Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Boy and His Robot: BIG HERO 6

Turns out there’s some creative life left in the superhero movie. It just took Disney Animation to step away from the endless synergy, in-jokes, crossovers, and five-year plans to find it. Their team of computer animation artists took Big Hero 6, a Marvel comic so obscure their corporate cousins didn’t want to hold onto it for their massive Cinematic Universe, and focused on telling a contained story and doing it well. The result has everything you’d expect from a superhero movie: a tragic inciting incident, tight suits, high-tech gadgets, a supervillain with a connection to the heroes, and a finale involving a massive energy beam and billions of dollars in property damage. So it’s nothing new. But by keeping it simple and energetic, Disney has made the brightest and most colorful superhero movie in quite some time. It reminded me why I ever liked these kinds of stories in the first place.

Directors Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh) and Chris Williams (Bolt) create a vivid near-future mashup metropolis called San Fransokyo, filled with a variety of architectures and influences from its portmanteau component inspirations. Fans, like me, of imaginary cities should get a kick out of it, even more so in 3D. But that’s the set dressing whizzing by in the backgrounds. The filmmakers take their time building the characters, confident enough to be bustling with worldbuilding spectacle firmly in the background, as sci-fi concepts drive the plot without taking over.

We meet Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a 14-year-old robotics genius who graduated high school early and isn’t feeling up to college. Instead, he makes money gambling in illegal back alley robot fights. But his older brother (Daniel Henney) insists on introducing him to the high tech robotics lab on campus, tempting him with promise of resources and collaborators to help him achieve his fullest potential. It’s a strong brotherly bond we observe, which makes its quick severing all the more impactful. There’s a fire at a science fair and it claims the older boy’s life, leaving the younger depressed and lonely.

Hiro’s only companion is the prototype healthcare robot his brother built and left behind. The robot, named Baymax, is the film’s best creation. He’s built to be huggable. A large, inflated, soft plastic body makes him look something like a robo-Totoro. There’s a rubbery squeak to his every movement. He speaks (charmingly voiced by Scott Adsit) in loveably logical constructions and programmed intelligence that slowly accrues personality. When his battery is low, he sounds drunk. He’s a fantastic presence, bursting to life diagnosing Hiro. Observing the boy’s depression, the bot’s programming determines that cheering him up will be his mission, even if it means helping to track down the arsonist behind the fire. Hiro doesn’t waste any time building Baymax slick armor and programming him some kung fu knowledge.

As the boy and his robot build a relationship that helps bring the boy purpose in life, the film doesn’t have time to spend moping and brooding, launching quickly into the fun. It helps to have a bright palate filled with vibrant young characters. The older brother’s robotics classmates join Hiro and Baymax’s quest for justice, and are eager to form a makeshift superhero team to help do so. It’s a typical origin story, with mourning geniuses who have access to incredible high-tech gadgetry vowing to set things right. But the film gets a great deal of humor and excitement out of the characters’ repartee and diversity. There’s a goofy geek (T.J. Miller), a sunny egghead (Genesis Rodriguez), a serious gearhead (Jamie Chung), and a muscled nerd (Damon Wayons Jr.). Together with the cute robot and precocious teen, who help them turn their lab experiments into suits and weapons, they form a group that’s fun to be around, and the sense of camaraderie and individuality doesn’t disappear when the action starts.

That’s what ultimately sets Big Hero 6 apart from the competition. Even charming superhero teams like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy get swallowed up by the spectacle. But these characters, by virtue of their animation, don’t disappear into CGI costumes and stunt doubles. Their movements and personalities are constant whether running from swarms of nanobots or sitting around a table. Their talents and gadgets are well developed for clever payoffs in clear, confident comic book framing turned fluid motion. Animation needs thought behind every motion, every gesture, every frame. They don’t waste time animating endless punching matches and collateral damage to be chopped to ribbons in an editing bay. Apparently the way to improve the culture-dominating live-action cartoons is to bring them closer to their roots.

Here rambunctious action is well timed and staged, used sparingly. There’s cleverness and coherence to the construction of these sequences, so the action doesn’t grow exhausting. It’s informed by character and, even better, manages to be exciting and energetic without imperiling thousands of innocent lives. It’s actually a buoyant superhero action movie about the value of life, and the futility of violence. You’d think movies ostensibly about characters who save people would figure that out a little more often. The more time we spend watching the interplay between the boy, his robot, and their new friends, enjoying the humor and feeling the sadness of their loss, the more impact the handful of action sequences have.

I cared about the relationships, as formulaic as they are. The voice work is appealing. The character designs are the usual rubbery realism of Disney CG animation. And their world is so colorful and full of energy. It’s a good reminder that formula storytelling gets to be that way because once upon a time the structures worked. In Big Hero 6, it works. On a plot level, there’s not a single surprise to be had, but I was swept up in its momentum and imagination. Running a trim 108 minutes, it’s the first superhero movie in a decade to leave me wanting more in a good way. What a difference having loveable characters, pleasing design, economical storytelling, coherent themes, and action that doesn’t outstay its welcome makes.

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