When Disney bought Marvel a few years ago one of the first things fans wanted to know was when we’d get a Marvel property animated by Disney. It’s not that people don’t love the live action films but moving into animation grants a much wider and grander canvas to play with and would allow for properties that would be difficult, or at the very least expensive, to do in live action (Eternals, Warlock and a decent Silver Surfer for example).
I do not think anyone thought that the first Disney/Marvel animated film was going to be Big Hero 6.
Since approximately 10 people know who Big Hero 6 are here’s a brief explanation. Initially spinning out of Alpha Flight (yes, these guys are less famous and popular than Alpha Flight, the super-hero team whose high concept is, we’re Canadian) and a 3 issue mini in the late 90’s; Big Hero 6 are the national super-hero team of Japan. The team is composed of a mix of established Japanese characters like Sunfire and the Silver Samurai and some newer oddball creations like Go-Go Tomago. They later got a mini by Chris Claremont in 2008 and bar a few cameos that’s it. That’s pretty much all you need to know.
Why then would Disney want to make a film of this?
Well because Disney is very interested in Japan right now. Japan wasn’t as badly affected by the recession as America and Europe (don’t get me wrong, it was affected, the but the economy was still fairly flat from the mid-90’s Japanese recession and so it was a smaller dip than experienced in the west) making Japan the largest and most attractive non-China market out there. And since there are plenty of reasons Disney expanding in China is a problem (that we won’t go into today) it makes sense that they want to expand into Japan. It also helps that Disney is already huge there, in fact it’s easily the biggest non-native cultural force in the country, with two Disney theme parks and merchandise is as seemingly omni-present as it is in Orlando. Licenses for things like Stitch and Winnie the Pooh are huge.
And if you know anything about Japanese culture you’ve probably spotted some attempts to make Disney products more palatable to Japanese consumers recently. Take Wreck-it-Ralph. As well as including numerous cameos from Japanese characters (Bowser, Sonic, Pac-Man) it prominently featured the mascot of a Japanese cream puff company, Beard Papa, and even a song by idol group AKB48. This is the most Japanese film Disney has yet released.
And yet Wreck-it-Raph wasn’t so Japanese that it alienated domestic audiences either. Partly that’s because guys like Sonic are well known to U.S. audiences already but also it’s because Japanese culture is more widely known in America these days anyway. Disney may have missed the anime and manga bubble by a few years but Japanese culture has impacted western culture in a way that isn’t going away any time soon. You only have to look at Transformers or Pacific Rim or the upcoming Godzilla to see that Hollywood still sees a lot of potential in repurposing Japanese ideas.
So coming out with a super-hero animated movie with a distinctly Japanese feel makes a lot of sense. It has the potential to sell well back home, sell hugely in Japan and leave a licensing legacy Disney can exploit for years to come.
Big Hero 6 may not be the best characters to do this with.
And it’s not because they’re lesser known characters. Iron Man was widely considered a second string super-hero prior to the first Robert Downey Junior film and he’s now one of the biggest and most popular supes in the wider pop culture consciousness. And let’s not forget Blade, the film that started off the current Super-Hero movie era. Nobody outside of comics, and most people who do read comics, had heard of Blade, and for those that had he wasn’t exactly their favourite character. But there was enough potential there to make a very competent action film and the rest is history.
No, Big Hero 6 has the potential to be a great film, but there’s also the strong potential to be an offensive one. That’s because the characters in Big Hero 6 walk a very thin line between affectionate homage to Japanese icons and a patronising joke about how stupid and silly those characters are.
Discounting Sunfire and the Silver Samurai, because they’re mutants and so tied up with the X-Men rights and setting and probably won’t make it into the Big Hero 6 film, you’re left with Hiro, Baymax, Honey Lemon, Go-Go Tomago, Wasabi-no-Ginger and Fred.
Hiro and Baymax are clearly affectionate homages to a number of Japanese characters. Hiro is a super-genius kid who builds a robot protector for himself. That’s an idea that mixes bits of Getter Robo, Tetsujin 28 and even the Kenny’s from Godzilla. However it’s also a strong idea without the Japanese elements. A boy and his pet robot? You can easily imagine that as an animated film *cough* Iron Giant *cough*
And then there’s Go-Go Tomago who, aside from Hiro, is the only character to have much of a personality. She’s a former biker gang member and criminal given a second lease on life by volunteering to pilot a suit of armour that lets her bounce around like a human pachinko ball (a kind of Japanese version of pinball that is the most mind numbingly boring activity a human being can possibly engage in) and makes her look a little bit like a Power Ranger. Again she’s a combination of Japanese concepts but one that is played straight and still works as a straight super-hero.
Unfortunately her name is wrong. She’s called Tomago because she’s supposed to resemble an egg but the Japanese word for egg is tAmago, not tOmago as the Official Hand Book to the Marvel Universe would have you believe.
And then with Honey Lemon it starts to get silly.
Honey Lemon (a play on long running Japanese superhero Cutie Honey) has a purse that allows her to draw weapons and devices from other dimensions (shades of Doraemon) which is really pushing what you can get away with in a straight super-hero story and is verging on parody territory.
Fred is just some guy in a t-shirt and hat, but when he fights he manifests his ki, or spirit energy, in the form of a giant ghostly dinosaur that’s not unlike Godzilla. It’s kind of a silly concept but I like Fred for just how oddball he is and the interesting visual he offers.
Finally there’s Wasabi-no-Ginger which is a name that is simply unacceptable. Honey Lemon’s stretching it but Wasabi-no-Ginger isn’t a clever pun so much as it is the equivalent of a Japanese comic introducing a morbidly obese character in a cowboy hat called Burger McRanchdressing. Try and count the stereotypes in this short character description guys. He’s a sushi chef (1) but also a samurai (2) who fights by using katana (3) and sushi knives (4) that he makes from his body whilst wearing wooden sandals (5) and a Hawaiian shirt (6?). Whilst the other characters are a spin on existing Japanese characters Wasabi-no-Ginger is the result of throwing everything Chris Claremont knows about Japan (sushi, samurais…Hawaiian shirts?) into a blender and calling the result a character. You know in the Super Friends how the Native American guy who grew got called Apache Chief rather than something that described his powers like Giant Man, or Gigantor. That is the level of patronising we’re dealing with here in Wasabi-no-Ginger.
So it’s a concept that can easily go either way. Played straight it can be an affectionate pastiche of Japanese super-heroes but one that also functions as a proper super-hero narrative with good strong character hooks such as boy and his robot or former criminal seeks redemption. Play it for laughs though and it could quickly lapse into a series of embarrassing stereotypes.
What we’ve heard so far from Disney doesn’t really help us know much either way. The concept art looks amazing but the setting, San-Frantokyo, sounds fairly hokey.
Oh, and for those that might be interested in tracking down the original comics, don’t bother. The original 3 issue mini has never been collected and whilst it’s okay it isn’t worth the effort to find it. The later Chris Claremont mini is aggressively terrible. Not only does it feature trademark tedious Chris Claremont mind control (editors, please, please stop letting Chris Claremont write mind control stories) but the characters all get turned into his stock types too, that’s if they’re not reduced to boring ciphers. The plot is so thin as to be barely there and it spends most of two out of its 5 issue run focused on our heroes infiltrating an American high school and taking part in an American football game for absolutely no reason.