Monday, November 10, 2014

Big Hero 6: A Triumph in Transcendence

The story begins like so many, with tragedy. It was the year 2000, and Walt Disney Feature Animation studio was going through turmoil. Operating a traditional pencil and ink animation studio was driving cost of production up, and films were not succeeding, or barely breaking even. Facing competition from computer animated features generated by competition such as Blue Sky Studios and DreamWorks Animation, Disney’s only successes of the early 2000’s came from the Feature Animation Florida studio’s Lilo and Stitch. The Burbank Studio eventually began to convert to a CGI studio in 2004 (a 2 year transition) and began to rid itself of staff and traditional animation equipment.

However, this ailing studio was rescued by an erstwhile partner, Pixar. When Disney purchased Pixar in 2006, Pixar execs Edwin Catmull and John Lasseter assumed control of Walt Disney Feature Animation. Lasseter and Catmull, resolved to turn the studio around, brought the “film first” philosophy of Pixar and changed the name to Walt Disney Animation Studios. From that point on, the animators have jumped from success to success, culminating in last year’s huge film, Frozen. Now, they have released Big Hero 6, and it seems that this is the culmination of the rebirth of the now-hybrid Disney Animation Studios, a place where the old and new blend and the sky is the limit.

A Comic Book Reimagined 
Big Hero 6 began as a side project by Steven T. Segale and Duncan Rouleau, and intended to appear in Marvel Comics Alpha Flight #17 in December 1998, but appeared in their own miniseries prior to that release. Hiro and Baymax appeared again in their own six issue miniseries in September of 2008. Their original conception (1998) was of a young boy and a large winged green monster. In 2008 their appearance is changed, Hiro now dressed in a school uniform and Baymax a large combat robot seeming on the verge of sentience. Hiro is a brilliant programmer and inventor, who is dealing with not only the problems of adolescence but the issues that come being part of a secret team of super heroes. If anything, Hiro’s personality is that of a smart precocious teenager who is not given to disobedience. He has a strong sense of curiosity, defined boundaries of right and wrong and a personality that tends towards service that is often attributed to those who join the real secret services of nations. The comics are entertaining, but leave the reader wishing for more of an origin story.

The film takes the bare bones of the Marvel IP and for the lack of better word, “Disneyfied" the characters around a Pixaresque story. These are not bad things, in fact they are excellent qualities. Looking at the body of work starting with Meet the Robinsons (2007) to present, Disney’s full length animated features have markedly improved. Big Hero 6 looks as if all the previous films were examined and broken down to their constituent parts, and distilled into a new and greater whole. This alchemical process yielded an engaging tale of loss, growth, and personal discovery that provides a powerful moral grounding for children to ponder and learn from. I really, really, hate spoilers, so I’m going to avoid spoiling the plot and instead focus on what I feel is the critical element of this film that caught my attention the most. The screen play penned by Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson, and Jordan Roberts is set up similar to many recent Disney and Pixar stories. There is the exposition where the principle and supporting characters are introduced; followed by a conflict or loss that becomes the driving force for the plot. As the film progresses, the characters learn more about themselves and arrive at a crossroad, presented with a choice of how to act in a critical moment. This is followed by the ultimate resolution of the conflict and a wrap up to tie all the loose ends. In point of fact, our protagonist Hiro is faced with numerous and potentially life altering choices throughout this film. If anything, that is the most endearing and captivating aspect of this movie, the portrayal of youth facing Janus. For those of you who are not up on your classical mythology, Janus is the Roman God of doors and choices and is described to have two faces. Adults who watch this film will immediately recognize the choices put before Hiro and be engrossed watching a young prodigy navigating issues he may not have the worldly experience to fully understand. Children and teens, depending on their ages, will be in awe and inspired by the adventure and the courage shown by a young boy touched by loss and tragedy, and wondering if they could bear up and be strong in the same situation and the animated protagonist on the screen. It is this focus on choice and consequence that takes Big Hero 6 beyond its previous counterparts such as Frozen or Wreck it Ralph by adding “real world” elements to fiction, therein making the story more personal than a fairy tale or the emotional crisis of a video game character.

Characters: There and not There 
Like its recent counterparts The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen, Big Hero 6 has a small core of strong principle characters supported by an excellent supporting cast. Hiro Hamada is a 14 year old prodigy who builds complicated robots with ease. Because of his intelligence, Hiro is somewhat brash, youthfully arrogant, self-assured, cocky, and looking for a way to prove his worth. At the beginning of the film, Hiro is a hustler in illegal bot fights who uses his unassuming early creation to lure opponents into underestimating him before Hiro takes them for all their worth. Hiro’s brother Tadashi is a perfect foil for the ne’er-do-well protagonist. Tadashi has had to study and work hard to get to where he is when the story begins. He attends the local university in San Fransokyo where he works on his thesis project, Baymax. Tadashi is confident in age and knowledge, but knows he is not as brilliant as his little brother. Rather than resenting that, Tadashi assumes the archetypical role of the “wizard or old man” and attempts to guide his brother through adolescence. Both boys are orphaned and live with their Aunt Cass, and Tadashi is thus Hiro’s male role model/parent. Instead of being overbearing, Tadashi uses well-meaning cunning and guile to guide his brother with a soft hand rather than an iron fist. The final main character is Baymax, the personal healthcare companion. Baymax is the personification of innocence in both image and deed. He does look like a cross between a comfortable pillow and a marshmallow while speaking with a melodious, soft toned and caring voice. Baymax’s primary function is to take care of his patient and monitor their health. He is activated by any iteration of a “pain noise”. He then scans patients and assesses their injuries doing his best to treat the patient. This kind fluffy robot serves as comic relief as well as a security blanket for Hiro offering comfort, care, and well-meaning though often poorly timed medical advice.

While these principle characters are quite well developed in their personalities, the supporting cast of Tadashi’s friends who end up forming the team Big Hero 6 are not as well realized. Their names are GoGo Tamago, Honey Lemon, Wasabi, and Fred. All of them (with the exception of Fred) attend university as students of the Robotics and Engineering program, while Fred is the school mascot. When they are all introduced in the film their fields of study, or lack thereof, are displayed for the audience to puzzle out. Hiro will later make “super suits” for each of them custom designed based on their personalities and talents. What bothered me most was the seeming lack of deep character depth or at least an exploration of their relationship. My first impression during the film left me wishing there was more exploration of each of the future team members. I guess I wanted more of a back story to explain their different personalities. Also the fact that Tadashi’s four best friends would all rally around Hiro after only meeting him for a short period of time bothered me a bit. But for the expedience of film production this is not a major drawback. In a perfect world I would have gotten all the character development I wanted, but the world is not perfect and my complaint is minor if anything. The cool function of all of these team members is that they eventually all become different role models for Hiro to learn from. Each of their personalities represents a different aspect of Tadashi and they become a large informal family for Hiro to lean on and learn from.

The Look and Feel 
As audiences have come to expect, films from Walt Disney Animation Studios are beautiful. The animators have blended traditional and new animation techniques to create amazing looking environments that enhance the visual aspect of the film. Moving away from the comic book’s setting in Tokyo, the screen writers envisioned a melding of San Francisco and Tokyo called San Fransokyo. Somehow the Disney animators managed to blend the two cities together in this film in a seamless manner. It seemed as if the high rise and neon of Tokyo was picked up and dropped on the San Francisco footprint. They then added in elements of classical San Francisco architecture and kept all the landmarks that locals will know and love. Before I saw this film, I was curious to see what a hybrid San Francisco/Tokyo would look. As the film unfolds I found myself noticing land marks I was familiar with and still awed by this new city. It was as if Chinatown and Japantown took over the whole of the city and it looked amazing. The sweeping aerial shots of the city combined with street level scenes lent a feeling of authenticity to those familiar with either city - whether it was watching Hiro try to dodge to densely packed pedestrian traffic, or watching Baymax ride a cable car.

Big Picture
Looking back on this year, I realize that I have not seen many movies. It seems that more and more that I am of the opinion that I can wait for the film to come out on Blu-ray or ITunes and purchase it then. It is rare that I am drawn to see a film from its first trailer. When I found the trailer for Big Hero 6 I was captivated by the innocent robot that could not pick up a ball. When I saw the film my joy and interest were confirmed and expanded upon. Drawn in by the magical art of Disney, I sat in my seat watching an orphaned boy deal with sorrow, rage, confusion, and acceptance. I watched Hiro come to an understanding not only with his emotions but with a general truth; that the dead are always with us. But it was not some wise old sage or knowledge gleaned from a book that taught this boy. Rather it was a robot, created by his older brother, that only desired to heal the sick. And in the end, Baymax did exactly that. Leaving the theatre I was astounded by the simple lessons on how to deal with tragedy in one’s life. There are few Disney films that I hold dear, many are of the old school such as The Sword in the Stone, Mary Poppins, The Black Cauldron, and the Rescuers. I now have a new film that I will have to buy when it is available. When I have children of my own I will show them this movie, so that they might experience the same joy I did.

David Losey is a writer, actor and stagehand in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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