Friday, November 7, 2014

Big Hero 6: Rather insubstantial

Big Hero 6 (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, and needlessly, for animated action

By Derrick Bang

This film has a serious identity crisis.

Although it begins as a gentle character saga about a boy and his plus-size Personal Healthcare Companion — read: big, poofy robot — co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams rather abruptly changes things up in the second act, and suddenly we’re watching a frenetic action comedy that feels like an alternate-universe take on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

Is there such a thing as too much comfort? After expressing some fairly trivial frustration,
Hiro discovers that his new Personal Healthcare Companion — dubbed Baymax — has
the "perfect" solution: an all-enveloping hug.
Frankly, it felt like whiplash.

Far more troublesome is this film’s frequent echoes of The Incredibles and How to Train Your Dragon: derivative chunks at times so glaring, that they’re impossible to overlook. The result feels less like an organic concept built from a carefully plotted narrative, and more like a movie designed by committee, and determined to hit crowd-pleasing notes ... a suspicion sharpened by the presence of eight (!) credited scripters.

Indeed, the out-of-left-field shift in tone is as clumsy as the mid-film transition that also spoiled the second half of Pixar’s Brave. And since John Lasseter has the executive producer’s credit on this newest Disney release, the buck obviously stops at his desk.

On the positive side, Big Hero 6 certainly is entertaining, and it’s laden with both laughs and moments of well-timed pathos. But the storyline remains something of a mess, and ultimately feels like a very clumsy attempt to build a new franchise.

The setting is a vibrant, tech-laden future in the massive Northern California city of San Fransokyo: very much a cheerful, gaily colored response to the polyglot Amero-Asian backdrop of Blade Runner. Fourteen-year-old Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter, of the TV series Supah Ninjas) is a genius inventor but also something of a tear-away, spending his evenings hustling opponents at illegal underground robot duels.

These hijinks are a source of constant frustration to older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) and their Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph), the latter charged with the two boys’ care after the never-explained death of their parents. Hoping to channel Hiro’s energy in a more positive direction, Tadashi introduces younger bro to his colleagues at the prestigious San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, and particularly to its head instructor: world-renowned roboticist Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell).

Callaghan, seeing great potential in the boy, encourages Hiro to apply for admission. Our young hero, immediately star-struck by these nifty-gee-whiz surroundings, needs no encouragement.

Back on the home front, Tadashi also unveils another surprise: Baymax, the aforementioned Personal Healthcare Companion, which has been tasked with looking after Hiro. Although resembling a cross between a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon and Ghostbusters’ Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, Baymax is impressively functional, with all sorts of scanning, diagnosis, treatment and protective capabilities.

The humor from Baymax’s introductory scenes, however, comes from the portly robot’s efforts to navigate around furniture: deftly timed bits of silent comedy akin to the best moments in Pixar classics. How very sad, then, that Hall and Williams completely abandon such delightful subtlety once this story shifts into its high-intensity mode.

Admission to Callaghan’s school depends on the presentation of some brand-new type of tech, a challenge that Hiro embraces with enthusiasm. He’s further encouraged by his older brother’s lab mates: bubblegum-popping adrenalin junkie Gogo Tomago (Jamie Chung); big, burly and unexpectedly meek neatnik Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.); sweet, fashion-conscious chemistry whiz Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez); and laid-back fanboy “school mascot” Fred (T.J. Miller).

Hiro successfully concocts an attention-grabbing invention, in the form of Tootsie Roll-size “microbots” which, in massive number, can be guided — via wireless commands from a neural headband — into creating ever-changing shapes limited only by the controller’s imagination. Hiro wins both admission to the school, and the somewhat slimy attention of corporate tech raider Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk), who offers our young protagonist buckets of money for this next-gen robot tech.

Hiro declines. Krei pouts and exits, exchanging contemptuous glances with Callaghan: no love lost between these two.

Then, suddenly, unexpected tragedy: rather serious, given the film’s quiet tone to this point. Now, with the appearance of a masked villain — Yokai — who has stolen Hiro’s microbots and obviously has nefarious plans for them, can one small boy and his flimsy inflatable robot persevere?

Well, sure ... once Hiro “power-ups” everybody, Baymax included, with colorful costumes and weapons derived from their various tech skills.

This superheroic transformation is driven by the film’s namesake source material: a short-lived Marvel Comics series of the same title that was spun off from a 1998 appearance in Alpha Flight, in turn a spin-off from the early X-Men books. But the “lift” is tenuous, to say the least; a few of the characters have the same or similar names, but their various “origin stories” and battle skills are entirely different.

More to the point, the fit is quite awkward with the film’s storyline to this point: as clumsily unsuccessful as Hiro’s repeated efforts to transform Baymax into an armored warrior ’bot. Once the portly Baymax is outfitted with jet boots, we’re granted a boy-on-his-robot flying sequence that swooshes across the Pacific in a manner that looks precisely like the early test flights involving Hiccup and Toothless, in How to Train Your Dragon.

In this film, the sequence also is a story-halting waste of time.

We can’t help wishing for a script that focused more on Baymax’s efforts to engage with Hiro, and also with the environment at large. I’m thinking of another marvelous early sequence, as the generously proportioned Baymax waddles through the streets of San Fransokyo while trying to track down Hiro’s missing microbots: far more clever, and much more amusing, than the nonstop, slam-bang free-for-all that erupts in the third act.

Frankly, it feels as though the Baymax/young ward storyline is the remnant of an entirely different project — perhaps unfinished — with the weak Marvel Comics content stitched on top, like some Frankenstein’s monster.

The voice talent is effective, if neither striking nor memorable; you’re unlikely to recognize anybody aside from Wayans and Rudolph, both well-known comic personalities. No surprise, then, that their two characters get the best lines. Miller also establishes a strong presence as the cheerful slacker, Fred, who proves to be not nearly as useless as might be assumed.

And Scott Adsit does a nice job with the childlike innocence of Baymax’s voice.

Henry Jackman, a rising Hollywood composer best known for his two Kick-Ass scores, delivers a rich orchestral soundtrack, sounding at times like a bubbly blend of Danny Elfman and Michael Giacchino. It’s fun music, and Hall and Williams blend it well with the droll chirps, squeaks, grunts and growls concocted by sound effects editor Nia Hansen.

Production designer Paul A. Felix has a blast blending San Francisco’s template with an overlay of Tokyo-style architecture and oversized public works features; it would have been nice if the script had addressed the story behind this cultural fusion.

Editor Tim Mertens maintains a lively pace, particularly during a frantic car/microbot chase and a visit to the far side of an inter-dimensional jump gate; both of those sequences take ample advantage of their 3D effects.

As has become tradition with Disney’s animated features, the film is preceded by a short: Feast, a droll directorial debut by animator Patrick Osborne, which traces a sloppy single guy’s life as seen through the eyes of his devoted dog, Winston, and revealed — bite by bite — via their shared meals. As with many recent Disney and Pixar shorts, the action unfolds without dialogue; the narrative advances — and character moods are conveyed — solely through expressions, body language and editing.

It’s a thoroughly charming piece of work and, minute for minute, far more artistically successful than the feature it accompanies.

I’m sure children will enjoy Big Hero 6, which is by no means a bad film; it’s simply uneven and uninspiring. Disney and Lasseter have done much better, and I suppose it’s the latter’s fault, for having set the bar so high with earlier projects.

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