymax is beautifully expressive while only have two eyes on his otherwise blank face. Baymax figuring out fist bumps is a highlight. He’s the new Olaf.

My biggest gripe with Big Hero 6, and this is going to sound like more of a hindrance than it is, is it’s very, very busy. This is probably just symptomatic of the nature of the origin story, even one like this where the characters are aware they are in an origin story. There’s a lot to set up and a lot has to happen to move the chess pieces into place, and for the most part the writers have done that pretty efficiently. I just wish there was more time for the characters and the relationships to breathe. It all seems kind of perfunctory. There’s a really terrific scene where Hiro explains to Baymax the difference between physical and emotional pain that, had it gone on a little longer and given more space, would have had an even stronger impact. The team members don’t really get enough screen time to distinguish themselves, but a sequel will likely be able to flesh them out more. Also, we know Hiro’s parents are “gone,” but we don’t why. There’s a lot of backstory to get filled in.

Clearly, these movies aren’t simply for kids, but a lot of children will see it. This a story that embraces intelligence and higher learning, and, sadly, in society today, that’s a message that the young audience needs to hear. Right now, the United States has one confirmed case of Ebola, but people are freaking out because they don’t understand the science of how the virus is spread. If Big Hero 6 inspires kids into the sciences, good on them.

I know I’ve said this before and I know many people look on it as heresy, but what artists are able to do now with 3D computer animation is just astounding and better than anything that’s come before it. I know many people are fans of the old school 2D, hand-drawn animation, but if you can be truly objective about it, you’ll notice that there is an expressiveness and subtlety both in the faces and body language of these characters that couldn’t be created any other way. The various textures of hair and fabric give a tactile sense of reality. Hiro’s microbot army could never have been created by the traditional process (There simply wouldn’t have been the man hours to draw them all by hand over thousands of frames.) and the complexity of the big action beats could never have simply drawn by hand either. It’s perfectly fine to have nostalgia for the look of Dumbo or The Jungle Book or Beauty and the Beast. I am a huge fan of Beauty and the Beast. But, there’s no doubt that the new tools modern technology provides are taking the best of classic animation and improving upon it exponentially. This is a simply gorgeous movie to look at.

The program starts with a new short called "Feast," about a junk food-loving dog whose life gets disrupted when his master starts dating a vegetarian. The animators employ CGI to create a painterly look. I love that Disney is back in the shorts business. "Feast" is really charming and expressive. Great stuff.

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