Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Blu-ray Review: 'Big Hero 6'

This is something I've been meaning to do since the year I started this whole blog, but I never really got around to it... Hopefully I'll be regularly reviewing various Blu-rays that I get, even the non-animation ones...

Today we'll focus on the recently-released Big Hero 6!

The Film (full review here)


If you've been here long enough, you'll know that I sometimes call certain Disney animated films semi-sequels to other ones. I do this because Steve Hulett himself (if you don't know who that is, just go here), when talking about sequels, regarded Frozen as a sort-of sequel to Tangled. Now that may sound weird, but, here's the thing... Walt Disney didn't really believe in sequels, he made very few in his lifetime, and those very few sequels happened to be sequels to live-action films (Savage Sam, Son of Flubber).

Instead, Walt believed in trying something new with each film. He argued "you can't top pigs with pigs", a reference to the highly successful Silly Symphony short The Three Little Pigs. The studio made a few sequels to it, but they weren't as big as the first. Walt held onto this belief, and didn't want  to repeat himself when it came to features. We didn't get a Snow White sequel, we got Cinderella instead. Both had a princess, a happily ever after ending, musical numbers, cute animals, and both were based on fairy tales. No Lady and the Tramp sequel, but 101 Dalmatians instead, another canine film. Similar ideas, but a completely different story with different characters and different stakes. Walt Disney Animation Studios really hung onto this tradition, and continue to do so in this day and age of sequels, sequels, sequels. The studio has very few actual sequels on their resume, outside of the likes of The Rescuers Down Under, Fantasia 2000 (more of a new version of Fantasia than a sequel), and Winnie the Pooh.

So what is Big Hero 6 the "semi-sequel" to? What film is it somewhat similar to in my eyes? Wreck-It Ralph. One of the best of the modern Walt Disney Animation Studios films and a pretty exciting experiment...


Wreck-It Ralph was something of a risk for Disney Animation. I get the sense that people expect a "Disney movie" to be something in particular. The familiar stuff seems to be the most popular: Princesses, musical numbers, fairy tale settings, love stories, talking animals, silly comic relief. The super-popular 90s Disney animated features relied on many of these elements, as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King seem to be those go-to Disney animated features. The first ones you think of or hear about when Disney animation is brought up. The Renaissance is considered by many to be the ultimate era of Disney Animation. Out of the Walt films, his musical fairy tale love stories are some of the most popular: Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty.

Look at the massive success and staying power of Frozen, that seems to say that people tend to like those kinds of Disney features the most. Frozen has many of the elements that made the 90s films so popular. As the Disney Renaissance formula began to die down by the late 1990s - because using it for film after film would get tiresome - the studio began to look at new ideas as a new era was underway, a more experimental one. They wanted to make films that would challenge the mindset, and show audiences what Disney Animation can do. Disney Animation, as we all know, can certainly tell all different kinds of stories. They can do action, mystery, sci-fi, Westerns, even PG-level horror, anything! Disney Animation shouldn't be limited to one or two kinds of stories...

Sadly, many of the films that were made during this era were butchered by the executives running the studio (Dinosaur, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Brother Bear, and Home on the Range suffering the most), others were dumped and audiences didn't see them (The Emperor's New Groove, Treasure Planet), the only survivor was Lilo & Stitch, which became a major fad after it hit DVD and caught on like wildfire. It is also a rare bright spot from this era, alongside the overlooked The Emperor's New Groove and Treasure Planet.

The same executives, under Michael Eisner's rule, came very close to running the studio into the ground. When Eisner left and Bob Iger took his place as CEO, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull were brought over from Pixar and they did a little cleaning up at the tarnished studio. Gone were the executives who only saw animation as a mere asset, a creative filmmaker-driven environment was brought back. (That Wired story on the other hand makes it sound like Disney's creative people couldn't come up with a good film after The Lion King to save their lives, and they needed Pixar to do it for them. Absolute hogwash.)

Lasseter has now revived the idea of trying new things at the studio. Wreck-It Ralph, had that been made during the times of Atlantis/Treasure Planet, probably would've been butchered and people would've ignored the risky film. With no nosy executives sticking their spoons into the broth, Wreck-It Ralph ended up being an excellent film and it kicked the doors open for big possibilities. Enter Big Hero 6, a film that also is out of the 90s Disney comfort zone: Superheroes, technology, science, sci-fi, action! No songs, princesses, or love stories!

Unlike something like Dinosaur or Atlantis, Big Hero 6 isn't compromised by executive meddling. Big Hero 6 gets to be the film it wants to be, but it succeeds because the storytelling and characters are very good. That's all that's needed to pull off a film like this, and when your studio is run by people who don't see animation as an art form, you get a film like Dinosaur or Atlantis. The risk-taking is all for naught in the end, for people don't remember or like your movie. It's all in the characters and the storytelling!

Big Hero 6 thrusts us into the high-tech world of San Fransokyo, a very creative meshing of the two cities. Visually, it really stands out and the attention to detail is astounding, as per usual with any film from the studio. The story of Hiro Hamada begins as a heartfelt tale of brothers, but when his older brother is killed, it slowly begins to morph into a mystery-action thrill ride that fortunately doesn't leave its beating heart behind. Most of that heart comes from the huggable nursing bot Baymax, who functions as Hiro's surrogate brother. He also brings a lot of the film's biggest laughs and most memorable moments, that way they don't have to force any of the former into the script.

Cues are taken from superhero origin stories, mainly Marvel Studios' films. However, before it begins to feel too familiar, the film keeps what makes it uniquely Disney and makes sure it doesn't begin to entirely play out like a Marvel Studios film. It's a very balanced mix of the two story styles, and it works very well. On top of that, the film almost goes a meta route and pokes fun at the superhero origin story format, thanks to Fred, who is one of the film's funniest characters.

Hiro's heroic accomplices are similar to the crew in Atlantis, they have very likable personalities and have their quirks, not to mention they are very diverse. Their interactions with each other add another dimension to the already strong core, and provide more heart and humor. Adding a little extra spice to the mix is a good supporting cast, although it's rather minimal. It's a very tight-knit film, but the other faces are great, the best of which being Hiro's very energetic and quirky Aunt Cass (who, by the way, deserves her own short film). The voice cast works their magic, no phoned in performance to be heard. The story still keeps a heavy focus on Hiro's journey, and carefully explores grief and the ethics of revenge. Big Hero 6 is a rare blockbuster-like action film that goes as far as saying violence isn't the answer, which is quite surprising. It's all tied together by a menacing and memorable villain who Hiro is actually not too different from.

The story structure is peppered with twists and turns, and a lot of little surprises in-between. The Disney Death gets something of a unique spin/send-up, the villain's identity is kept a mystery until the end of the second act, and the use of meta humor was rather refreshing, giving the film an irreverent edge. The story is also strengthened by its setting and aesthetic, for this film really immerses us in a world that's drenched in technology. Its emphasized by the wildly-conceived action, the cinematography, the very techy score by Henry Jackman, and the film's use of science as a backdrop. These heroes get their powers through their smarts, they use their expertise in various sciences (chemistry, robotics, etc.) to build their suits. In turn, we get a fresh, unique take on superheroes.

Are there some problems? Yes, the pacing is perhaps way too quick. One problem I have with a lot of animated features these days is super-fast pacing. These films tend to feel too busy, too on-the-move, what about quiet moments that really put us in the environments and situations? Big Hero 6 has a lot of intimate moments, but the actual editing is quick. I felt it was a problem in the first act, but it's actually all throughout the film. Had the film slowed down a little bit more, it would've been close to perfection. Also, it could've gone a little more all-out with its tone and feel, but at least it tried on an action-heavy, almost anime-esque aesthetic.

In all, Big Hero 6 is great superhero action and thrills with the heart and storytelling that makes it classic Disney, coupled with smart use of good themes, good humor, and a pinch of different genres. While it could be a bit better in the pacing department and a bit more out-there, the experiment was a success!

The Bonus Features

The newer Walt Disney Animation Studios films unfortunately seem to get the short end of the stick when it comes to home media. This has been a problem since Bolt, we don't get lavish 2-Disc sets like the Pixar films do. The closest thing we got to a good package in the recent years was The Princess and the Frog, and that was a 1-Disc set. Usually we're slapped with a few featurettes and some deleted scenes, then they call it day... I have no idea why that is. Pixar produces their own sets, who produces the sets for the WDAS films? Another rant for another day...

Big Hero 6 follows suit, as it has received a pretty slim package.

First off, the set comes with Feast as expected, the wonderful and innovative short that was played before the film. I'm sincerely hoping that the software and tech used to make it is improved and improved until it can be used for a feature-length film, who doesn't? Also included is the film's teaser, but no theatrical trailers or any international ones.

The 15-minute 'The Origin of Big Hero 6' is a good featurette that gives you a nice rundown of how the film came together, much like the one from the Wreck-It Ralph Blu-ray, but that's pretty much what it is: An overview of the film's production, it doesn't dive all the way into it. Jamie Chung (the voice of Go Go) hosts and attempts to crack jokes for the non-animation fan who may be bored viewing it, it's the people behind the film that do the real talking. Again, it's just short and I'd love to see a set that goes deep into the production and shows all the little ins-and-outs, from funny studio stories to spotlights on how they did a certain scene or how they created a certain something in the film. I want more than a featurette, because the early batch of Disney DVDs gave us so much, along with Pixar's sets.

We also get a great roundtable discussion from the character animators, who delve into the character design, movements, personalities, and everything else. Though it's a scant six minutes long, they all have a wonderful time talking, and it's cool how the team used the cafe set as a way to get a feel for the characters and how they move.

The deleted scene selection is impressive, and they all come with intros from directors Don Hall and Chris Williams. The first of which is an alternate opening that I feel should've been used in some way in the finished film, for it really focused on Hiro's relationship with Tadashi. While the first act of Big Hero 6 is very strong in its establishing of the brothers' relationship, this I feel would've added more to it, going back to my problems with the film's rather hyper pacing. The scene basically shows them growing up together. The other alternate opening wasn't really needed, even though there's nothing really wrong with it, plus it would've really made the twist predictable if it wasn't already for some. Another sequence comes from an earlier iteration of the film where Yokai/Callaghan actually had some rather comical goons, and there was potential in that idea, so one could only wonder how different the story would've been had that aspect been kept. A funny scene that's Fred-centric also appears to be from an early version as well.

In all, we just get four deleted scenes when we should have a featurette or two on the earlier versions of the movie and how the story structure as a whole changed over the course of four years. Where are the art galleries? I guess they just want you to buy the 'Art Of' book now. (I have The Art of 'Big Hero 6', and it seems rather... Short and lacking.) Why no features on how they went about the story very early on? A lot of this is tackled in the 15-minute docu, but I feel that there should be features that really explore these areas. Again, no different from the early Disney DVDs and the Pixar sets. Where are the two hours of bonuses?

As usual with any Disney release of a newer film, the picture quality and audio quality are superb. No complaints here whatsoever...

Should you buy it? If you like or love the film, yes, it's definitely recommended. If you're looking for bonus features, temper your expectations, for this is no great set but it's still recommended because the few features are good... There could be more, though.

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