Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Big Hero Six

"Hello. I am Baymax, your personal healthcare companion."

Are we in a new Disney Renaissance or something?  I've really been enjoying Disney's output over the last five years, as each film defies expectations, sets new standards, and makes sure to stay relevant without sacrificing the story, characters, and charm that Disney is known for.  While I actually find the studio's latest film to be the weakest of these "new renaissance" films (including The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen), Big Hero Six is not without its great moments and strong elements.

Though the Marvel license has been in Disney's possession for some time now, this is the first ever full-on animated film has been adapted from one of their comics (though how true the resulting film is to the comics is likely not on Harry Potter levels).  The main story (set in what might be the future) focuses on the exploits of a fourteen-year-old boy named Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter, and I swear that's not why I made the Harry Potter reference), a boy genius who gets involved with illegal robot-fighting games in the back alleys of a city called San Fransokyo. San Fransokyo is just awesome in every regard, mixing American and Japanese cultures, and is brought to life in a breathtaking display of what computer animation can do nowadays.  His brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney, though I would have sworn it was Joaquin Phoenix) is a genius as well, though he has to work harder at creating his own inventions than his little brother.

One night, Tadashi brings Hiro to the university he studies at, where he introduces him to his fellow genius friends Fred (T.J. Miller), GoGo (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), and Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez).  Tadashi also shows Hiro his newest project, a healthcare robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit), who looks more like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man than a robot, but this just makes him more huggable (and easier to turn into a Disney Store plushie).  After speaking with the the head of the robotics program Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell), Hiro decides that he wants to attend the school.  He invents Microbots: thousands of tiny robots that can band together to form incredible shapes and structures that could put millions of people out of jobs! I mean... will make everything easier and safer!  At the science exposition where Hiro shows off his new technology, someone with a personal vendetta starts a fire and steals Hiro's Microbots in the process.  It's up to Hiro, his new friends, and Baymax to find the man, get back the Microbots, and piece together why this is all happening in the first place.  They do this by using their own inventions to make themselves superheroes, and thus we have the Big Hero Six.

The film works on a number of levels; so well in fact that it overshadows some its rather large flaws.   First off, the world that the characters inhabit is sprawling and full of minute details that make it feel like a real place; a real place that I need to visit.  Right now.  Being a fan of Japanese tokusatsu, I really appreciated the nods to Japanese superhero conventions, monster movies, and sci-fi tropes.  The animation isn't just good, it's incredible; this stands right up there with Pixar as far as the quality craftsmanship that went into the CGI landscapes, characters, and mise-en-scene.  A scene that shows Hiro and Baymax flying through over the city in broad daylight gave me chills, and I didn't even see the movie in 3D.

Secondly, this is a fantastic comedy; Baymax steals the show for sure with his naiveté and limited movement, so much so that I hope this movie has a sequel solely so that I can see more of him.  I loved that they didn't really play up the whole "robot learns how to be more human" cliche I thought the writers would push for, but thankfully, Baymax doesn't need to be angsty to be interesting.  Like in How to Train Your Dragon, the side characters have distinct personalities, but don't get much focus or development.  Thankfully, Hiro is well-developed enough to carry the whole movie, showing a wide range of emotion and character flaws.  I did think he was a bit too perfect as far as his robot-building abilities go, but I'll get to that in a minute.  The relationship Hiro and Tadashi have is one of the film's stronger elements as well.  You feel their connection and are emotionally involved in the story whenever it puts their relationship at the forefront.

However, and this is a big however, there are some major problems with the movie that boot it out of being among Disney's best movies.  For one thing, it's pretty predictable; most of the plot hinges on a twist that right comes before the third act, and I saw it coming from the ten minute mark.  I'm not saying that Frozen's plot twist was anything Hitchcockian, but it was at least a bit more surprising.  The story works very well in theory, but in execution, this thing is rushed like hell in spots.  Hiro's ability to make armored suits for his friends is explained, but it happens too quickly.  Yes, we slow down for the flight scene, and a few other emotional bits, but events in the second and third acts just happen too quickly to really resonate.  This hurts the film's villain the most, which is unfortunate because on paper it's really very good.  No "take over the world" scheme, just a personal vendetta, and I really appreciated that.  The music choices are lackluster and the score is unmemorable.  The action sequences are fine, but I can't say I was wowed at any point (in fact, a car-chase that should have been really awesome ventures too far into the preposterous, and in turn fails to be exciting).  One final gripe I had with the film is the ending.  Whoa boy did they mess up the ending.  They had the perfect shot to end on and god, they screwed it up.  You can't understand what I'm talking about until you've seen the movie, so don't highlight this next part if you haven't.  I'll put it like this: imagine if in The Iron Giant, instead of ending on that great shot of all the Giant's pieces coming back together, the film continued.  The parts assembled themselves, the Giant walks all the way to Hogarth's house, they hug, and then go flying around while Hogarth unnecessarily narrates how good things are now.  Wouldn't that just SUCK? The bottom line is, this ain't no Iron Giant.

So what we have here is a movie that had more potential than it delivers. But it makes up for its shortcomings with huge laughs, great characters, and animation that pushes the boundaries of what the medium can do.  Sure, it would have been more charming to see some kind experimenting with an anime style given the subject matter, and god knows Disney could produce a phenomenal-looking anime if they wanted to...  But what we have is just fine, and I hope that we get another chance to have some fun with Baymax in a movie that feels a bit more balanced.  Did I mention that I love the hell out of the title?  "Big Hero 6."  It just sounds like a poorly translated Japanese superhero show from the 80s, doesn't it?  I need to see that.