Sunday, November 16, 2014

Big Hero 6 (***)

Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams


If we're to believe that Disney Animation Studios is going through a renewed spurt of creative output, a run of films that can compete with their overachieving little brother, Pixar, than what does it mean that Big Hero 6 is, essentially, a glorified action movie? What does it mean that it's best moments are just amalgams of other, better films? Does it matter at all if the movie is incredibly, almost intoxicatingly fun? Probably not. But movies made by Disney are no longer graded on a curve. With the release of last year's Frozen, Disney Animation showed that it could once again make substantial cinema and delivered on the promise of Wreck-It-Ralph the year before. It helps that this period coincides with an uncharacteristic down period for Pixar films in which they've made exactly zero interesting movies since the summer of 2012 in Brave, and haven't had anything great since Up in 2009. It was probably unrealistic to expect Pixar to sustain the greatness they displayed during the Aughts, and it was probably even more unrealistic now that their two best directors, Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird, seem to be more interested at this point in live action. But back to Big Hero 6. Is it okay that it's mindless entertainment? That it's sweetness is contrived and occasionally overbearing? I say no. But it speaks to the improvement of the studio that these questions now have to be asked.

The film is based on a Marvel comics series about a group of Japanese crime fighting superheroes, but Disney did away with the ensemble story and bases its own version of the tale, for the most part, on the story of boy genius Hiro (Ryan Potter) and his robot Baymax (Scott Adsit). Baymax was built by Hiro's older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), as a personal healthcare bot, programmed to answer all healthcare needs as they arise. The two orphaned brothers live with their Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) in San Fransokyo, a nondescript big city with a Star Trek-esque collection of multiple races and cultures. When Tadashi is killed in a building fire at his university, Hiro is despondent and without motivation. He'd hoped to gain early entry into the university and study robotics with his brother, he even developed an incredibly advanced collection of microbots with the ability to manipulate matter in a way that would transform society as we currently see it. But when Tadashi is killed, along with university's head robotics professor, Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell), Hiro's dreams are tarnished. His only companion left is Baymax, who tips Hiro off to the existence of his mircobots, the ones he'd thought he'd lost in the fire. When he cooks up a plan to seek revenge against those he believes are responsible for Tadashi and Callaghan's death, he reprograms Baymax to be an expert fighting robot, to bring Tadashi's killers to justice.

But Hiro does not have to do it alone, as he gets the assistance from Tadashi's former classmates, an eccentric collection of science students. There's Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), a headband-wearing laser expert; Go Go (Jaime Chung) is a tightly-wound cyclist with a specialty in electro magnetics; Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) is a bubbly chemistry whiz; and lastly, there's Fred (T.J. Miller) a surfer bro who's not even enrolled in classes, but enjoys hanging around the campus as the crew's unofficial mascot. Altogether, with Hiro and Baymax, the group is able to morph themselves into an elite crime fighting team, except that they are unaware of who it is their supposed to be fighting against. Hiro discovers somebody mass producing his microbot model, but can't be sure who it is. Is it Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk), the technical entrepreneur and corporate magnate? Not too mention Robert Callaghan's professional rival? Hiro has a good idea, but he's blinded by vengeance. The well-meaning Baymax and the rest of the gang try to help Hiro on his quest even if his taste for revenge seems a bit off-putting. Big Hero 6 is very plot-heavy and it twists and turns in several directions before settling on its central conflict. It hardly has time for character with all of these plot points.

The film's main source of sweetness - the Disney brand's main export - comes from the relationship between Hiro and Baymax which evolves tenderly and is helped by Adsit's wonderful, deadpan delivery. The relationship doesn't reach the eternal tear-jerking levels of, say, Boo and Sulley in Monsters, Inc. but it is endearing to watch them interact. Hiro's own conflict does lose its steam, which is why his joining with the rest of the Big Hero 6 crew comes just in time. There are times when I wonder if the film would have been better if it wasn't just Hiro's story, and I'd venture to guess that the future sequels that this film will go on to birth (I don't even feel like that possibility should be up for debate) will be more diplomatic in its distribution of character time. But Big Hero 6's climax does devolve into another banal action sequence, and there were times when I felt myself getting restless. The film does not set itself apart in a way that you'd hope it would. But its an overall charming experience, far from the worst of what a Disney movie has to offer. It's humor is earned and mature without spilling over into crassness, and not to mention that it's actually funny. On the grading scale, this is not as special to me as Wreck-It-Ralph or Frozen, each of which really created its own unique universe while also making its own slight comments on gender and culture. Big Hero 6 is pure fun, and has little aspiration beyond that. I can think of less noble things.

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