Thursday, December 4, 2014

"Big Hero 6" Review - Science Ends Up Being The Real Super Hero Of This Cliched Origin Story


Walt Disney Animation Studios has been experiencing a modern day renaissance over the past few years. While some other their other recent works like Bolt and Meet the Robinsons experienced some modest success, it was the release of Disney's Tangled in 2010 that heralded success not seen since the early 90's with films such as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Tangled was just the beginning as the once prominent studio quickly began outclassing its very own premiere digital animation studio Pixar (who reigned supreme for over a decade, longer than any other animation studio since Walt Disney was still around).

Soon we got Wreck-it Ralph which went on to become an instant hit but nothing could prepare the world for the impact their next feature would have with Frozen, currently the highest grossing animated film of all time. Now a year later, while Frozen merchandising is still in full swing, we get their next feature Big Hero 6, and expectations couldn't be higher for the studio. Unfortunately, high expectations which can sometimes result in big disappointment. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats: 
Projector Type: Digital 2D          
Film Rating: PG
Film Runtime: 1 hr 33 min
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Release Date: November 7, 2014

Biases:  
Loves: Super hero movies, Marvel
Likes: Wreck-it Ralph, Frozen, Tangled
Neutral:  Brave
Hates: Feeling numb to almost everything that happens in this movie
Does Disney hate full family units?: Hiro's torment is just kind of ridiculous emotional overkill

Hiro just needs the right outlet to show what he is capable of.
Hiro (voice by ) is just your average kid, young, energetic, adventurous, confident and a certified genius. Like most creative minds that haven't matured just yet, he uses his superior intellect for more nefarious and questionable endeavors. One such enterprise is playing in high stakes robot fighting tournaments within the seedy back allies of San Fransokyo, a cityscape filled with neon lights, cherry blossom trees and all manner of heavy Eastern influences. While Hiro's creations lead to some easy victories, they also lead to a number of sticky situations that only his older brother Tadashi (voice by ) can rescue him from.

Both Tadashi and Hiro were orphaned when their parents passed away which left them in the care of their very outspoken and enthusiastic aunt Cass (voice by ). With both Tadashi and Cass worried that Hiro is heading down the wrong path, Tadashi introduces Hiro to a new way to use his mind by inviting him to the lab at his college where he meets a number of interesting young scientists. There's Go Go (voice by ) and her anti-grav technology, Wasabi (voice by ) and his beam splitters, Honey Lemon (voice by ) and her combustible chemicals and Fred (voice by ) with his unadulterated love for everything science (and ironically super heroes).

Baymax is programmed to attend to those in pain, which includes big hugs.
Only when Tadashi introduces Hiro to his latest invention called Baymax (voice by ), a medical assistant robot that aside from looking like a giant marshmallow is programmed to attend to any medical need for its current owner, does Hiro begin to see the potential a college career can provide him. Still somewhat unsure though, Hiro finally meets Robert Callaghan (voice by ), the head of the science department and his personal hero in the world of science which then fuels a new found enthusiasm for going to school and sets him off on creating a brand new ground breaking invention which catches the eye of a mysterious individual who will do anything to attain it.

Ever since Disney acquired Marvel along with all of their intellectual properties (well, most of them anyway), they have worked hard to mine that label for everything its worth by creating an interconnecting movie universe for all their Marvel characters. While that enterprise continues to prosper and shows no signs of slowing down, Disney has now decided to tackle one of their lesser known comic properties by the name of Big Hero 6 and apply their animation expertise to it. Unlike their live action films however, there was great artistic license taken with the translation from page to computer to film.

This rag tag group of friends are about to get super.
By using a little known property it was the perfect platform to tinker around with and change things into a much more Disney oriented feature for the family as opposed to a bunch of rabid fanboys. While the fans of this particular comic will likely hate many of the changes made (of which there were a lot as evidenced just by visiting this wiki page for comparison), there are so many that it almost feels like a completely different story. The best way to approach the animated film version is to simply accept that this is Big Hero 6 in name only and move on, much like fans of the novel-turned-film World War Z did. It makes the entire experience much more appealing that way.

Viewed strictly as a Disney film though doesn't mean there weren't some mistakes and missteps made along the way. While most of everything in the film works, such as the likable cast of colorful characters and the usual assortment of impressive visuals, there are some notable problems that when taken on their own are minimal but when combined amount to one of Disney Animation's most uneven and mixed offerings in years. Much like how I (and a number of others) experienced with Pixar's Brave, Big Hero 6 starts off strong with a clear throughline but then decides to go in a whole other direction halfway through that isn't nearly as satisfying as the opening first third of the film showed.

Now, unlike Brave, the direction Big Hero 6 veers off in is not exactly a big secret as the entire advertising campaign behind the film has set it up as a super hero origin story. Call it super hero fatigue or that this particular group of super heroes just aren't that interesting, either way you slice it the second half of the film which is filled with the usual super hero origin story cliches (loss, inspiration, revenge, friendship and redemption) isn't nearly as interesting as the set up that gets us there. Even more depressing is a grand finale filled with predictable confrontations and conclusions.

Sadly, they are all far more interesting outside of their super suits.
Yes, this is SUPPOSED to be a super hero movie, that is not the problem here. It's not being lambasting for being what it is (unlike Brave), it's just that if the makers of the film wanted us to sit through yet another super hero movie origin story they should have at least made it interesting or even fun! The "super powers" behind the Big Hero 6 are just yawn inducing and totally derivative of other more well known super heroes. Go Go's ability to move fast is just a pale impersonation of The Flash or Quicksilver. Honey Lemon's literal bag of tricks could be fun if they ever did anything even remotely useful. Wasabi is nothing more than a scared and confused Wolverine clone. Fred is surprisingly the most fun out of all of them simply because his power (and his excitement over it) is just so stupid.

Now, before you Disney fanboys get all worked up, let's set the record straight here. It is possible to make a super hero movie with characters who have derivative powers and make them interesting. Just look at Brad Bird's cinematic masterpiece (and Disney/Pixar's crowning achievement in animation to date) The Incredibles. Super strength, invisibility, super speed and stretchiness aren't exactly mind blowing super powers, but it didn't matter because the characters who were imbued with them were all infused with so much personality. That audience connection is completely missing from Big Hero 6, which relies way too heavily on a very tired tale of revenge to compel its characters into action.

While our initial introduction to Go Go, Honey Lemon, Wasabi and Fred showed some real potential, when they get slapped with their super powers they instantly become cardboard cutouts who do nothing more than showcase the single adjectives that best describe each of them. If you consider being spunky, apprehensive, fragile or excited to be a sufficient replacement for real personalities, then perhaps you will find the characters in Big Hero 6 appealing. Everyone else though looking for some dimensionality to their characters may find the film to be a tad lacking in that department.

Hiro can't help but be overshadowed by his robot companion.
At least our main character Hiro isn't drawn with such broad strokes. His connection with his brother is bit too foreshadowing of things to come, but that doesn't stop him from being an easily relatable protagonist for us to follow. Where the film let's us down in regards to Hiro's journey is when it is revealed that beyond his compulsion of vengeance, along with turning himself and his friends into super heroes, there isn't much more going on. He doesn't even have a super power, not even a bad one! That major oversight is partially fixed with the introduction of Baymax though, his pet robot (think How to Train Your Dragon).

Baymax is clearly the big selling point of the film since he is plastered all over the film's advertising. That was a smart choice since Baymax is easily the most entertaining character in the film who unlike the human characters gets a full arc that goes somewhere meaningful. Watching a robot learn to understand what it is to have human feelings and emotions isn't anything new (see Terminator 2, Short Circuit, A.I., The Iron Giant), but much like The Incredibles did with it's super heroes, it's all about the execution and this is the one place Big Hero 6 scores big. Just about the only thing that undermines Baymax's journey is the forced happy ending that gets slapped on which ruins what could have been a really emotional payoff.

As far as villains go, this one is at the bottom of the barrel.
If you are wondering why there hasn't been any mention of the film's villain yet it is simply because he/she really just doesn't matter in the end. The "bad guy" leaves much to be desired as they somehow have even less of a personality than anyone else, which is quite the accomplishment with this group. When the identity of the person behind the Kabuki mask is revealed, that is when it is revealed how much of a s**t you actually give about them. What makes it even worse is when you realize what they are trying to accomplish and just how empty it all feels.

It may sound ridiculous or even a bit crazy, but where Big Hero 6 succeeded the most was during its early moments when there were no hints of super heroes and villains. There were no big battles to win or cities to save, it was simply a story about a boy who was learning to channel his talents in a useful and productive way using science to help him discover who he really is. Mostly though it was interesting and something we hadn't seen before, unlike the super hero genre which is beyond overloaded at this point. Go Go, Honey Lemon, Wasabi and Fred were all far more interesting before they ever put their suits on and so was this movie.

Is it me or...nahhhh!
If the super hero parts of the film showed as much inventiveness and ingenuity as those opening moments did then perhaps this could have been a much more enjoyable romp. But as it stands, Big Hero 6 is another film that shows a lot of promise out the gate and slowly deflates the further it goes. Sure, there are those out there who will get some quick thrills from the well staged action sequences and superb animation, but aside from some humorous and touching moments thanks to Baymax it all falls short of the highwater mark set by Disney's previous features.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

Super heroes are big business right now and nobody gets that more than Disney/Marvel, but their first foray into making a family oriented super hero franchise can't quite meet the high standards set by both Marvel and Diseny Animation's previous work. If all you are looking for is a hit-it-and-forget-it family movie to take the kids out to, it works perfectly well. However, if you were looking for something a bit more substantial that will stick with you long after it is over, Big Hero 6 may just be one of the biggest disappointments of the year.

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