Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Big Hero 6

"This...Is What I've Been Working On"

Animation has come a long way since Winsor McKay first made Gertie the Dinosaur dance. From crude (if meticulous) key-animation to today's computer animation, it is still quite noticeable when somebody does something a little bit more innovative than what one is used to. Toy Story took computer imagery out of the clunky stage to give it grace, Ratatouille started to take things into the realm of photo-realism, Tangled took traditional Disney animation and gave it depth, which only advanced further with Frozen. Now, here comes Big Hero 6 (only somewhat related to the Marvel source), which advances things even further, while taking things in a slightly tangential tack in style.  

And, thematically, the way Disney has been doing lately, it manages to break away from the tropes of the genre and move in a fresh direction.

It is the future in the blended city of San Fransokyo (you can immediately tell the cross-culturalism when the Golden Gate Bridge has some decidedly pagoda-like stylings). Young Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is a genius 14 year old engineer, who hasn't really applied himself except in the underground world of "bot-fights," where he wins wads of cash with his deceptively simple, unassuming little gadget that becomes a Tazmanian devil in the ring.

His hustling gets him in trouble with local toughs, but he is rescued by his older brother (Daniel Henney)—also an engineering genius—and encouraged for the umpteenth time, not to waste his life hustling, but become study and use his talents where they can do the most good—a quick stop at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology on the way to the next bot-fight lights the spark in him, and he begins to apply himself to the Next Great Idea that will gain him entry into the Institute.

What he comes up with is a lulu, a swarm of micro-bots that, with a neural transmitter, can be controlled by its human host to become...nearly anything. His presentation at the institute attracts the attention of the school's legendary Dr. Callaghan (James Cromwell) and the corporate kingpin Allistair Krei (Alan Tudyk), both of whom want Hiro's technology; Hiro decides not to sell his tech and his presentation wins him a scholarship.
But, things do not go well that night. The presentation hall where the competition is held erupts in flames and Dr. Callaghan is trapped inside. Hiro's brother Tadashi rushes in to save his mentor and the whole place explodes. There could be no survivors. Hiro is despondent over the loss of his brother, and foregoes his college plans, despite the encouragement of Tadashi's friends and colleagues. His only comfort is the Baymax (voiced by "30 Rock's" Scott Adsit), the "healthcare companion" that Tadashi was perfecting at the time of his death. Baymax is a big inflatable medical scanner that can diagnose, prescribe and comfort the sick.   Hiro, not being in the best of shape, accidentally activates him and the two discover that one of Hiro's micro-bots has survived the explosion at the presentation center...and appears to be trying to respond to commands.

But, from whom?
Baymax and Hiro set out to find out where the tiny micro-bot is attracted to and find an abandoned warehouse, with tones of Hiro's micro-bots in stasis. They also find a Kabuki-masked stranger controlling them. Both are set upon by the controlled micro-bots and only barely manage to escape, with the help of Tadashi's fellow students. The group decides to get to the bottom of all this and form a team with their tech-gadgets to try and find "Mr. Kabuki" and bring him to justice...as Big Hero 6, each of Tadashi's friends taking on a persona and "power" that matches their personality and research path.
Not the most promising of scenarios. Two things struck me about Big Hero 6, though, that took it out of the norm of most animation and superhero stories. Number one, the animation. It is of the Disney 2-D school (the directors worked on The Emperor's New Groove, Bolt and The Princess and the Frog) that has been plumped into three dimensions the way the studio's been doing it since Tangled.  But, there's more of an emphasis on detail and shading than has been done in the past—San Fransokyo is bathed in diffused light from a combination of fog and neon. And there's no Uncanny Valley near this Silicon Valley.  The characters are clearly cartoonish and caricature, but the shading and play of light across the faces and expressions suggest a musculature that could not be found in your standard artist's maquette. That awareness comes early on with the expressions of the participants in the bot-fight sequence, and after, one just becomes used to it, noting when something is noticeably tactile looking. I've missed an animated feature or two (like the Madagascar's and Box-Trolls), but this was the first time I got a sense of depth and musculature in the faces. It's definitely a step up.
On the well-trudged superhero front, the story is interesting. It sets up the by-now required de rigeuer "revenge/eye-for-an-eye" scenario that dominates the entire sub-genre of superhero movies (born out of the more commonplace action film), but—and this might have come with the influence of Disney exec/former Pixar head John Lasseter—that "avenging" storyline is subverted to the point where the "taking revenge" impetus is both undermined and rendered moot (as being indistinguishable from the villains' motivations). It is odd that the "superhero" story has become so enmeshed in this singular through-line of story (to the point where even the most altruistic of the "meta-heroes" must be shoe-horned into the "you shall be revenged" Bat-school) when the history of the comics have been rife with different origins. Big Hero 6 breaks the mold and even questions its legitimacy.

And that, for one, makes it seem all the more fresh...and heroic.
Big Hero 6 is accompanied by a short cartoon, Feast, that pushes the way narrative is told in a purely visual way.  Definitely worth checking out.

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