Now is a great time to be Disney. Not only are they producing the next Star Wars film (which has a real chance of robbing Avatar of its position as the most financially successful film ever) but they are also the studio that owns Marvel who made films including Avengers (third most financially successful film ever) and Iron Man 3 (sixth most financially successful film ever). Of course, with Frozen (fifth most financially successful film ever) they have also just taken back their crown from Pixar (which is a company they also own) as the champions of American animation.
For their latest gig they have taken a previously unfilmed Marvel comics story and turned it into a big CGI cartoon. Big Hero 6 in its original incarnation debuted on the page in 1998. It centres around a group of Japanese government appointed, newly manufactured superheroes which include scientists, secret agents and samurai. One of their number is Hiro, a teenage genius who builds a robot bodyguard capable of transforming into a dragon.
The links between this film and the source material are actually pretty slight and it doesn’t feel like your average Marvel movie either, beyond the Stan Lee cameo and the obligatory post credit sequence. What Disney have done is pick up the boy hero and his robot buddy and, literally in the case of the android, made them a lot more cuddly. The question is what does it mostly compare to? Pixar’s brilliant superhero pic The Incredibles or Disney’s own recent attempt at a superhero toon, the underwhelming Bolt.
Well, inevitably, it is somewhere between the two. It doesn’t have the tight witty script, endearing characters or involving story of the best of Pixar’s work but neither is it laboured and derivative as with some of the Disney films that missed the mark.
The thing is that Disney Animation Studios just don’t do as well in contemporary settings. The less-cynical, less satirical, more fantastical, more romantic style that they excel in works beautifully in their fairytales but when they step out of their comfort zone they falter. Movies like Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians worked well but the fifties and early sixties was a very different time to now. Planet Earth in the new Millennium just doesn’t seem to suit their sensibilities.
The possible exception to this is Lilo & Stitch but this only strengthens my argument. Hawaii may have mobile phones but it is a very different world to the one most of us live in, especially the romanticised version they gave us. There is no way that film would have worked had it been set in the city. They are not terrible films by any stretch but animated features like Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons and Planes just don’t stand out. They don’t have that Disney magic.
Of course Big Hero 6 is set in a city, the city of San Fransokyo in fact which literally transfers the Japanese setting of the original story to the United States of America. The backgrounds looks great but it is not this part of the film that really works. The strength of the movie lies with the boy hero and his big inflatable robot.
Animated odd couples are of course an area in which Disney do excel and Hiro and Baymax continue this tradition. They are kind of Mowgli and Baloo with their characters switched. The energetic kid has the smarts this time and his tubby buddy the innocence and eagerness to please. Their relationship is the glue that holds the film together and without them Big Hero 6 would be fairly forgettable.
The design of bouncy Baymax is high point all by itself. Comfortably familiar, in Apple’s world of smooth white hardware, but simultaneously original. In retrospect there is a family resemblance to Wall.E’s Eve but this didn’t occur to me at the time, so different is his balloonish construction. Filling the guy with air also turns out to be comedy gold and much humour is derived from his various states of deflation. The studio even uses him to bring back the funny drunk, a surprisingly common convention from their earlier films but now a little taboo. He’s low on battery power you understand, not actually inebriated, but the result is exactly the same.
I don’t think Big Hero 6 is going to be a classic but it is still a fun trip to the movies. It feels like the set up for a series which is surprisingly rare for Disney, commercially minded as they are. If there is a Big Hero 7 my gut feeling is that it won’t be great but for now there is enough here to entertain kids and grown ups alike.
The Ripley Factor:
There are females in the superhero crew but, like everyone other than the central duo, they are too thinly sketched to really register.
One of the things I look for when judging films on feminist principles is whether there are any women in typically male roles so a Big Hero 6 gets extra credit for having a female astronaut.
Is this one for the kids?
There’s family death and there’s mourning but again this is something that Disney showed they could handle sensitively back when Bambi’s mother was taken out.
The battle scenes are fun, with nothing to upset (or any real sense of jeopardy).
Providing your kids don’t have globophobia they’ll be okay.