Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Big Hero 6 (2014) – Review

Review: Big Hero 6 is fun, entertaining and fairly emotionally engaging, but also far too banal.

Loosely based on the Marvel comic series, the film is about Hiro Hamada, a very bright but underachieving young boy who lives in San Fransokyo. He would rather use his immense robotic engineering skills to compete in underground robot fights than apply himself at the local university, where his brother Tadashi works. To get him out of his funk, Tadashi brings Hiro to the university, to show him what he is working on – a medical assistant robot named Baymax. Hiro also meets Tadashi’s friends (other robotics students/expects Go Go, Wasabi, and Honey Lemon, as well as their friend Fred). Having his interest sparked, Hiro decides that he does want to enroll at the university, but to be accepted he needs to impress at an upcoming robotics expo. Hiro works hard coming up with the idea of microbots. His new invention is very well received by the university robotics professor Robert Callaghan, as well as local businessman Alistair Krei. Instead of selling his idea to Krei for lots of money, Hiro decides to accept the university’s offer to enroll to further develop his microbots. The group of friends decides to go out to celebrate. Tadashi is very proud of his younger brother, but suddenly a fire breaks out in the expo and Tadashi runs in to help save Professor Callaghan who is still inside. The expo explodes killing all inside, including Tadashi. Hiro is devastated. His microbots are also destroyed in the fire/explosion, but he notices something odd. One of his bots is acting weird, trying to get back to the others (which Hiro thought to be destroyed). With the help of Baymax, who is worried about Hiro now that his brother has dead causing him mental anguish, Hiro follows the microbot to a warehouse where he finds his microbots; and worse, he also finds a masked man controlling them. Realizing that this masked man must have blown up the expo to steal his microbots, thereby killing Tadashi, Hiro decides to go after him to avenge his brother, with the help of Baymax (who has been repurposed to fight) and Tadashi’s lab friends.

Walt Disney Animation Studios decided to take full advantage of another Disney owned company Marvel. Presumably, there was no plan to bring Big Hero 6 to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, thus making it available to Disney animation. Marvel has proved to be a massive money-maker for Disney through their film division (especially after the success of The Avengers). It only makes sense that Disney would take advantage of another Marvel property, particularly one that leads itself very well to animation (such as this). Yet, Big Hero 6 does not feel like a Disney film (something that I also feel is true of Wreck-It Ralph as well). It feels much more like a generic animated film than a ‘Disney Film’, like Tangled or Frozen do. Growing up with Disney’s animated films, there is a certain style and storytelling that I love in Disney films (and I generally love the songs, which this film also lacks).

While I am not familiar with the comic series Big Hero 6, some quick research revealed that Disney has changed many aspects of the story and characters to better fit the demographic they target with their animated films. I have no problem with this (as I always say, the film and what it is based on have no real connection other than one being the inspiration for the other – filmmakers are in no way beholden to their source material, and should not be); however, something that I did find slightly disappointing (as an adult) is how simplified and unearned everything feels in the film. It is clearly meant for younger viewers, but I lost interest as the film progressed, as it became less and less engaging (as it lacks good narrative storytelling, something Disney usually does rather well, especially since rebooting their animation division in 2008 under the supervision of John Lasseter).

So what does Big Hero 6 do well? It is entertaining and funny (especially in the character moments between Hiro and Baymax). Baymax is a fantastic character; and of everything in the film, he feels the most like a typical Disney character: an outsider of sorts, with a good heart, who against the odds finds a way to save his friends. The characters overall are all pretty fun, and well voiced by the cast; but, everything feels overly simplified. The film has big emotional moments (all of which are given to Hiro), but it backs away from giving any supporting character anything substantial of any kind, as if directors Don Hall and Chris Williams are afraid to make the film too dark or overly sad. The supporting characters might as well not even be there. Tadashi’s lab friends are just a pack of upbeat hype-men. The same can be said for the film’s villain. They are all very boring serving almost no narrative purpose other than to exist to sell more toys, make jokes or give the team someone to fight against. It also feels odd that Tadashi’s friends, who become Hiro’s friends by proxy (because he has none of his own), all of whom are older than Hiro, decide to indulge his idea to become superheroes to hunt down Tadashi’s killer. Hiro is fueled by hate and anger, but should the older students not know better? Everything feels too easy and thus unearned (and thus narratively weak and unengaging). Hall and Williams try to create a tone that is really light, fun and superheroy (in the Marvel style), but begin the film with very heavy emotions (Hiro essentially witnessing his brother being killed by a fire bomb). Their light tone undercuts a lot of the emotional resonance the film might otherwise have, given the first act.

Hiro and Baymax, however, have a lot to do narratively. The film is really about Hiro needing to grow up. His brother dying forces this upon him, as does his relationship with Baymax, teaching him a moral code (of sorts). Hiro is in some ways both the hero and the real villain of the film. Baymax can be used for great good or evil. It is entirely up to Hiro to decide. Like many other superhero films, Hiro needs to learn that with great power comes great responsibility (yes, I did just quote Spider-Man). Hiro’s journey does resonate emotionally, which mostly makes up for the lack of any other real connection in the film. Hiro losing his brother is heartbreaking, and the audience is drawn in by this loss. Hall and Williams do a go job developing Tadashi and Hiro’s relationship during the first act, but again they lose a lot of this as the film progresses. The first act is very good; the film just gets weaker and weaker from there.

I stated above that Big Hero 6 is entertaining and funny. Most of the humor also comes from Hiro’s relationship with Baymax (and how Baymax just does not fit in and is awkward at first). The voice-cast also, again, does a great job with line delivery. The jokes are one of the film’s strongest attributes. The tone is very light (despite taking a few detours into the darkness to match Hiro’s emotional journey). Yet, the action is painfully generic and tiresome. I realize that superhero films need to have lots of big action set pieces – it is expected – but Hall and Williams are so much better at telling jokes and developing Hiro’s relationship with Baymax that the action feels like it is an afterthought. It just goes through the motions so that the characters can put on their superhero costumes and run around. This problem is exacerbated by the film being animated, as the action feels so much less immediate – the stakes are so much lower by the nature of the medium, especially without rich characters the audience cares about and has a stake in (Pixar’s The Incredibles is an animated superhero film that does, however, get the action just right). Hiro and Baymax do have the audience’s attention, though I would argue that it wanes as the film progresses, but the action scenes are overlong as they also feature five other characters (including the villain) running around doing stuff (all of which, the audience does not care about).

The big problem with the action is that the audience is not invested in what is happening, leaving it to just be a tedious exercise in action for the sake of action. This is a character problem as well. Hiro builds suits for his new friends so that they can be superheroes to find Tadashi’s killer. Yet, it is completely unearned. There is a fairly bogus training montage, seeking to lazily explain why they can somewhat effectively use their suits. It all feels so genetic, as if Hall and Williams just started checking off scenes on the superhero film checklist. It might have been more interesting to have just left these characters out of the film completely and just focused on Hiro and Baymax (which is almost the case anyway – at least from a character development perspective). The film devotes almost no time to developing these characters or their bond with Hiro, yet they are big parts of the action scenes. Thus, we must endure long action set pieces with characters we do not care about and are not invested in. The stakes are non-existent. The film’s villain is also laughable boring and underdeveloped. These action scenes lost me, as I sat in the theater feeling bored and disinterested, when I was really enjoying the film up until it turned into one action scene after the next.

Big Hero 6 feels at first like it might be more character driven, like the best Disney films, but abandons this idea in favor of flashy action. Hiro suffers quite a bit in the beginning and is forced to deal with the consequences of the pain he feels, but it is marginalized by poor storytelling. Hiro is hurt by the death of his brother, but begins to find a new way to channel his pain – replacing it with hate and revenge. Hiro then begins to upgrade Baymax to become a machine built to destroy instead of healing (playing into Hiro in a way being the film’s real villain and needing to grow up emotionally). This stuff is interesting, but Hall and Williams somewhat sidetrack fully exploring Hiro’s journey, instead engaging in action scene after action scene in the second and third act, as the team chases and is chased by the masked villain. The film could have cut back on the action, replacing it with more character development (especially for the villain and Hiro’s four friends – all these characters are basically reduced to one thing: the villain is set on revenge, Fred just wants to be a Godzilla like monster, Go Go just wants to go fast, Wasabi does stuff with lasers, and Honey Lemon with chemicals – what else do we need to know, right). Plus, there is no real sense of peril in the action scenes. There is no real danger for the characters, no stakes.

The problem with action films is that they are often very generic and the emotions of the characters and their actions feel unearned because filmmakers are more interested in the visual spectacle than the characters (which is always a mistake). Big Hero 6, sadly, suffers from this as well as the film progresses. It does get a lot more right character wise early in the film than many generic action films, as it at least tries to create a character in Hiro with a real emotional journey, but it loses momentum as the action starts to take center stage above character. To make matters slightly worse, Big Hero 6’s action scenes are really not all that impressive, as again they are incredibly bland and repetitive. The best moments in the film come from Hiro and Baymax’s relationship (taking the place of Hiro’s relationship with his brother), which is no surprise as character usually trumps action.

This review reads very negatively. That said, I did enjoy many aspects of the film. I laughed quite a bit as the jokes do work well. Overall, Big Hero 6 does entertain and it does set up a potential new franchise for Disney, as everything is in place for a sequel. The film has big aspirations, but the execution is lacking, leaving weighty emotions overly simplified, characters underdeveloped and action scenes, while flashy, tedious.

On a side note, the animated short that played before Big Hero 6, Feast, is fantastic. It does a great job blending emotion and humor. It is a really funny and touching short film.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Don Hall and Chris Williams are big parts of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s rebirth, animating, writing and/or directing (in other words, being a part of in some way) Bolt, The Princess and the Frog Tangled, Winnie the Pooh, and Frozen. The best Disney animated films blend heart, rich characters and emotional resonance with humor, musical numbers and action. With Big Hero 6, Williams and Hall seem to want to blend Disney style with a more Marvel style film, but they end up leaning too heavily on the action and humor, losing the characters a bit along the way. The film is sure to play well for kids (being high on humor and action), but grown up viewers may not be as enthusiastic.

 Composer Henry Jackman’s score is also fairly generic superhero fare. It gets the job done, but does not stand out (in a world in which we have many iconic superhero scores and themes).

T.J. Miller and Scott Adsit highlight the voice-cast, bringing a lot to their characters. Miller’s Fred is very funny, with a zany energy. Adsit steals the film with Baymax’s loving and curious voice. Baymax is the best part of the film.

Summary & score: Big Hero 6 does not feel like a Disney film, which is too bad, because Disney was just starting to make great films again (see Tangled and Frozen). It is funny and entertaining, but lacks real substance and is far too bland. 6/10

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