Monday, January 19, 2015

'Big Hero 6' (2014) directed by Don Hall & Chris Williams

Peeling back the mirror-polished carbon-fibre shell of Big Hero 6 reveals a bustling throng of fascinating influences. At its most basic level Disney's latest is a superhero origin tale via Japanese pop culture: mashing together sentai shows, classic manga and Marvel comics into a surprisingly coherent whole. 

In a Neal Stephenson-esque touch, our hero is named Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter). He's a young, spikey haired robotics prodigy. We first meet him defeating all-comers in an underground robot fight club, his harmless and cute looking contender proving to be more capable than it first appears. Though he triumphs over his opponents, his brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) warns that this is a waste of his talents and drags him to his "nerd school". This proves to be a prestigious high-tech university, where students are given access to the latest materials and development technology.

After introducing Hiro to classmates Honey Lemon, Go Go, Wasabi and Fred, Tadashi shows off his own laboratory. Here we meet his masterpiece: Baymax (Scott Adsit), a nurse robot that Tadashi envisages helping people worldwide. With his soft white spheroid proportions and minimalist features Baymax looks the Michelin Man as redesigned by Apple. He's programmed to scan and offer medical assistance to anyone suffering even a minor scrape, only deactivating when told "I am satisfied with my care".

But this is a superhero movie and tragedy is always just around the corner. And so, as Act 2 opens, a bereaved and numbed Hiro has taken possession of Baymax and is gradually molding him towards becoming an all-purpose crimefighter in order to get revenge on those that've wronged him. He's soon joined in his quest by the other university students, each with their own technological superhero suit, as they attempt to track down a mysterious masked villain.

This is by the numbers, but there's enough little wrinkles present to set Big Hero 6 apart from the crowd. The biggest is Baymax, who's as funny a character as Disney have created in the last 20 years or so. With his rounded body and dainty motions his every tiny motion packs a gag, especially when trying to reconcile his nurse programming with the kickass robot superhero Hiro desperately wants him to be. By the time Hiro has outfitted him with a jetpack and is flying about on his shoulders there's more than a touch of How To Train Your Dragon to the pair, but whereas Hiccup is trying to make his dragon less fearsome, Hiro is trying to subvert his instinctively caring nature and turn him into a badass.

The film is easily at its best when the action is confined to Baymax and Hiro, the directors giving a masterclass in comedy physicality as Hiro squeezes and shoves the rubbery robot through action sequences, playing straight man to the robot's concerned inquiries about his physical and mental health. Occasionally it feels as if the film was developed entirely from the idea of 'A Boy and his Bot', there's so much focus on them that the other characters end up a bit undeveloped.

While eye-catching; fellow Big Hero 6ers Wasabi, Fred, Honey Lemon and Go Go are relegated to being 'the fast one', 'the girly one' and so on. The villain of the piece has a visually dazzling superpower yet suffers the same problems, his motivations understandable but drawn in simplistic strokes. He does have a empathetic dimension but this pales in comparison to, say, Tangled's Mother Gothel or pretty much any Pixar baddie. Even with a paltry ten or so characters there's only really room to develop Hiro and Baymax, the rest a victim of a short run-time and (I suspect) some trimming of a longer script.

The flip side of that is that the film rockets along at some speed, serving up exciting action sequences and comedy skits at breakneck pace. These car chases, superhero fights and slapstick (or all three at once) are beautifully conceived and executed, crammed full of tiny details and gags so quick you'll blink and miss them.

Though it might be a touch on the short side, Big Hero 6 certainly is dense. My personal highlight was San Fransokyo. The only clumsy thing about this wonderful mashup is the name; otherwise it's an intelligent cocktail of pagodas, townhouses, trolley-buses, blimp/turbines and futuristic architecture. This neon denseness reminded me a hell of a lot of Studio 4°C's excellent Tekkonkinkreet (with a more than a smidge of Osamu Tezuka), a tech utopia populated by oversized advertising statues, dayglo flourishes and an abundance of careful details that really reward the close observer. A lot of people have spent a lot of time realising San Fransokyo and their efforts were well spent, this is one of the most attractive fictional locales I've seen in some time.

Big Hero 6 isn't going to go down in history as an all-time Disney masterpiece and it's certainly not going to achieve the same level of cultural penetration as last year's Frozen. That said, it's an energetic, imaginative and precision-crafted animation with a tonne of love poured into it (and in Baymax at least one truly memorable character). But though pretty and entertaining it falls short of the classic it could feasibly be.


Big Hero 6 is released 30th January 2015

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