There’s something necessary to take note of in the coming years and it is the possibility that Walt Disney Animation Studios has been finding itself in the throes of a second Renaissance since the decade began. After a brief wash-up of hand-drawn animated flops unfortunately as well as some ill-advised attempts to merge animation styles that doesn’t exactly go down so well for most audiences, Walt Disney Animation Studios eventually adopted the computer animation technique and even took John Lasseter from their then-new acquisition of Pixar along for a ride and got their fingers in a lot of project pies.
With these moves, Disney has been able to remain relevant in the world of animation cinema and hasn’t entirely dismissed hand-drawn animation altogether (what with the releases of The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh) so much as it saw that moving on with the world on computer animated works was what was going to keep the company afloat. But, of course, this is Disney we’re talking about – an animation company that ideally pushed the game of animation no matter what direction it took, and while it has made astonishingly profound leaps in animation during this decade that we’ve never seen before, it has taken its time to make its world more lived-in and filled with character. From the storybook aesthetic of Tangled – its blended animation style of hand-drawn sensibilities applied to the CGI content giving it more volume than we expected – to the frozen surround snowscapes of Frozen, their movies have usually been at least a dazzling vibrancy for two hours in the theater.
Which is why it pains me so much to have seen Big Hero 6 and find it so completely… ordinary.
It’s not a bad film. It’s really not. If nothing else, it is a good movie. One that you’d pop into the tv screen and sit and leave going “ok, that was a nice distraction for an hour and a half.” But it doesn’t really feel like something to stand out alongside the four other great works of this era in the studio’s work. And while it should be very obvious that every work of WDAS is a completely manufactured project done to keep the studio from falling into the dark abyss that Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet live in, Big Hero 6 is the one movie that can’t really hide it.
Let’s start with the story: In the city of San Fransokyo, Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is an orphaned 14-year-old robotics genius who lives with his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) under the care of their Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph). Under his brother’s guidance, he begins to apply his gift into creating a bot for a University that would surely get him accepted and have him join Tadashi’s pals in the program – Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), Gogo Tomago (Jamie Chung), and Fred (T.J. Miller). From the actors I named, it should be extremely obvious what personalities these characters have.
Hiro’s project brings down the house figuratively and then a fire brings it down literally and takes Tadashi with it. After grieving, Hiro becomes acquainted with a passion project of Tadashi’s, the robot medic Baymax (Scott Adsit) and the two discover some of Hiro’s applications are being stolen and used for a sinister plot, sending them straight into action.
Very loosely based on the Marvel comic series Big Hero 6 to the point of near loss of recognition, the plot is pretty much lean. Incredibly lean. Like so lean that like the vinyl skin of Baymax, if you press your head into it lightly, you will be able to count all the simple story beats and know that it feels like a hastily constructed treatment of an idea rather than a full-fledged story itself. So lean that with each emotional beat, we only get shown to know the circumstances of what happened and then we get shoved into the next moment in the story without any time to let it sink in with the audience. So lean that you can count back all of the stock characters the Big Hero 6 take up and realize that they never really grow beyond that. So lean that the world doesn’t extend as much as the story itself demands, meaning we don’t get to see as much of San Fransokyo or get any idea how it feels to live within its borders, unlike the Kingdoms of Tangled and Frozen or even the video games of Wreck-It Ralph. The city isn’t even given much of a passing wave as a creation, the work of the designers feels neglected, the work of the actors only coloring inside the lines and leaving still some blank space.
See, story-telling wise, the movie is not a movie, so much as it feels like a pilot episode for some upcoming Big Hero 6 tv series on Disney X D (which I will be very surprised if that turns out not to be the case). After their recent acquisition of Marvel, Disney probably just went digging for a property they thought could appeal to a young audience alongside the constant comic book craze, found Big Hero 6, and screamed “Yes! This is the one! Fast track this, huhuh!” Which is all good and fine and it’s still complete storytelling going in and going out (save for some pretty unconvincing motivations from the villain Yokai), but I might have been spoiled by previous Walt Disney Animation Studios because it still just doesn’t feel like a full-on movie. It feels like that Saturday Morning pilot. It’s too generically attached to its own skeleton of superhero tropes and animation tropes.
Even the voice work is completely dry. The best part of the movie is undoubtedly the character of Baymax, with his cuddly design and amusing attempts to compute with adolescent behavior as the sole anchor of interest to the whole film – Adsit’s robotic and matter-of-fact deliveries of “Ba-la-la-la-la” and “Oh no” have at least kept me smiling, no matter what context or circumstance. But he’s still a robot and Adsit carries that blankness believably in his voice work.
When the empty robot is the only automatic emotional anchor you have, regardless of how well enough the other actors have done (Rudolph herself is a great big ball of energy while voicing her character, balancing between parent-like hysteria and beat generation lax and Miller is just… well, he’s exactly like Miller), you kind of don’t have much stakes to go on. And then, they exhaust those stakes and take them back in the last act of the film, which is one of two sequences that descends into the action-film madness that the Marvel Studios films have kept wrapping themselves up with constantly that we’re kind of used to it. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if the climax of the film felt like another copy of The Avengers and Pacific Rim. But that’s almost saying too much…
In any case, despite the leanness of the story and the dryness of the voice work, we still have some great looking animation and designs from the animators and the software Hyperion and Denizen utilized to at least fill up the screen with wondrously neon color and life as a picture. There’s a whole lotta Tezuka Osamu in this film, from the first Baymax sunset flight scene that throttles cheers out of the throats of children in the audience to the candy colored suits of each of the Big Hero 6 members. My particular favorite is Fred’s suit – it says a lot that a movie is willing to believably use visuals to make Giant Monsters ridiculous even in a movie with multiple dimensions and lovable squishy medic bots.
But it’s still not exactly anything new. It’s all stuff we’ve seen before from either Marvel or the Disney animated films prior and so it’s just more white noise.
I will repeat one more time, Big Hero 6 isn’t a bad movie. In fact, I’d say it works a lot better inside itself than Interstellar did as a movie. Big Hero 6 is a good movie. But on the lineup of the Disney Animation trend that has been running since Tangled grabbed it out of its dying grave, I really really don’t think it’s anything to write home about.
Of course, I didn’t leave the theater feeling entirely shortened out. As much as I enjoy saying that I at least like all of the Disney Renaissance 2.0 films, I especially feel like it’s worth stating that the short films that precede the features themselves always steal the show…
Feast is no exception. The tale of an (apparently immortal considering the timespan) puppy who is fed generously by his owner (and poorly, but I’m ignoring all these things) as the pup bears witness to the owner’s emotional arc revolving around a woman he is infatuated with is a pretty little ditty that was shown right before the actual film Big Hero 6 and it is adorable.
The animation itself is totally gorgeous seamless in its shadow leakage, the color makes it look like a mix and match of traditional animation color palettes, lending it a stunning believable 2D grounding to view it on… but I could only imagine how wonderful it had looked on 3D.
The story is as simple as it can get, but telling it through the broad point of view of a puppy is just the cheapest way to get audiences invested in the going-ons of the film. But it works. And it works fabulously.
And I also might be biased by how much of an animal person I am.
I really can’t go much further on from that, but I promise you that if Big Hero 6 doesn’t end up being your thing (and I’d at least imagine a great deal of people like it, given it beating Interstellar at the box office), Feast will be a great treat to satisfy your animation jones.