Big Hero 6 (dir. Don Hall & Chris Williams)

Posted: December 5, 2014 in Uncategorized

It’s a breath of fresh air to see a pro-science movie.  This may seem odd, but most films which feature science heavily in the plot are films which are indicting science for running amok (“Jurassic Park”), or creating a dystopia (“Gattaca”, though I’d argue that film is more against discrimination than eugenics), or leading to the end of humanity (“The Terminator”, “The Matrix”, and nearly any film about artificial intelligence).  “Big Hero 6” loves science, and as such its main theme seems to be about humans misappropriating good science for bad ends.  If humans just used science the way it is supposed to be used, science would be fine.  Humans are the issue, not science.

Take the set-up of this film, for example. The non-subtly named Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) is a young teenage prodigy who graduated high school early.  He spends his free time hustling people with a little robot he made for back alley robot battles, to the consternation of his older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney).  Tadashi is similarly brilliant and goes to an MIT-like college where he is working on a robot, Baymax (Scott Adsit), which is to be used as a cuddling healthcare companion (think EMT meets nurse meets supercomputer, but with a childlike naivety on behavioral issues).  When Tadashi shows Hiro his cool lab, and his peers and their experiments, Hiro becomes determined to get accepted to this awesome school.  Think about it: a film aimed at children (and teenagers, it seems) where the first act is about a kid who desperately wants to get into a good school to get an education and do something productive with his talents.  Whatever insidious messages this film might possibly have under the surface (I took a class on Disney films in college and know that almost all of these films have something nefarious), the surface itself of this film stands out as remarkably forward-thinking.

Hiro creates these cool little minibots which, when controlled by a user’s neural pathways, can form an almost limitless variations of geometrical and architectural shapes.  He shows them off at an expo competition aimed at getting accepted to the college by Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell), and Hiro does indeed get accepted.  But then a fire breaks out, Tadashi runs in to save Callaghan, and they both perish.  Stricken with grief, Hiro retreats into himself until, by accident, he awakens Baymax, and the plot proceeds from there.

This is an animated film, and it’s pretty much par for the course at this point to point out how beautiful this thing looks.  The setting for this film is the fictional mash-up of San Francisco and Tokyo called San Fransokyo.  You may have noticed the Japanese names of the brothers.  It is a tad bit disappointing that the Japanese influence in this film is mostly cosmetic and adds almost nothing to the film plot-wise.  Seeing pagodas and bonsai trees are pretty awesome, and little touches like Hiro’s aunt (Maya Rudolph) having a café with a Japanese Lucky Cat logo, as well as an actual cat who looks like a Japanese Lucky Cat, are pretty sweet.  The issue I have is that the film only appropriates Japanese iconography for visual stimulation.  There is no reason this film couldn’t take place in normal San Francisco with a main character named Harry except the filmmakers wanting to pay homage to “Big Hero 6” being loosely based on a manga.  It’s playing to an audience that soaks up Japanese pop culture but has no interest in Japan itself whatsoever.  Though, admittedly, the extra bit of visual interest this adds does elevate the eye candy to a new level.  This isn’t the dystopic Neo-Tokyo of “Akira”.  This feel s like a vibrant, lived-in yet clean near-future.

Beyond that, the animation is superb.  There are elements here and there, like a bush or a chain link fence, that practically look photo real.  In fact, if the human characters weren’t so “How to Train Your Dragon”-blandly designed certain frames of this film would be indistinguishable from a live-action film (not many, but some).  Objects and elements look and feel like they have weight, heft, and three dimensions.  There’s detail packed into every corner that makes you want to be able to pause the film and drink in background ephemera.  This is a pretty, pretty movie to look at.  Perhaps the female characters could have been designed less like teenaged boys daydreams.  The unrealistically waifishly skinny Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), the punkish tough girl GoGo (Jaime Chung), and even Maya Rudolph’s Aunt Cass are all unusually pretty, thin, tastefully but noticeably busted, and crafted to have personalities catering to teenboy fantasies of a Manic Pixie (Honey Lemon), a cool tough chick (GoGo), and a hot older woman who can make really spicy fried chicken (Aunt Cass).  These are unusually crush-worthy female characters in an already male-centric film (what with superheroes and action scenes), and I question why these characters seem aimed to please young boys and not young girls.

Minor quibble, I guess.  Anyway, the film eventually does fall into being a somewhat run-of-the-mill superhero tale, wherein Hiro assembles a team of superheroes to take down a villain, in this case a kabuki mask-wearing guy who has stolen Hiro’s microbots and set the fire that killed Tadashi.  Considering how refreshing and original the first act is, it was kind of a shame to see this become yet another superhero film, albeit a very pretty one that is often tremendously funny and cute.  Much of the humor comes from Baymax, who sees all issues through the eyes of a caregiver who must keep Hiro healthy, and doesn’t understand how this or that task helps to enrich the health of his subject.

I said previously that the main theme of this film revolves around the misappropriation of good science.  This film gives us a villain who wants to use the minibots, a great and useful invention, for simple revenge.  We get a rich financier (Alan Tudyk) who cuts corners while working on a matter transporter (which I wish the filmmakers didn’t make look exactly like a Stargate, since it does exactly what a Stargate does too), to the detriment of an employee.  We also get Hiro, who at one point wants to use the helpful and chipper Baymax as a weapon which could hurt someone.  When Baymax asks Hiro if a revenge murder would “improve your emotional state”, we pretty much have a Disney argument against the death penalty, a revenge-minded and punishment-guided justice system, and firearm ownership all in a neat, one-line package.  All of these inventions are great, all of their respective inventors created them with good ideas for them in mind, and all are attempted to be co-opted or co-opted by others who wish to use them for unintended, nefarious means.  So the problem is not the science, or even the inventing scientist (good science is often co-opted by the inventor themselves in sci-fi stories), but by outsiders driven by emotion or greed.  You don’t recognize how rare this is done in films until you try to list other films where science is portrayed positively in and of itself, and if it is co-opted it is not by the inventor (and the science itself was not originally created for nefarious means).

I liked this film primarily because of its humor, its amazing visuals, and a refreshingly pro-science message.  I just wish it had a more original plot trajectory.  The first act is excellent.  If the film had stayed on course with that, it’d be one of the best films of the year.  After that, it gets caught up in being a kid-friendly, positive “Avengers”.  Not to mention that it is extremely evident from early on who the villain is.  The plot progresses pretty much exactly as you expect it to, and that hampers the fun a bit.  You keep wishing the second and third acts had the brilliant originality of that first act.  Oh well.

All of that being said, this is a very fun film, and well worth seeing. B+

NOTE: The film proper is preceded by a short animated film called “Feast”, about a dog who is fed very generous table scraps until his owner starts dating a woman who eats healthy.  It is very cute and funny and I enjoyed it immensely.

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