Monday, November 24, 2014

2014 - Big Hero 6

Well, it’s that time again, when Disney sends a new feature careening into theaters and I, your humble blogsmith, go see it to tell you what I think. This year’s entry, number 44 overall, is Big Hero 6, an alleged adaptation of the obscure Marvel comic of the same name. Announced pretty much as soon as the Marvel merger was, the instant word, even among comics fans, was “Huh?” Personally, I thought it referred to six big heroes, like DC’s “big three”. After a while being stumped (because let’s be honest, Marvel doesn’t have an iconic “big six”. Even if you throw in Spider-Man, who they can’t use, they’ve got four, and everyone else is on teams), I learned that it was a three-issue miniseries from 1998 that had had a recent six issue revival with some different characters. A real Guardians of the Galaxy type. Apart from those nine issues, they had only a handful of background appearances in big crossovers and such.

Extensive changes were made. Original team members Sunfire and Silver Samurai were out. As X-Men characters, they’re owned by Disney, not Fox. Replacing them were variations on the replacement characters Wasabi No Ginger and Fredzilla. (Their original replacements in the comic were Sunpyre and Ebon Samurai. Really? Were you even trying with that?) But the problem with Big Hero 6 in the comics was that frankly, they could be a little racist. So Wasabi No Ginger, a sushi chef who fights with his knives, became Wasabi, a laser engineer who fights with sweet laser knives. Fredzilla, who mentally projected a big Kaiju, became Fred, a mascot in a powered suit. The other characters were also streamlined Honey Lemon’s vaguely defined super-purse became a chemical lab, Gogo’s propulsion-based powers became a motorcycle suit, and Baymax…

Well, I'll get to that. But enough about the comic. Let me talk about the movie. Specifically Baymax. Baymax is a medical robot intended as a sort of nurse. Developed by the older brother of teen genius Hiro Hamada, Baymax is large, round, and huggable, with an inflated balloon body covering his mechanical core. He is programmed to attend to his patient until they are healed, and after Hiro’s brother is killed, Baymax emerges to diagnose him with a stubbed toe, puberty, and depression. Seeking to help him heal his mind, Baymax encourages finding closure and connecting socially with family and loved ones. Hiro does this by forming his brother’s friends into a superhero team and going after the guy who killed him.

Baymax is a wonder of design, animation, writing, and performance. The timing of his every move, his little fussy walk, his constantly looking down and checking his surroundings, it’s all gold. He loses something in personality when Hiro rebuilds him into a fighting robot, but that’s mostly intentional, I think, based on a rather terrifying scene where Baymax beats up the entire team when Hiro removes his ethical programming so he’ll kill the villain. The animators masterfully worked his expression when he had the programming restored. Confusion, shock, and shame cannot be easy to render on what is essentially a circle with a line segment on it. His dialogue is typical “overly literate robot doesn’t understand people”, but written so well I didn’t at all mind the cliche. And though I was at first surprised at Scott Adsit (Moral Orel, Frankenhole, 30 Rock) being cast as the voice; I thought of him as a more darkly cynical sort of performer. But now that I’ve heard him, I can’t think of anything else.

In the comics, Baymax is a half-clone, half-robot dragon with the brain of Hiro’s dead dad.

And that’s why I barely consider this an adaptation. More of an… implication? Three of the six characters are so changed as to be unrecognizable apart from their names, the other three skirt that same line. Nobody looks anything like they did in the comic, the entire supporting cast, plot, and backstories are entirely original. And that’s a good thing. Big Hero 6 in the comics was a goofy mishmash of Japanese stereotypes. When they announced that the setting was being changed from Tokyo to “San Fransokyo”, and that the cast would be diversified, many took that to be a sign that whitewashing was on the way. But in the end, the team stayed properly diverse, with the only white male being the goofy comic relief. (Baymax is technically white in color, but is not coded as particularly white. He also seems technically genderless, but is coded male via his voice and other characters’ reaction to him.)

So that’s a lot about the development, because it interests me personally and because I want to avoid spoilers, but how is the movie? Really good, I’m pleased to say. The directors had previously done Winnie-the-Pooh and Bolt respectively, so their sense of character, action, and humor is on point. The action is particularly excellent, with the various characters’ powers being completely distinctive and complementary. There’s a bit toward the end where the villain has each of them cornered and they have to use their power in an unexpected way to counter him, and I like that creativity in a kids’ movie. The villain, who controls a swarm of inch-long robots with his mind, creates some amazingly impressive visuals. This represents a huge leap forward in animation, and I highly recommend the 3D.

The voice cast is also phenomenal. Japanese-American teen heartthrob Ryan Potter brings great youthful energy to Hiro, and Adsit as Baymax is perfect, as I said. For the rest of the team, Damon Wayans Jr. plays panic and fussiness excellently as Wasabi, as if Brad from Happy Endings became a superhero; Genesis Rodriguez bubbles as the cheerful Honey Lemon; Gogo is played by Jamie Chung, TV’s Mulan, who plays the “girl power” vibe as cartoonish but not insulting, no mean feat; and T.J. Miller as Fred adds another notch on the very small list of “time I am watching a movie with T.J. Miller in it and I don’t want to murder him.”

The supporting cast plays to their strengths. Maya Rudolph plays a frazzled oddball, James Cromwell a grizzled father figure, and Disney’s go-to shady rich guy Alan Tudyk plays a shady rich guy. And while it may not be a Marvel Studios movie, it is based on a Marvel comic, so Stan Lee gets a cameo. The kids I saw it with went nuts at this, which makes me happy.

And really, that’s what it’s all about. I made sure to see it at a time when kids would be around, and they were attentive, excited, and interested. It wasn’t a perfect movie. The villain is shallow and there’s no payoff to certain threads. But it worked, and it was fun, and it engaged the kids, and that’s what a superhero movie should be. Take notes, DC. Your Justice League movies are going to be garbage. Try to have some fun.


* This is pretty long for a mini-review, but I really do want to avoid spoilers.

* I also liked T.J. Miller in How to Train Your Dragon and Cloverfield, so it’s entirely possible I just hate his face.

* I saw this at the dine-in theater, and ordered the chicken fingers, because they’re low-effort and I had a temporary crown in. I was pleasantly surprised. Nice and crispy, good variety of sauces, and the fries were plentiful. Server was kinda creepy, though. I also got a waffle sundae, because hey, it’s a party. That was freaking delicious. Not to be one of those internet bacon people, but candied bacon is the best ice cream topping.

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