Friday, November 28, 2014

Big Hero 6

Alternate Title:  California Roll

One sentence synopsis:    A mechanical prodigy must use his brother's robot, his friends, and his own ingenuity to defeat the mysterious villain who killed his brother and stole his inventions.

Things Havoc liked:  This just isn't fair anymore. I see so few children's movies, normally, that earlier this year when I reviewed the Lego Movie I felt the need to include a disclaimer explaining why I had decided to go see such a thing at all. And yet if there ever was a year to show me the error of my ways in leaving this particular genre aside, it was this one, as hit after stellar hit has rained down from a genre I haven't followed in the better part of two decades. And yet this year has also been the story of something else, of the rise of the terrible, three-headed, fire-breathing monster that now marches beneath the black banner of the mouse, the unholy trifecta of studios united through blasphemous arts, of Pixar, of Marvel, and of their evil, ruinous mastermind, Disney.

Not that all three have been active this year, indeed Pixar has disappeared of late, diving back into sequels after Brave's less-than-fantastic run (something they will hopefully rectify in 2015), but the other two heads of the hydra have been working overtime in Pixar's absence, Marvel with their cinematic Universe, and Disney with the latest of their periodic renaissances. Thus far, all three studios have more or less worked in parallel to one another, a wise decision on the part of someone at Disney, but that doesn't mean that cross-pollination isn't possible, or even beneficial. Rather than consolidate their mega-studios together into one monolith, Disney has been content thus far to leave their subject empires alone to do their thing, while occasionally sneaking in at night and perusing the back-catalog of intellectual properties on offer to see if they can find something worthwhile. And so it is that, for the second time since August, a major studio has picked out a third-tier novelty hit from Marvel's extensive comic catalog and made a gigantic, world-conquering movie out of it.

You all know where this is going.

Big Hero 6 is a fantastic film, both as a kids' movie, an animated movie, and a straight up action-adventure movie, a glorious, technicolor opus to manga, superheros, and giant robot anime, and more proof, if ever some was needed, that Disney has not lost its touch. I was annoyed when I realized that due to Frozen's release date of last Christmas, I was not going to be allowed to praise Disney Animation in my end-of-the-year lists, but I don't think that will be a problem anymore. And the reason it works, ironically, is that ultimately it is not a Disney Film at all, but a Marvel film that's been animated. And we all know how terrible Marvel's films have been recently...

The story is fairly simple, as one might expect from a kids' film. Hiro (a real Japanese name kept in constant use by homophonic-minded English authors for thirty years now) is a 14-year-old robotics and science prodigy from a family of the same, whose brother is killed in an act of industrial sabotage by parties unknown, and whose most brilliant invention, a swarm of micro-robots capable of reconfiguring themselves on the fly to any required form, is stolen by a masked man bent on killing him. With a group of fellow-scientists from the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology (we'll get to that), he forms a science-powered superhero team along with a reprogrammed and upgraded medical robot, constructed by his late brother before his passing. The key point here, as in any superhero film, is not really the story, but the characters, each of whom are drawn, literally and figuratively, extremely well, from the eclectic collection of super-scientists at the institute, each of whom are established as world-class scientists and strong personalities without ever lapsing into Nerd-Minstralism, to Hiro himself, a genius kid who strikes the perfectly appropriate line between fake-jaded and utter wonderment, both at his own genius and that of others, to the robot, an inflatable latex Kung-Fu-Panda-scale plushie named Baymax (80s in-joke ahoy!) who plays up the always-fun "robot straight-man" routine to the point of sounding like the result of a hotboxing experiment involving Robbie the Robot. No great attention is paid to the establishment of these characters, they're simply allowed to be in word and gesture and design, such that even when things take radical turns, such as a distraught Hiro ordering Beymax to kill, or the robot going Terminator-mode and doing so, everything still seems like a reasonable extrapolation of what a given character might do in a given situation. All of this is helped by the fact that Big Hero 6, with one exception, does not use celebrity voice talent, but instead professional voice actors, experts in their field (including of all people, the son of a Wayans brother), who instill their characters with a spark of life that stunt casting rarely can offer.

But all this would be for naught if the design of the film wasn't up to par. With Disney studios on the job though, and Marvel providing consultation, there's no need to worry. Big Hero 6 is gorgeous, easily the equal of Dreamworks' towering How to Train Your Dragon series, a futurist's dream brought to life in a riot of design aesthetics and scene blocking. Set in the alternate metropolis of San Fransokyo (which another reviewer described as being San Francisco if it had been conquered by Nintendo instead of Google), the movie makes the absolute most of its setting. I'm accustomed, as must be anyone who lives in a cinematic city, to seeing my city portrayed rather haphazardly on film, with geographies and local touches being twisted about to suit the filmmakers' needs. Yet of the four films I have seen for this project that featured San Francisco in any form (the others being Godzilla, Pacific Rim, and Star Trek Into Darkness), it is this, the animated movie, that is the first to bring fidelity to the screen in portraying my fair city (as well as being the first one who did not use the city solely as a backdrop for destruction). Disney purchased the actual assessor's data for SF, producing a digital map of the city as it is which despite all the alterations made in the name of style, is instantaneously recognizable for what it is to a native. And lest I go on at too much length about my home town, let's speak of that style, an oriental-western hybrid that recasts the entire city into a sort of Neo-Tokyo/Metropolis hybrid, complete with a re-imagining of the many landmarks of the city in a new format, be it the Pagoda-style of the Golden Gate Bridge and Transamerica Pyramids, or the fusion of the famous Painted Ladies of the Western Addition with Japanese Tea Houses. I'm sure that someone, somewhere on the internet will take this style as some kind of Yellow Peril propaganda, or as an excuse to complain about "cultural appropriation" or other things that appear important to stupid people, but to view the entire thing in context is astonishing, producing a wondrous film that works sub-visually as well as on the surface level to generate an immensely strong sense of place.

Oh but this is a comic book movie, right? So how is the action? Well Disney may claim that they made this movie without reference to Marvel's studios, but whether or not that's true, the action is awesome. With each character and their capabilities established perfectly, and high-conceptual science gadgetry on display everywhere, the film is tailored towards the production of explosive, visually-stunning action scenes, delivered at great speed and with great frequency. Several sequences, particularly towards the end of the film, are positively trippy in their design, not something Disney has ever historically shied away from, but all of them are well-designed, well-blocked affairs, exciting and frenetic without ever becoming confusing or hard to watch. This is not as easy to do as Disney makes it look.

Things Havoc disliked:  Kids movies have certain aspects that one cannot avoid, at least not all the time, and several of these are on display here. Made for a less sophisticated viewing audience, the movie delivers several sections of biographical exposition in fairly clunky ways, having characters turn to one another and explain each other's life stories out loud in a way that strictly nobody has ever done in real life before. I recognize that there's a need to get on with things when one is working with kids and their attention spans, but my preferred solution is always to drop the exposition entirely, and trust that people, even little kids, will get the idea from context. It's not strictly necessary that we know from the get-go how old Hiro is exactly or what his pass-times include, not when the movie characterizes him perfectly in terms of age on its own, and shows those pass-times on screen.

There's also the issue of tension, something kids movies tend to shy away from in all but a handful of rare exceptions. It's not that they don't build stakes, its that they don't give those stakes any time whatsoever to hang, resolving nadir points within seconds of them being established. This happened in Frozen and in both How to Train Your Dragon movies, and it happens here, with the movie painstakingly placing the hero in a low point only to have them claw their way out of it almost instantaneously. I know why the filmmakers do this, kids don't have the patience or the mentality to want to sit around watching their heroes be miserable for hours, and I'm not precisely angry that the movie doesn't dwell on dark and depressing subjects for an interminable period. But when you resolve things this quickly and this perfunctorily, it tends to shortchange the actual narrative weight of what's going on, making even the most awful mistakes seem like minor setbacks, easily set to rights. It's probably better, as these films do, to err on the side of too little moping, but it's still an error whenever it comes up.

Final thoughts:   I only went to see this movie under protest, being none too impressed with the trailers I had seen, but figuring that after Frozen, Disney had earned a free pass from me. If nothing else, this should teach me a lesson about underestimating the Mouse. Big Hero 6 is a wonderful film, easily the equal of last Christmas' Frozen, and once again forces me to acknowledge that next time they release a film, I will more or less have to be there. Of course, by then, I should have finally purged what lingering objections I have to going to see children's movies in general for this project. After a year such as this one, it would be criminally stupid of me not to.

Final Score:  8/10

Next Week:   How Hungry are we for the Games when they split the attraction in two?

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