Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 is the latest offering in Disney’s stable of Pixar-esque animated movies. It also benefits from the agglomeration effect of Disney’s ownership of multiple IPs; the movie is based on a Marvel Comics series with which it shares a name but scarcely little else (not that that’s a bad thing or anything).

Disney is a consummate master at mass-producing high-quality animated fare for reviewers and moviegoers alike, and Big Hero 6 is no exception to this rule. The movie ticks all the boxes: likable, spunky protagonists, memorable sidekicks, stunning and well-crafted visuals, all-ages humor, and a dash of tragedy and pathos, wrapped up in a shiny, easily-consumable narrative package. This formula is blended to near-perfection by Disney’s stellar assortment of well-managed talent.

Except that it’s starting to become, well, a formula. It’s a relatively safe movie that plays to all of Disney’s strengths and avoids most of its weaknesses. Narratively, however, it’s almost painfully predictable, using bait-and-switch who’s-the-real-villain tricks that have somehow become a staple of Disney flicks (Frozen, Iron Man 3, etc). It’s neither particularly innovative nor daring from a narrative standpoint. As an origin-story superhero flick, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. And of course, it’s finely calculated to leave ample space for the inevitable sequels to come.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Disney. As far as tentpole movies are concerned, there is no entertainment conglomerate that can beat Disney at dishing out great cinematic fare. However, I’d like to see something more narratively daring get made as part of Disney’s own animated pantheon. Something that contains the spark of a Ratatouille or a Toy Story 3 (yes, I know Pixar is owned by Disney; I’m referring to films made by Disney Animation Studios). I think that Disney’s big enough and has enough brand power to make movies that are more experimental.

That said, Big Hero 6 is a great franchise starter, not least because its setting is so profoundly inspired. San Fransokyo, the movie’s setting, is a fusion of San Francisco’s unique bayside environment and Tokyo’s density and architecture. This marriage creates a superhero city on par with the likes of Gotham and Metropolis, an urban mythos with its own texture and history. Word has it that Disney spared no expense in creating San Fransokyo, by purchasing detailed property data from the city’s Assessor-Recorder Office and modeling the entire city down to the individual block. Although the picture of a futuristic San Francisco is perhaps a little too optimistic; I wonder what the Tenderloin or Bayview-Hunters Point equivalents would look like in this otherwise shiny techno-utopia. And the public transport system featured in the movie, with its elevated monorails that crisscross the financial district, is a bit of a step up from what San Francisco is likely to offer even in fifty years.

That said, the movie captured the twin essences of San Francisco and Tokyo perfectly (well, the good parts at least), San Francisco slightly more so. For SF: the rolling hills, the ever-present fog drifting in the Pacific, the Victorians at Haight with their attractive cafes, the cable cars, the Ferry Terminal, and the vitality of the tech scene (although socially productive in this case), albeit with nary a hobo or druggie in sight. Tokyo: the gleaming skyscrapers, the countless neon signs with real Japanese words in them, the little hole-in-the-wall ramen restaurants with their noren curtains, the hip-and-gable roof styles so characteristic of Japanese architecture, and the dense public transit network. The fusion is so inspired and well-realized it deserves another spin in a sequel, or perhaps as a setting in an open-world video game.

And one last thing: Diversity! How often are Asian characters portrayed so positively in movies? Hiro Hamada has an American accent and is for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from his different-colored friends in terms of language, culture and habits, but he is indubitably Asian. He’s a nerd, sure, but so is everyone else in the movie. And he uses his brains to kick ass! Asians, especially males, have occupied a place in American cinema that robs them of some degree of agency. They’re often either portrayed as risible weirdos or exoticized as kung-fu wow-pow masters with a slippery command of grammatical English. I see Big Hero 6 as another expression of Disney’s very laudable desire to bring some cinematically-challenged groups into the spotlight in a way that is unabashedly positive, like what they did with The Princess and the Frog. Here’s to more movies that portray Asian characters as unabashed heroes without all the baggage that comes with Asian cinematic stereotypes.

So, onto the judgement:

I give this movie: 4 out of 5 kabuki masks

+ Inspired setting
+ Positive portrayal of Asian characters and “nerd” culture
+ A typically competent Disney production

– Narratively unambitious, predictable plot
– Villain’s motivations are questionable
– Feels calculated to be an origin story (although, if it doesn’t spawn sequels, I reserve the right to refrain from eating my own hat)

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