Friday, November 7, 2014

A Hero's Journey

WARNING: Here be major spoilers!

Much has been written about Walt Disney Animation Studios' return to form in the recent years. The press and most of the world has begun to pick this up with the massive worldwide success of the studio's previous feature, Frozen. However, I was picking up on it a while back...

To me, Disney Animation's comeback was not their snowy story of two sisters, nor was it their tale of a girl with really long hair. Nope... To me, this new Golden Age that they are in began with a story much like this one. A story set far in the future, about a boy no less. A friendly cute robot is one of the characters, too! The film even has an army of robots in it as antagonists!

Never heard of it?

The film is called Meet The Robinsons.

A lot of people missed the film when it came out in the spring of 2007. It didn't look particularly good from the trailers, and I think that was because it was coming off of two things: The disaster that was Chicken Little, and the dark year of computer animation that was 2006. 2006 may have been home to decent or good films like Over the Hedge, Cars and Flushed Away, it was also home to a ton of forgettable come-and-go CG films. Studios jumping into the ring, thinking they could just slap lovely-looking CGI onto mediocre movies with contrived scripts. It backfired... Badly.

Meet The Robinsons looked generic and hyperactive from the trailers. I remember being interested only because it was from Disney Feature Animation, and I thought the T-Rex business was funny. That was enough for 14-year-old me. But then I came across the Japanese trailer on YouTube, and as a lot of us fans know, the Japanese trailers for Disney Animation and Pixar films always emphasize the heart and drama contained within the films rather than just being "Jokes! Jokes! Jokes! Fast editing! Quick cuts! AHHHHHH!" Now I was hooked, and I caught it when it came out. I enjoyed it a great deal back then, and then I revisited the film - as I had gained a better knowledge of film and film critique between 2007 and the year I re-watched it, 2010 - and loved it, warts and all.

It isn't perfect. It was knee-deep in production when Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, and when John Lasseter came to Walt Disney Animation Studios to clean it up. Despite that the film was pretty much halfway done, Lasseter had a lot of elements redone so the film wouldn't be a proverbial "Chicken Little 2". Still, some out of place elements are in the film and it is a little too zany and hyperactive. Its third act, however, is as strong as concrete and as heartfelt as any good Disney or Pixar film. The film got decent reviews, but it didn't make much of a mark at the box office. I feel that this film was Disney Animation's true comeback in the post-Renaissance era.

Bolt was even stronger in the story department on top of being ridiculously consistent in both tone and pacing, despite being pretty safe and nothing too risky. The Princess and the Frog was a beautifully-made, excellently written callback to the best of Walt's films and the Renaissance crowd-pleasers. Tangled was also just that, and it wasn't a rehash of what worked so well in Frog. Winnie the Pooh was charming and respectful of the original short subjects, rather than being a soulless money grab. However, Wreck-It Ralph was when things, for me, got even more exciting.

Wreck-It Ralph was like a sort of modern-day Atlantis: The Lost Empire or Treasure Planet. Both of those films were made during the studio's very troubled years, the early 2000s when ignorant suits who only saw animation as inferior kiddie fluff were ruling the studio with an iron fist. Atlantis: The Lost Empire could've been a real breakaway from the Disney Renaissance formula, coming off of the already against-the-norm The Emperor's New Groove: A song-less action-adventure epic, and more for adults than the traditional family audience. But executives didn't let the creatives make the movie they wanted to make, and the result was a mess. It starts out awesome and it has a very likable cast of characters, but once the gang gets to the titular city it becomes a rushed bore with a copout third act. Treasure Planet fares much better as a story, and the characters are good in it too, but executives didn't let the film be too action-packed and at other times it feels like the film is pandering to young boys. The same way Don Bluth's Titan A.E. did. Also, an annoying sidekick is shoehorned into the film, a worthy competitor to someone like Jar Jar Binks.

Now before I continue, I'm not trying to demean Atlantis and Treasure Planet. I have problems with them, and I think as films they aren't perfect. Atlantis to me is just decent despite an awesome first act, Treasure Planet's good but it could've been better. However, I do suggest that you go and check out these films. They are worth watching based on their ambitions alone, even if they aren't good. I'm not going to be like that Wired writer who had a ball dismissing all of Disney Animation's post-Renaissance efforts in their puff piece on Lasseter and Ed Catmull. Seriously, that article is loaded with generalizations and I had to stop reading... Watch Atlantis and Treasure Planet.

Anyways, moving on...

Had Atlantis and Treasure Planet been made under Lasseter's wing today, they probably would've been very good. Wreck-It Ralph, to me, is what those two movies should've been. Wreck-It Ralph shows to a casual, assuming moviegoer that Disney Animation is more than just fairy tales and cute animals and musical numbers. It covered new territory, much like how a Walt film would do. Walt didn't like to repeat himself, and his animated filmography is full of unique films that don't feel like retreads. "You can't top pigs with pigs." But why does Ralph work so well? Not just because it takes such risks, but because it's got a very strong story, a script that barely misses a beat, wonderful characters and sharp storytelling. Wreck-It Ralph was modern Disney Animation leaping through the door that Robinsons, Bolt, Frog, Tangled and Winnie kicked open.

Big Hero 6 sprints from there. Big Hero 6 is much like Ralph, it's a big action picture that's out of 90s Disney's comfort zone. There's no love story, no sweeping musical numbers, no phoned in comic relief. It feels fresh and exciting, but like Ralph, it pulls the risks off because of... Again... The characters and the storytelling...

Big Hero 6 is set in the future.  San Francisco is now an amalgamation of both Frisco and Tokyo, now called San Fransokyo. It's a cleverly-designed, jaw-dropping city full of the elements that make the two real-life cities stand out. The Tokyo elements already breathe an anime feel into the picture, along with the Asian characters in the cast, nods to Japanese monster movies (Fred), and high-octane action. This is essentially the closest thing Disney Animation has made to an anime film, ditto Atlantis. Let's get one thing out of the way... It's a Disney Animation film, it's obviously amazing looking.

14-year-old Hiro Hamada is a robotics genius, much like his older brother Tadashi. Unlike Tadashi, Hiro tends to waste his potential. He plans to enter underground, illegal robot fights for money rather than using his mind to do bigger, better things. Tadashi unleashes his greatest creation, a nursing robot named Baymax when showing his younger brother around the university he attends. Hiro then knows what he wants to do, and plans to enroll, especially at a young age. Now his sights are set on an invention contest, so he whips up something amazing and shows it off, garnering a lot of attention and admiration. He's now set to enroll at San Fransokyo Tech. But then, something terrible happens...

The expo hall catches on fire, Tadashi races to save his professor Mr. Callaghan, and dies in an explosion. Already, right off the bat, the typical Disney tearjerker element kicks in. Hiro's relationship with Tadashi was already pulled off quite well, which makes the loss effective. Of course, Disney knows, if you're going to axe a lead character, you had better have developed a connection between the two - whether they are family or close friends. This makes way for Hiro's relationship with Baymax, arguably the real star of this whole film.

Baymax is the epitome of an extremely likable character in an animated feature. He's a monotone-voiced robot whose design is very appealing. He's like a marshmallow, a balloon, and the Michelin man. Tech-wise he's fascinating: He comes in a suitcase, can project a screen on his chest, contact others, can inflate and deflate, and all of his actions are powered by a card that you insert into him. This inevitably plays a big role later on in the film. But best of all, he's not overly cute nor does he feel like an obvious marketing device. Sure his design and demeanor is very, very, very market-friendly, but you can't help but love the big balloon bot. He's always there to help, and his actions provide the bulk of the film's comedy. He's not a silly sidekick belting out one-liners, his comedy comes from his attempts to help others when the movie places the characters in situations where they don't need any medical attention.

I'm very impressed with the recent comic relief characters in Disney's animated films. I'm not a huge fan of the ones that dominated the Renaissance films, whether it was Hunchback's horribly out-of-place cracking gargoyles or the loudmouth Terk in Tarzan. On the other hand, Bolt's fanboy hamster Rhino was a hoot, I loved cajun firefly Ray from Princess and the Frog, the silent animal sidekicks in Tangled are absolutely hilarious, Vanellope's is a great fun and sympathetic character from Wreck-It Ralph that may be a snarky kid but she's not obnoxious. To say nothing of Olaf and Sven from Frozen, whose comedy works for the most part.

So Baymax is very fun to watch and is a great surrogate brother for Hiro, how are the other four heroes that make up Big Hero Six? Well, their personalities are already established right off the bat. Honey Lemon is an energetic, sweet chemistry enthusiast while GoGo Tomago is definitely more deadpan and a little standoffish, as she loves anything that gives her an adrenaline rush. Wasabi's a neat freak, and his OCD makes for some wonderful comic relief, stuff I can sometimes relate to! Fred, the resident comic/monster movie buff, is also a lot of fun and the film's ticket to meta jokes. The script mixes in all kinds of humor, someone's funny bone will probably be hit no matter the age or type of person.

Following Tadashi's death, Big Hero 6 then morphs into a mystery-adventure. We see that a shadowy man wearing a long coat and a kabuki mask has stolen Hiro's microbots in a pretty suspenseful sequence. This mask-wearing menace is pretty intimidating, and his design is great. Couple that with the microbots, which - thanks to a controlling headband - can form any shape, and you've got a great Disney villain... But who is donning the mask?

The audience would assume it's Alister Krei, a CEO of a robotics company who offers Hiro truckloads of money for the microbots at the expo. Professor Callaghan warns Hiro that Krei is not a man to be trusted, so Hiro rejects the offer. So yeah, big bad businessman Krei would be the one, right? I admit, I was a bit puzzled at first. I knew beforehand that Alan Tudyk was voicing the character, and Tudyk - as many of you may know - has played the antagonists in the last two Disney Animation features. But I kept saying, "No, no. Krei being the main villain would be way too obvious!"

Disney Animation loves plot twists, and they throw a couple at you in this film in full force. The Turbo reveal in Wreck-It Ralph, I thought, was brilliant. Hans' reveal, despite my problems with Frozen, does do a good job at catching you off guard. Big Hero 6's twist is equally unexpected and effective: Krei's not kabuki-man, Callaghan is! The seemingly-nice professor is actually vengeful and wants to destroy Krei and his company. He does this because, as the team find out on a secluded island, Krei and Callaghan were involved in the invention of a teleportation device. The test pilot? Callaghan's daughter, but things go wrong and she doesn't come out. Krei also didn't stop the device in time, being the arrogant type that he is.

Because of all this, Callaghan's motives are understandable, which I think makes him a good villain. I think people tend to fetishize complex villains. Villains for some reason all have to have backstories, deep complex backstories! I don't think so. Take comic book films for example; many complained about Ronan from Guardians of the Galaxy, and it's true, Ronan isn't very complex. He's a religious nut that's pissed off about a treaty that threatens his views, and he's also a pawn for a bigger baddie. But apparently it's okay that we know little to nothing about The Joker, or it's okay that a good guy gets corrupted by an experiment gone wrong in Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2. Anyways, I think Callaghan is a great villain. He's convincing, has his reasons, and is a total badass.

However, I like Callaghan in particular because of Hiro. When Hiro finds out that Callaghan was behind his brother's death, he gets angry. Hiro essentially almost becomes the person he hates, he wants to annihilate Callaghan! That's right, he's not going to be a noble hero who doesn't have any desire to kill the villain. He wants that man dead! He takes out Baymax's card which gives him his health-related commands, and leaves the attack command card in, making the robot turn from helpful nurse to soulless fighter bot. Baymax runs after Callaghan as the other heroes try to stop him, Baymax doesn't hesitate to knock them out and hurt them.

I liken this to How To Train Your Dragon 2, and spoilers ahead if you haven't seen that film, and its second act twist. Baymax doesn't kill anyone in this sequence, but I think this turn is a wee bit dark because of Hiro's anger and his willingness to kill. Toothless may have killed Stoick, but he was being controlled... By the bad guy no less. In this film, the hero is gung-ho about reprogramming a robot to axe someone! Now that was definitely unexpected, and I love how the two events are different yet similar. Great minds thinking alike, I say!

Then this leads to more waterworks, because eventually Hiro learns the hard way that revenge is not the answer and that he'll be no better than his enemy. Worst of all, he realizes how much of a 180 degree turn he is from his brother. Now the climax is set up, bring Callaghan to justice and save Krei and his company from being destroyed. No intentions to destroy San Fransokyo though, which is nice, good thing they didn't go that route. The six work together, discover their inner-brilliance, and take down our baddie in a rousing, visually amazing, fast-paced battle. But something else needs to be done! Callaghan's daughter is alive, thanks to Baymax's sensor which detects people's healths! Hiro and Baymax save her... In a moment that's quite unexpected.

The portal leads to hyperspace, a very colorful and dreamy-looking hyperspace. It's almost a surreal sequence, but it works so well. Then Baymax sacrifices himself to save Hiro and Callaghan's daughter. Now here I'm thinking in theater: "Ahhh, the Disney Death. This is getting a wee bit predictable now." Now I am not against the Disney Death trope, in fact I've been planning to write a little piece on why I don't consider it to be a bad thing when it's done right. Here, I almost was close to writing it off as "eh, been there, done that." (I bet you read that in Megara's voice) But no! The film didn't do it the way I had expected!

Instead of resurrecting the Baymax that dominated the bulk of the film, Hiro creates an all-new one... Well, he creates an all-new bot. The Baymax health command card has been saved, so Hiro never really lost his friend, he just put it in a new body. A very clever way of using the Disney Death while also subverting it in a way, or at least subverting the way Disney Deaths are normally done. It caps the film off on a nice note...

Aside from a story that hits all the beats, a consistent and smart script, and some of the best action I've seen in a computer animated film, Big Hero 6 has so much to offer.

The world it create is intriguing and to be honest, I really want to see more it. When I talk about Disney Animation and sequels, I always say that I don't want them to make sequels to films like Tangled or Frozen. I feel those kinds of stories are self-contained, standalone ideas. If they indeed have a great idea for a follow-up, I say go for it, but I admire Disney not jumping right to making sequels. Peter del Vecho shot down the idea of a Frozen sequel being talked about, so it's not like the studio is saying "Let's do it!" They'll only do a Frozen 2 if they have a great idea.

But something like this or Wreck-It Ralph, I think, are born for follow-ups. That being said, I only want Disney to make a Wreck-It Ralph or Big Hero 6 sequel if they have worthy story ideas. I know that Wreck-It Ralph 2 is being written and I know that the film's director Rich Moore really wants to make a follow-up, so when it is announced, I know it's going to be damn good. In the mean time, I say, "Make it if you want to, Disney." Don't make one because I myself kind of want one, ditto Big Hero 6.

Anyways, I already love this world. I want to see more of San Fransokyo's streets. I want to see these heroes fight another menace while also improving their suits and powers. But again, Disney Animation should be the decider here, not me or fans. While it's nice that fans clamor for sequels to good movies they love and studios/filmmakers respond, I want Walt Disney Animation Studios to be totally onboard with a sequel rather than just make one because we want it.

In addition to San Fransokyo and the film looking great, the film also sounds great. Wreck-It Ralph composer Henry Jackman returned to score the film, and it's pretty damn good. At times, it does rehash Wreck-It Ralph beats, but overall it's a strong score that punches up the action and visual flair. Its use of songs (from Fall Out Boy, 30 Seconds to Mars, Survivor's 'Eye of the Tiger') isn't distracting. Similarly, Ralph used an older song and a newer one, the former being Kool & the Gang's 'Celebration'. It's used for a short scene and it wasn't out of place because it is a classic popular song, but Rihanna's 'Shut Up and Drive' was terribly out of place! One of two minor issues I have with the otherwise excellent film.

The supporting cast is really good. Aside from the villain and Alistair Krei, you've got Hiro's Aunt Cass, his surrogate parent. She's eccentric, fun, funny, a bit on the quirky side! There's a cool bit where Baymax, low on battery and acting like a drunk, shouts "weeeeee!" when Hiro's trying to sneak him upstairs. Aunt Cass, while cooking hot wings, simply goes along with what she just hears without thinking it wasn't Hiro shouting that. It's just perfectly timed. She's fun, and I wanted to see more of her too! Tadashi is very likable too, being the expectedly mature, guiding older brother. The cast really gives it their all, not a bored paycheck-sniffing performance in sight!

But I must talk about the action... Oh man, the action...

It's wild, frenetic, shot and conceived perfectly. It pumps you up, gets your pulse pounding, your heart racing. Jackman's score adds in the extra juice. There's the flight scene as well, which is just as thrilling as any good flight scene in animation history, whether it's The Rescuers Down Under's Marahute flight or the flying scenes in the How To Train Your Dragon films. Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams pull it all off with energy and verve, but they handle the quieter, intimate moments with finesse and also work wonders with suspenseful scenes.

Why does all of that action work, though?

Storytelling, characters, entertainment. Three highly important ingredients. Big Hero 6 has it down pat in all of these departments, the team crafted a compelling tale with a batch of likable faces. It hits the spots, from the thrilling bits to the funny stuff to the heartfelt drama. It does have some slight issues, such as the pacing. I felt that its first act was a bit rushed and was really on the move, but on second viewing, my views could change. When I had seen Wreck-It, I had it below The Princess and the Frog when it came to the modern Disney animated films. Now, it's on top of it. Who knows if I'll still have problems with the pacing of this movie or not upon repeat viewings.

Big Hero 6 on the whole is essentially Wreck-It Ralph Mark II. An exciting, ambitious, action-packed Disney Animation film that opens the door to endless possibilities while also remembering to tell us a great story that will stick with us...

Now, as for the short film...

Feast... What a visual marvel. Its blend of computer animation and the look of a painting is seamless and exciting to see spool on the screen. The dog is instantly likable, and the story is pretty solid. It's a pretty unique take on the love stories we saw in Paperman and Pixar's The Blue Umbrella, so it's fresh. It's already a nice concept to begin with, a dog's master's love life told through the meals the master gives to the dog. I've raved about the style a ton of times, and I hope one day that they really refine it to the point where it can be used to cover an entire feature-length film.


  1. I was pretty skeptical, but after I saw it, I became pretty stoked. It really does feel like a Marvel movie, only animated. The Stan Lee cameo in the post-credits stinger was clever as well. Walt Disney Animation Studios has done it again!

  2. Also, an annoying sidekick is shoehorned into the film, a worthy competitor to someone like Jar Jar Binks.

    That may be true, but I still feel that if the marketing for Treasure Planet (and to a lesser extent Atlantis as well) had focused on said comic relief, the movie might have been successful. I might be annoying, but it's what gets derrieres in theater chairs.

    1. He's actually based on the character Ben Gunn which he is from the original book Treasure Island. Look it up online or read the novel and you'll see why he's not thrown in just to get people to go see the movie and buy merchandise.