Big Hero 6 (2015)
Direct by Don Hall and Chris Williams
So after a couple of articles all about Big Hero 6, the comic, and my thoughts on the possible ways Disney could adapt it I finally got a chance to watch the finished product.
And it’s pretty fantastic.
But what did I think about it as an adaptation?
Well, despite that being the topic of all my previous posts on Big Hero 6 when I got to see the finished film it quickly became apparent that this is one of the loosest adaptations of any property ever. I kind of suspected as much once we started to get some character and plot details, and also from the total lack of any acknowledgement that this is a Marvel property but the main things the film and comic share are some names, some powers (loosely), a few design elements (even looser) and a sort of Japanese feel.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. None of the original characters are particular winners (well, maybe Sunfire but he’s originally an X-Men supporting character/anti-hero) and nobody’s powers had an amazing unique concept (although I do like Fred and his Kaiju monster aura). There isn’t a great definitive Big Hero 6 story that everyone loves so, yeah, as long as you keep the high concept of super-heroes but vaguely Japanese, change whatever you want.
So how is the film itself as its own beast?
(Spoilers, sort of, most of this is set-up)
Well, the film tells the story of Hiro (Ryan Potter who is Japanese/American, which is fantastic), young orphaned genius and his older brother Tadashii (Daniel Henney and FYI Tadashii is not a name. Is it so hard to ask a Japanese person if the word you’re using for a character name is a real first name of total gibberish? Well, not gibberish since it does mean right or correct but it isn’t a first name) who is similarly a genius. Hiro spends his days hustling illegal street bot fights for cash, Tadashii spends his days at University in a specialised programme for geniuses where they get to work on whatever interests them. Tadashii is dismayed at his brother’s lack of ambition and brings him to his school to see his latest project, Baymax (Scott Adsit), an inflatable medical robot that will live in people’s homes and help them with psychiatric and physical medical assistance. There Hiro also meets Tadashii’s friends who are all idiosyncratic geniuses with their own interests and personality quirks. And Fred (T. J. Miller), who is the school’s mascot.
Hiro is inspired and desperately wants to join the school but to do so he needs to demonstrate something impressive. So he starts working on some micro-bots, think a cross between nano-bots and lego. They’re finger sized magnetic robots that can be mentally controlled to re-shape and build larger structures. He shows them off at an expo and everyone is suitably impressed leading to Hiro getting his school placement. He doesn’t get to enjoy it though because a fire starts at the expo, destroying his work and killing Tadashii.
Hiro, understandably, falls into a depression after this as his brother and best friend is dead and the only thing that snaps him out of his funk is the accidental discovery of a mysterious masked figure using his micro-bots to commit crimes. Well, that and Baymax who is programmed to try and treat his depression. With the help of a modified Baymax and Tadashii’s friends Hiro sets out to catch the thief.
The main strengths of Big hero 6 are the writing and the characters. This is a Disney film that, despite all the fantastic elements, feels very real and honest emotionally. Hiro’s personal arc is both engaging and really feels like something a teenaged boy would go through, and it’s paced marvellously too. And at the heart of that arc is the relationship between Hiro and Baymax.
I said in the build up that there’s a lot of potential in “ a boy and his….” Narratives. From Old Yeller to Iron Giant to How to Train your Dragon there is something about the relationship between teenaged boys and non-human friends that is really effecting and Hiro and Baymax are another highlight in this tradition. Baymax in particular is wonderful. Equal parts hilarious, caring, warm and adorable with a smidgen of badass. He’s the big brother everyone wishes they could have. He’s also just a great comic creation and Scott Adsit’s measured delivery of every line delivers some really great deadpan humour (if you’ve seen this film, you did a fist bump and went fa la la la la la la la, do not deny it).
The animation is, of course, spectacular. The flying and chase scenes have a sense of thrill and danger to them that puts most live action films to shame and the big action sequences with the team showing off their powers and fighting the villain are everything I want in super hero movies. Bright, colourful characters using their powers in creative ways and teaming up to look cool and kick ass. Much like Incredibles before it Big Hero 6 is so confident and creative in showing off super powers that it just highlights how limited and boring the action scenes in the Marvel movies, Man of Steel or the X-Men franchise have been. There’ so much invention in the fights and they’re choreographed so clearly and fluidly that my main complaint with the action is that there isn’t nearly enough of it.
The animation really soars in the details though. San Fransokyo is a masterful creation, it feels really lived in and is full of details that make it both aesthetically interesting and are really fun for a nerdy otaku like me to spot. Fred’s room in particular is one for the super nerds. He has a statue of sleepwalker in there! He has a statue of Black Talon. Black Talon, the guy who dresses like a chicken and fought the avengers once in the 70’s. Black Talon made it into a film before Wonder Woman!
San Fransokyo was one of the elements I was most worried about mostly because in the trailer it came off as more Chinese than Japanese. However, the creators have explained that the concept is that in this reality Chinatown has expanded to encompass the whole of San Francisco, so this is an American city with very obvious Chinese and Japanese elements. That makes a lot more sense and really comes across in the design. Stuff like Hiro’s robot anime posters, the cat named mochi or Honey Lemon pronouncing “photo-photo” with a really good Japanese accent make it feel Asian in a subtle and all-encompassing way that’s more effective and markedly less offensive than the original comics. Plus it just feels cool. It’s all the really iconic and awesome parts of modern Japanese culture nicked and combined in one sleek package.
My main complaint is that the other 4 team members get very little screen time or development. This is a story of 4 characters, Hiro, Tadashii (who dies), Baymax and the antagonist (whose identity is a secret). And that’s fine, there isn’t anything wrong with telling a focused narrative with a few side characters. Indeed, the narrative is stronger for its tight focus and excellent pacing. But the film is called Big Hero 6 not Hiro and Baymax and we have 4 other guys who get very little to do. And that wouldn’t be so bad except that I really like these other characters and want to see more of them. Wasabi no Ginger becomes Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr), nerdy black guy (I bring it up because I’m super happy he isn’t a horrible Asian stereotype like the comics character) with OCD and laser knives. Go Go (Jamie Chung) keeps her rebellious snarky personality but trades in bouncing like an egg for skating on frictionless magnetic bike wheels. Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) is the complete opposite of the sexually dominating flirty comics character and is a shy, slightly clumsy but very sweet and caring typical girly girl with a purse that’s also a chemical factory. Then there’s Fred, who is pure unbridled fanboy excitement in a rubber monster suit that lets him jump high and breathe fire.
Fred could so easily have been annoying but I love him. He reminds me of me.
I like these characters, a lot. They’re fun, they have clear well defined personalities and they have wonderful chemistry together. And they have cool and varied powers. My favourite moments in the film (aside from just, everything Baymax does) are their training montage and the fights where they get to show off their skills. I just wish we had more time with them in costume fighting guys. I understand that in the original concept there was more of this but it got cut to tighten the focus. Hopefully we can get a sequel or a TV series to flesh these guys out more.
So in summary Big Hero 6 is a classic family film narrative enlivened by an imaginative setting. great characters and some clever jokes. It’s not ground breaking in any way but it’s hard to find fault in it really.
It isn’t better than The Lego Movie though.