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Disney Sundays: Big Hero 6 (2014)


          It’s really interesting that this modern era of Disney movies is sometimes referred to as the “Second Disney Renaissance”, because there’s a curious pattern between the movies released during each period. Tangled was a return to a classic formula with some modern characteristics similar to The Little Mermaid; Winnie the Pooh was a successor to a popular Disney title and didn’t do so well much like The Rescuers Down Under; Wreck-It Ralph was really unusual with a focus on comedic elements akin to Aladdin; and both Frozen and The Lion King were massive successes, both commercially and critically, with a lasting popularity ranking among the studios’ best. With the exception of Beauty and the Beast, they all pretty much line up. And it’s with some misfortune that this pattern continues in Big Hero 6.
          I don’t think Big Hero 6 has quite as many issues as Pocahontas, but it is just about as glaringly mediocre. The idea of Disney doing a superhero film, and one with the Marvel name attached to it at that (just to remind us Disney owns Marvel), does have promise. But the end result just isn’t as impressive as it should be.
          Hiro Hamada is a 14 year old robotics genius living in the near-futuristic city of San Fransokyo. When he decides to give up his nights of amateur bot fighting to pursue academics in innovative technology like his older brother Tadashi, he manages to invent a revolutionary form of nanotechnology. After tragedy strikes however, he has a run-in with a masked villain; and so obviously decides to use his technological prowess create a superhero team with his friends who just kinda go along with it, and a giant robot nurse called Baymax. 
          One of the biggest flaws of this movie is how by-the-numbers it is. There are plenty of clichés common to both superhero films and Disney films. From the tragic origin story to the protagonist being a delinquent set on the right path who also happens to be a tech genius. He’s also an orphan by the way -sounds familiar? There are secondary characters like the hero’s aunt, the villain who’s really a figure in the hero’s life with their own tragic backstory who you can see coming a mile away, etc. There’s even a Stan Lee cameo to complete the list. And having a character, in this case Fred, point out many of these instances doesn’t make up for them feeling lazy. The story is for the most part quite predictable, with almost every major beat announcing itself by way of all the times they’ve been done in the past; and though the film does have some ingenuity, it isn’t enough to withstand the formulaic plot.
          Hiro is a fairly uninspired protagonist as well. It’s bad enough his name happens to also be his role in the story, but he comes off a little too often as a Peter Parker wannabe. He’s got a few interesting traits like his affinity for and skill at robotics (that opening scene with him is kinda cool) and his relationship with his brother is  pretty authentic. It feels like they’re almost trying to do for the brother dynamic what Lilo & Stitch did for the sister dynamic, and though it doesn’t get there, it admittedly comes closer than Brother Bear did. I like how encouraging they are with each other in spite of Hiro not always being on the right page and I would have preferred more of that. But for most of the film, Hiro’s painfully generic and though they try to add layers with his situational parallels to the antagonist, it’s once again a trope we’ve seen dozens of times going back to Tim Burton’s Batman. He’s just a slightly younger Peter Parker who’s gotten his hands on some of Tony Stark’s Iron suits. Baymax is somewhat interesting as this unique looking robot healthcare service and the calming voice of Scott Adsit from 30 Rock works. A lot of the jokes that succeed in this movie are at his expense -such as the bit where he needs to be recharged and is acting like a drunk. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t annoyed at how forceful his cuteness is. It’s a good design don’t get me wrong, but I don’t like how the squee-ing audience reactions they’re going for with him seem to be a way of distracting from the weak story elements. The other members of the team aren’t allowed to be much more than token characters: the cool one, the dorky one, the neurotic one, and the T.J. Miller one. In fairness, Miller gets some good laughs, though it’s astonishing how similar in design his character is to Miller’s How to Train Your Dragon role. Fred is a basic comic relief slacker and he’s the most memorable of the gang. But their superhero designs are pretty good and I like how they each have the power and creativity to choose their super abilities based on their technological skill, like one has super-frisbees and another has laser arms (and what the hell is up with Honey Lemon’s really specific paintball-sticky goo thing?); Jamie Chung, Genesis Rodriguez, and even Damon Wayans Jr. are decent as the voices. I think if they had more screen-time they might have been able to break free of their stereotypes a little more, because I could see them being a fun team. But at the end of it, the Scooby-Doo gang is more interesting to follow. I will say the villain though pretty much just Doc Ock from Spiderman, is a bit cool with his Magneto-esque technological influence, and a kabuki mask I legitimately never thought I’d see in a superhero movie. That is until his obvious revelation where his obtuse behaviour clashes sharply with the character as he was initially introduced.
          There is stuff I do like though. For one thing, the setting of this movie is stupendous. San Fransokyo is a very creative concept, a city with both American and Japanese influences in its fabric and architecture. It just looks really interesting, almost straight out of an anime. The action scenes are also pretty good as even though none of the heroes are all that useful, there are some fun hard-hitting sequences. The car chase is actually pretty entertaining. This movie really portrays engineering and robotics quite well, and the scenes at the student lab feel very honest. Even if the characters we meet there aren’t. The allure of seeing the potential you could achieve at an academic institution comes off well, and in a way this movie acts as a good promotion for university education and the study of robotics. Also the animation is really good on the environment as well as the characters. These characters look great -Maya Rudolph’s Aunt Cass is the animated equivalent of Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May. But additionally there’s something really distinct in how the students’ mentor Professor Callaghan, voiced by the awesome James Cromwell, looks, as well as his rival Alistair Krei voiced by Alan Tudyk (seriously is he becoming the John Ratzenberger of Disney movies?) One of the characters is called Wasabi which is actually pretty funny. Oh, and I really like how they acknowledge that Baymax despite being made into a karate capable fighter is still a nurse robot and is bound to the Hippocratic Oath, which in its conflict with Hiro’s emotional state, leads to the one of the movie’s better scenes. But then if he’s programmed not to cause harm, how does his program rationalize fighting bad guys…?
          Big Hero 6 is pretty much what it was supposed to be: a Disney superhero movie. But sadly it’s not much more. Though the technology we see in the movie is pretty intricate, it could very easily have been a live-action Marvel movie. But one of the weaker Marvel movies at that. Big Hero 6 unbelievably won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2014, which really irritates me because literally every animated movie it was up against: Song of the Sea, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, The Boxtrolls, and even the snubbed Lego Movie were MUCH more deserving of winning the Oscar than this film (Song of the Sea in particular if you haven't noticed is one of my favourite animated films of all time!) So because of that I’ve got an admittedly unfair grudge against a movie that overall isn’t that bad. After all, Frozen was a hard act to follow. But Big Hero 6 still isn’t quite a good movie. It needed more originality in story and character development, a little more fleshing out of the supporting cast (who are supposed to make up four of the titular six) in place perhaps of a drawn out finale and cop out ending. If Disney tries another superhero movie, which I’m not totally against (they do own Darkwing Duck after all), let’s hope it can be stand apart as a superhero film as well as a Disney one.

Next Week: Zootopia (2016)


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