Monday, December 8, 2014

"Big Hero 6"

 3.5 / 5 

In ways that didn't diminish my enjoyment of the new Disney animated film Big Hero 6 one bit, I kept thinking back to Scooby-Doo.

Tens of millions of kids who grew up watching Scooby-Doo on Saturday mornings eagerly anticipated the moment when Scooby, Shaggy and the gang would unmask the villain.  They'd have him or her trapped uncomfortably and would remove the mask that had kept the bad guy's identity secret for the previous 20 minutes.  "Farmer Jenkins!" they'd exclaim in surprise, which would leave Farmer Jenkins kicking his feet and muttering with disdain, "You meddling kids!  If it hadn't been for you, my plan would have worked."

There's a moment just like that about halfway through Big Hero 6, when a group of college kids -- led by the young genius Hiro Hamada and his big, cuddly robot, Baymax -- confront the villain who, wouldn't you know it, is wearing a mask.  Finally, they catch him in a corner, rip off the mask and ... oh, you meddling kids!

It's nice to see a Disney movie perhaps unconsciously referencing an animated touchstone that doesn't involve singing princesses or dancing bunny rabbits, though Big Hero 6 goes a few steps further than that and begins doing something unexpected and, for me, a little bit uncomfortable: It reflexively comments on the superhero genre that Marvel Comics, which Disney itself famously purchased in 2009.  This meta-move is both refreshingly engaging and strange -- Big Hero 6 is a genuine hybrid of a movie, a cross between Disney's own animated legacy, its famously saccharine live-action movies from the 1960s, and the pop-culture mega-powerhouse it swallowed up whole.

The Disney parts are borrowed from previous animated movies (an orphaned hero -- here given the quite literal name of Hiro -- and his adorable sidekick), those Kurt Russell movies that took place at Medfield College, and The Love Bug's San Francisco locales, which in Big Hero 6 are reimagined as San Fransokyo, a visually arresting though geographically confusing Pacific Rim megalopolis.  But anyone who grew up watching Herbie cross the Golden Gate Bridge knows what makes San Francisco such a great place for light comedy, and Big Hero 6 knows it, too.  (Hint: It's not the stunning vistas, it's those treacherous hills that lead to white-knuckle car chases.)

The Marvel parts are grafted onto these tropes with surprising ease.  Hiro Hamada, the 14-year-old super-genius, is like Disney's Dexter Riley for the 21st century: Anything he needs to do, he can. Back then, Dexter invented super-invisibility spray; now, Hiro invents a micro-robot so incredibly advanced that within moments of seeing it the founder of a high-tech company offers Hiro "more money than a 14-year-old could imagine." I fully expected Disney to reference its Star Wars acquisition by having Hiro answer, "I don't know, I can imagine quite a bit."

Hiro turns down the offer, and rightly so -- in just a few days, working in his garage, Hiro has created a game-changing technology so advanced it left me wondering why the university he desperately wants to attend wouldn't just have skipped the formalities of classes and given him an honorary doctorate and named a building after him.

Meanwhile Hiro's brother, who soon will face an ending nearly as tragic as Bambi's mom, has invented something of his own, an eight-foot tall Michelin Man-inspired robot named Baymax, whose job is to be a giant, cuddly, fully automated nurse.  Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit) is a terrific creation, the personality of Pixar's Wall-E crossed with Eve from the same film.  You see where all this pop-culture self-reflexivity is heading?

While it never once reduces the sheer enjoyment of Big Hero 6, which is an immensely enjoyable and amusing movie, after a while it's hard not to think of the movie as a kind of robot creation itself, with almost every moment or character taken from other movies and animated pop-culture.  It turns in on itself further with an obligatory post-credits scene that exists for no other reason than to give fanboys a guffaw; it's a Disney movie made by, and for, Comic-Con lovers, and there's really nothing wrong with that, except that it leaves Big Hero 6 feeling so much like other things that it never quite feels like itself.  Even Baymax, as wonderfully droll and un-ironically literal as he is (and almost sublime when his batteries wear down), feels somehow familiar.

Big Hero 6 is a triumph of visual design, a skillfully entertaining and brisk joyride that tries to create a new type of animated film for a post-comic-book world but instead feels like the scattered pieces of other movies, comics and TV shows all came scurrying together, much like Hiro's mini-bots, to create something that looks original, even if it really isn't.

Viewed Dec. 8, 2014 -- DWA Theater


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