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Big Hero 6 (2015)

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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?

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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)

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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.

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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).

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Guardians of the Galaxy 2014

Directed by James Gunn

Since the general consensus amongst critics seems to be that Guardians of the Galaxy is absolutely amazing (as I write this it has a 92% on rotten tomatoes) I thought I’d take the unusual approach of listing all the flaws I thought it had.

It has weak villains

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This is becoming a major problem for Marvel Studios films. Although I have yet to come across a Marvel Studios film I don’t like, the lack of interesting villains is starting to become a noticeable theme. You’ve got Loki (who is amazing), various greasy arms/corporate guys in the Iron Man films and lots of big bad evil with a capital E ranting guys who want to destroy things (Malekith, Red Skull). Ronan the Accuser falls into the latter group and spends the majority of his screen time delivering overwrought dialogue that feels very super villainy but which doesn’t advance his motivation, pose an interesting ethical dilemma or even convey much personality. You can replace everything actor Lee Pace says with “I am evil” and get much the same effect.

It’s even worse in the case of Ronan since the comic’s version is a very good villain. Ronan is driven by very strong ideals of justice and obedience to the law, I’s just that the law he follows is inherently corrupt so he ends up on the side opposed to our heroes more often than not. He’s basically Javier in space with a hammer. Yet like all good villains he is the hero of his own story and like every Marvel villain ever who was written well enough he’s fallen on the side of angels a few times too.

Movie Ronan though, big evil dude with a hammer. The most character he gets is when Thanos says he’s pouty and my fiancé and I both laughed out loud because yeah, dude is really pouty.

Thanos seems awesome at this stage btw but is barely in the film. Yondu was okay but more of a side character than an antagonist and Nebula was just kind of there. The film gave her enough back story for a potentially interesting relationship with Thanos and Gamora but not enough screen time to explore it. I suspect we’ll see more of Nebula when we finally get to the Infinity Gauntlet.

Its action is underwhelming

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In an action film you expect the action set pieces to be inventive, exciting and memorable. In Guardians they are largely not. They’re functional. Action happens in all the places you expect it to in the story and no action scene feels bad but equally none of them stand out for me as much as the Nightcrawler scene in X-Men 2, the battle for New York in Avengers (and the amazing shot that joins all the characters) or the Winter Soldier’s attack on the bridge. Guardians absolutely works as a comedy and the moments that stand out in the film are the gags and character beats but as an action film the action should be special too.*

Gamora is kind of dull

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Gamora’s character arc happens off-screen. She goes from being a universally renowned assassin working for some of the most dangerous villains in the galaxy to a good guy trying to save it between her first appearance and her second. That’s a big swing for a character and the actual character progression she has on screen during the film, going from having a stick up her ass to having it slightly less far up her ass, is not quite as compelling.

Worse still, because of the way the character dynamics are set up in this film Gamora ends up being the member of the team that is most noble, most concerned with helping others and saving the day. She fulfils a very necessary narrative function because without her the other fuck ups that form the Guardians would not be properly motivated to engage in the plot. It’s just a shame that they gave that function to Gamora who, in the comics, is one of the colder, less emotional, less noble and more badass characters. It leaves Gamora kind of bland since everything about her comic’s version is gone and the movie doesn’t invent very much to replace it with.

Having said that, this might only be a problem for people familiar with comic Gamora. I know plenty of people who loved her character and thought she made a refreshing change from female characters in other super hero films so maybe she only comes across as white bread compared to her more robust comic counterpart.**

It was thematically weak

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This sort of comes back to the villain thing. The way super hero stories deal with theme most of the time is quite ingenious, you literalise it. You turn the thing you’re talking about into a person or object that your hero can interact with. Want to say that racism is bad? Make a super-villain called racist-man, give him racist themed super powers and have the X-Men punch him. Unsubtle and not very nuanced but awesome, and that’s one of the reasons I love super-hero stories.

When you have villains who are just evil for the sake of evil though you can’t do that. That doesn’t mean you can’t have thematic weight but you’ve sort of missed the point of super hero stories as far as I’m concerned. If you’re using Ronan your story normally is about the role of authority, that was not a factor in GOTG.

What theme’s Guardians does have are shallow and clichéd. The idea of making a surrogate family out of your friends is fine but it has been done to death and better in other sci-fi fare (most notably Firefly and Farscape which GOTG is heavily influenced by). The character’s do have arcs but the arcs don’t form a cohesive theme, Quill’s arc about learning to take responsibility has nothing to do with Gamora’s arc about being less stiff or Drax;s arc about coming to terms wit the loss of his family.

The plot was bobbins

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This is a flaw in basically every super-hero film except Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The plot can be a big part of the appeal of a story. Who wants what, why and how? What will happen next and where? Will our heroes live or die and what will the consequences of their actions be? You watch something like The Bourne films and the appeal is all in the plot. Same with a lot of TV, cliff-hangers, plot twists and developments in the story are exciting for the audience.

In most comic book movies though, the plot is merely a framework to get from one action set piece to another. Nobody gives two shits what Loki is doing in Avengers of why, they come for the character interaction and the fight scenes, they come for the awesome. Ditto GOTG, the story is very basic and largely devoid of much tension or enigma. However it provides a framework for great comedic and action set pieces.

That scene with Gamora and Star-Lord in space is bullshit

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It is and you know it.

So wait, you ask. You didn’t like the plot, the themes or some of the characters. Does that mean you didn’t like Guardians of the Galaxy?

Guys.

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I absolutely adored it. It is awesome!

I can’t recall which critic said it but their review of Avengers was basically that it defied conventional critical analysis because the plot, themes and other things critics normally talk about were irrelevant to the success of the film. Avengers was about being awesome, and it delivered the awesome. Ditto GOTG except GOTG is more focused on being funny.

Another thing Avengers and GOTG have in common? Great writing, great acting and great direction. Those three things will cover a multitude of sins. Your movie can be an empty hollow nothing with a mess of a plot that’s got holes you can fly a space ship through but if you deliver interesting characters with charisma that I like hanging out with, have them throwing out dialogue which had me crying with laughter and it put them in a setting which is inventive and imaginative then you win. Worked for GOTG, worked for Star Wars, worked for Indiana Jones, worked for Clerks, worked for James Bond for 40 years and it’ll work again.

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Just as final note, Rocket and Groot are he stand out character undoubtedly but they’re also my favourite characters from the comics. What impressed me more was Drax, a fairly dull guy in the comics but hilarious on screen. Drax has been both a smart character and a dumb one in the comics over the years but the idea to make him of normal intelligence but completely literal is both hilarious and adds many layers to his character. Bautista’s performance was a revelation too, he has great comic timing and I’m hoping for big things from him in the future.

*The only action set-pieces people bring up are Yondu’s arrow and Groot smashing a row of villains both of which are really visual gags.

**on the topic of Gamora I just want to mention briefly that this film barely squeaks by the Bechdel Test since most of her interactions with Nebula revolve around the topic of Thanos or Ronan. They do have some dialogue about each other directly though so it passes. Next time I’d like to see Phyla-Vell, Moondragon or Mantis on the team to beef out the female character count a bit. Or even Star-Hawk in the both a man and woman incarnation of the character.

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