Big Hero 6
More superhero films! 2015 has a reasonable bonanza of the genre lined up, and it all begins (in Ireland anyway) with this offering, based on a somewhat obscure Marvel title (though, it would appear to have little in common with the source material). Perhaps with more in common with Wreck-It Ralph than the Avengers, Big Hero 6 has been wowing audiences stateside, and is tipped for Oscar glory this month, but is it actually any good? Or is it just another superhero film, in a genre that became saturated a while ago?
Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is a 14 year old robotics genius, living in the pastiche world of San Fransokyo, gaining a scholarship to a prestigious IT for his invention of microbots. But when an explosion kills his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney), Hiro is drawn into a pursuit of a mysterious masked man who has stolen his invention. Putting together an unlikely team of science experts turned superheroes for the task, Hiro is also aided by Baymax (Scott Adsit), a “healthcare companion” robot designed by his brother.
Watching Big Hero 6 I felt a sort of malaise that I haven’t felt for a while. Over the course of the last three years, I’ve reviewed over a hundred films of varying types and come to know cinema a little better. With that comes knowledge of standard film structure, exemplified no better than in things like Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat compendium.
This is no specific criticism of Big Hero 6, but I certainly felt like my enjoyment of the film was tempered by the sheer predictability of it. There are no risks taken here when it come to story, no big surprises, no veering off the tracks. And I have come to realise, as many others have, that this is a problem of blandness that is endemic in Hollywood, especially when a genre reaches a point of mass saturation. I’ve seen too many superhero films, too many CGI films, too many action films over the last while, that have struggled to actually leave a mark to justify their own existence, and Big Hero 6 is coming along as the latest in that queue. Big Hero 6 has plenty of things going for it, that actually do manage to paper over the cracks, but it simply can’t get away from the mundanity of the exercise. To paraphrase Bill Bailey, “There’s an orphan, a tragedy, a villain, some superpowers and the whole scene unfolds, with a tedious inevitability.”
But still, as mentioned, Big Hero 6 has its saving graces. It’s fun, its colourful, it hits the right emotional betas, and does demonstrate a certain level of maturity in the journey of its central character and the message that it wants to send out. Hiro proves an adequate audience surrogate into this mishmash of the American west coast and downtown Japan, where back street fights take place between robots and Bullitt-like chase sequences rage against suburban hills. Hiro’s already an orphan as things begin, and the next batch of tragedy is as easy to see coming as the Baymax character, but he is at least relatable and sympathetic, the angry teenaged kid, underappreciated by many and raring to let loose and prove himself to the world. Such feelings find an aggressive purpose in the hunt for his brother’s killer. As soon as we see him fearlessly hustling in the “bot fight” world, we are drawn to this overly confident but nonetheless engaging young man.
This is standard superhero fare of course, the origin story that often gives the only real avenue for effective characterisation of such principal players. Big Hero 6 needs to do it for, well, six people, but the focus is overridingly on Hiro, who has this classic beginning, that we have all seen a million times before, from Telemachus to Luke Skywalker. The others, a scientifically themed and wonderfully unique assortment of adrenaline junkies, timid geeks, uncaring surfer dudes and prim and proper good girl types, are given enough time to register as distinct characters, but get very little else. Their origin is to show their speciality, their elaboration is to show that speciality branching out into something that can be used to fight bad guys. Yes, the script gives them all decent moments to make an impact on the audiences consciousness – most notably TJ Miller’s Fred – but this is still the Hiro show, the others mere back-up singers to his actual hero’s journey, from irrepressible kid to responsible crime fighter.
And then there is Baymax. Baymax is great. He’s such a simple character – easy movements, static voice, one colour – but rather like, say, Vin Diesel’s Groot from Guardians Of The Galaxy, this lumbering oaf that could have been just a throwaway accompaniment steals the show completely. From the moment that Baymax is introduced, awkwardly shuffling around a chair in a lab, or later knocking books over as he struggles to get to Hiro, the audience is bound to feel a rush of appreciation for him, a gentle soul in an unlikely body, all Iron Giant (which was Vin Diesel too actually, now that I think about it). With Scott Adsit’s soothing but weirdly expressive voice, Baymax slots himself into the narrative and gives Big Hero 6 the unique hook that it so desperately needs amid all the other mundanity. Without him the film could be a very forgettable thing. With him, it aspires to being one of the more memorable examples of the genre, even with the aforementioned problems.
The relationship between Hiro and Baymax forms the heart of Big Hero 6. It’s obvious from the get go that the giant white balloon robot is a stand in for Tadashi in many ways, but Baymax’s persistent and adorably naive mission of making Hiro “well” covers up for some of the more cliché aspects of how things progress. In Baymax and his development, Hiro finds a purpose after a period of listless grieving, and in that Big Hero 6 also finds some strong points, as an examination of how people deal with loss, in this case substituting proper reckoning with the issue for a mindless pursuit of a single objective, more as a distraction than anything. The way that Baymax goes along with this, with hidden depths of intelligence for how things are proceeding, is to the credit of his creators (and Adsit).
Any superhero film with aspirations of critical acclaim needs to do well by its antagonists though, and Big Hero 6 falls down there. The man in the kabuki mask – merchandising calls him “Yokai” apparently – has the distinctive look that bad guys require, but little else besides. His identity isn’t really that hard to guess (see below for more thoughts on that) and Big Hero 6 leaves it way too late to start getting into the meat and bones of his motivation. Big Hero 6 had a lot of protagonists to get through before they really started trying to give any attention to the bad guy, and the result is a rather stunted threat to the titular team, who walks the walk when it comes to being a viable physical threat, but whose characterisation and elaboration leave a lot to be desired.
Big Hero 6 moves up a gear when it introduces its supporting cast more fully, and the array of colour and skills help to ratchet up the entertainment value. A nice blend of comedy and seriousness ensures, with a really worthy focus on actual scientific exploitation as opposed to just mindless superpowers. In fact, Big Hero 6 has an overriding need to really showcase scientific and technological advancement as being at the heart of the superhero team it wants to put together, even if some of the things that it showcases are essentially just magic dressed up as science. But when it comes to plot, the other four all have their pre-destined roles to play – the whacky one, the serious one, the ditzy one, the nervous one – and ultimately don’t actually seem to contribute all that much in the fight to stop Mr Kabuki. I don’t mean they do nothing at all, I just mean that there isn’t anything about their involvement that could not have been replicated by any kind of placeholder.
That sort of leads me on to issues of female characters. Big Hero 6 features three, and none of them is really all that stellar. I got a little thrill out of hearing GoGo proclaim early on “Woman Up” to Hiro as he nervously approaches his presentation, which is a least an early indicator that we could have been looking at that all too rare beast of a “strong female character”. But from there GoGo is little more than a slightly snarky, protective older sister type, more defined by her speedster status than by any approach to empowering her gender. She’s joined by Honey Lemon, who looks distinctive and has that quirky aura, but preciously little else. And there’s also Aunt Cass, Hiro’s guardian, who pops up to basically give him an ego boost and deliver a joke line, before vanishing again when things get serious. Big Hero 6 is no better or worse than other films of this genre – superhero or CGI – when it comes to the treatment of women, but part of me was a little disappointed that a greater effort wasn’t made with them here. They’re involved, they do as much as any man, but they received fairly basic characterisation and didn’t leave a gigantic impression outside of their visual depiction.
It can be tempting to not criticise films like this too much, since they have all the hallmarks of being designed just for kids. But we all know that this just isn’t true anymore. That, or studios like Disney have realised they don’t need to pander to childlike innocence anymore. After all, this film contains tragedy and death aplenty, so I don’t feel the need to treat it with, as the appropriate expression denotes, kid gloves. The plot of Big Hero 6 adds little to the superhero genre, and finds salvation only in its most stand-out elements. It still entertains, but there is nothing truly special anymore about seeing a “Hero rising” tale that is as boilerplate as they likely to come in the structure.
The film does well on the VA level. It’s good to see someone more age appropriate cast as the lead (looking at you How To Train Your Dragon), and Potter gives a decent performance, imbuing Hiro’s voice with all of that frustrated adolescent angst and anger that is required. Henney’s older brother is also good for his first act only involvement, but both are dwarfed in the performance of Adsit as Baymax, which is beautiful in its simplicity. There are times when you really appreciate the difficulty of voice acting, and there are times when you are almost slack jawed by what a slightly different tone or pitch can do. Adsit does that with the nominally monotone voice of Baymax, repeatedly, in one of the great VA roles of recent times.
The rest are doing fine too, making the most of limited screentime to make their characters sound distinctive. Chung, Wayans, Miller and Rodriguez form the rest of the team and all sound great, especially Miller, who it is obvious has done this before. Maya Rudolph, James Cromwell and Alan Tudyk show up in supporting roles, and do as is required. I wonder what’s up with Tudyk though, this being the third Disney CGI film – the others being Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph – where he has done VA work for an antagonist part, in this case the sneering CEO of a bad minded technology giant.
I suppose you just sort of run out of things to say when it comes to the visuals of films like this, but it is apropos of me to at least note that Big Hero 6 looks very much like a film made with love and care. There’s an obvious commitment here to creating this weirdly endearing combination of neon Tokyo and west coast San Francisco, and the result allows for a visually mesmerising confluence of styles. It’s a slight step up from Wreck-It Ralph, from blazing sunsets far above the city, to the deadly constructions of the microbots to the very brilliant designs put into the central characters.
There have been significant changes from the source material, from what I have read anyway, and I think that’s for the best here. GoGo’s speedster outfit, Honey Lemon’s purse ensemble, Wasabi’s blades and Fred’s amazing random fire-breathing lizard outfit are all good in their turn, but its still, weirdly, the very simple Baymax – a white blob that is almost like a Staypuff Marshmallow man – that creates the biggest impression, with his sheer lack of complexity that hides a whole load of it. And that’s before they go about turning him into a crime fighting bad-ass.
There’s a good eye for action here as well, from director’s Don Hall and Chris Williams. There has to be I suppose, considering the genre, and they’ve learned well from their live action counterparts in the MCU. The car chase, the fight scenes with Mr Kabuki and some of the more trippy aspects of the big finale (see below) all do great credit to the production team, who have created the right sense of appropriate tempo with their cuts and editing. I suppose, if I was going to criticise anything, it would be the pervading sense of sameness that has fast become apparent with Disney CGI-characters outside of the funky costumes: big eyes and weird hair are the order of the day, and that doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon.
Big Hero 6 benefits from a strong script, from a team that includes Monsters Inc’s Dan Gearson. The formulaicness of the overall film is alleviated by some of the joy found in the wordplay, be it the intimate interactions between Hiro and his brother, or the somewhat more amusing contrast between Hiro and Baymax. Baymax, in particular, is given just the right words to reinforce both his alarmingly charming nature, and to actually give him a strong degree of emotional power in his character, whether it’s his drunk-like state when he is at low power (“Hairy baby….”) or the gut punch that comes with one of his repeated “Are you satisfied with your care?” nearer the end. Hiro too has been done right by: the film is largely about his reaction to the loss of Tadashi, and he goes through the expected phases, with the depression, anguish, anger and eventual acceptance that must go with it, all elaborated upon properly.
The distinctive voices offered by the cast are aided by the uniqueness of the lines for everyone, even if they don’t get nearly enough time to become fully rounded out. The humour is there too, such as with the unexpectedly effective “Balalala” as Baymax misunderstands fist bumps or GoGo’s angry declaration, during Wasabi’s all too careful driving while under attack, that “There are no red lights in car chases!”. Still, I sort of wish the bad guy had been written a bit better, and not like he was just some afterthought to proceedings.
It’s a good score to back things up, one that recognises that not everything in a superhero film has to be super bombastic all of the time, and that can offer some differing degrees of variety when it wants to. The setting demands some techno melding and modern takes, and that’s fine. But the audible drama of the action scenes, and music driven emotion of quieter moments is accomplished well by Henry Jackman (who’s apparently learned from the somewhat dull work on The Winter Soldier and the much, much worse The Interview). In terms of actual songs, it’s Fallout Boy that leave their mark, with Big Hero 6’s signature track being their “Immortals”, from the recently released American Beauty/American Psycho. An unashamedly loud and boisterous call to greatness, “Immortals” hits the spot nicely, in both a decent montage sequence and in the credits.
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
-Oh, the formula. I’m not lying, or even trying to boast, when I say that I knew every major plot beat of Big Hero 6 a half hour before it happened. The professor with a grudge, the death of the brother, the fake out with Krei, the identity of the bad guy, the footage of Tadashi left with Baymax, the formation of the team, Hiro’s rage moment, the survival of the daughter, Baymax’s end and then his revival…it’s all been done, and was telegraphed to a huge degree. So, my points above. It doesn’t make Big Hero 6 unwatchable, but it does stop it from being a classic.
-The bad guy thing especially. The moment James Cromwell’s professor acts curtly towards Krei, I know that he’d turn out to be Mr Kabuki. Krei’s too obvious a bad guy, and Tadashi – the only other possibility – lacked a proper avenue for escaping death or to be the bad guy.
-And that sucks, because everything got so rushed with Callaghan. It’s well over half way through the film before we discover his motivation, and then it’s this convoluted, weird thing, involving suddenly introduced MacGuffin devices, a daughter no one has mentioned before and a blinding rage that should have been more noticeable previously. But it’s OK, because of course she turns out to be alive. Big Hero 6 dropped the ball with its antagonist.
-While much of it was predictable, the scene where Hiro lets loose and essentially turns Baymax into a killing machine was one of Big Hero 6’s best, and I only wish that the film had the time to make more of that idea. Hiro basically betrays his friends and calls into question the very idea of what they are doing with the costumes and the powers, but they all forgive him very fast, and Hiro himself gets over his sudden rage-filled vengeance strike quickly. There was something shockingly scary about red eyed Baymax nearly murdering someone, and Big Hero 6 could have done with addressing that moment a bit more.
-Man, that other dimension was trippy, huh? It made for a nice set-piece ending though, even if so much of it was very contrived.
-Baymax’s “death” was set-up long before he actually went, what with him being a robot designed to do nothing but sacrifice his energy for other people. And, he’s also a Tadashi stand-in so….it was all very Star Trek: Nemesis at the end, and I never believed for a second that Baymax was actually done for. Which is not a good thing, as Big Hero 6 demonstrated a capacity to cheapen the plot device of death, and did several times in the course of the film.
-Maybe I’m the only one, but I am getting a little tired of the pandering that Marvel films perform for Stan Lee at every turn. It isn’t enough that we see a painting of him, he actually has to show up in the (sigh) post-credits scene for a dumb joke with his son Fred. This feels like a very well worn in-joke to me at this point.
In the end, it feels like Big Hero 6 is trying very hard to be a tribute to a lot of things – Japanese anime, Bullitt, the MCU to name a few – without really spending enough time on making itself special enough. The character of Baymax is the real stand out, but Big Hero 6 could really have done with a few more elements like him, as well as just a bit more time to flesh out the villain and the supporting cast. As it is, Big Hero 6 is a sort of lesser Avengers, trying at times to be like its illustrious multi-hero predecessor, but never really getting all that close to succeeding.
But once you move past the cliché and the beat sheet plot beats, Big Hero 6 has a lot to recommend itself. The visuals are fantastic, full of a certain brightness and variety that is more Guardians Of The Galaxy than Captain America. The script is strong, with plenty of warmth and humour. And the central pairing of Hiro and Baymax provide a strong backbone to the emotional message that the film is putting out. While Big Hero 6 isn’t really the masterpiece that some quarters are making it out to be, I do think it is an improvement on the likes of Wreck-It Ralph, and might well birth a franchise that could, with the ground work done, make a better effort in a few years time. For that reason, and a few others, Big Hero 6 is worth seeing. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).