A funny thing happened in the years since the release of the original Toy Story: my generation moved from being the kids in the theatre to being the parents.
It’s bizarre to look around at the audience of an animated feature and realize you are now on the opposite side of the age gap, especially when you’re not there as a parent but as someone with a lifelong love of movies, animation, and superheroes. This transition also makes evaluating such material very difficult. While many big budget animated features have appealed to adults, their primary focus will always be children. Do we then evaluate the film based on our own standards or those we imagine of the targeted audience?
The issue is further complicated by how expertly Pixar, Hayao Miyazaki, and this year’s The Lego Movie manage to erase that gap by appealing to both crowds. So when there’s something which doesn’t quite hit on all notes but is probably fun enough to keep the younger audience entertained, does anything else matter?
Big Hero 6 is a perfect example of this conundrum. With Disney owning both Marvel and Pixar, Big Hero 6 comes off as a crossover of all three studios, a Disney adaptation of a Marvel property in the style of Pixar. The Pixar aesthetic is all over Big Hero 6, from the sleek and colorful animation to the emphasis on quiet, physical comedy. Unfortunately, aligning itself with the Pixar (and Marvel) tradition invites comparison to Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, films with emotional heights that Big Hero 6 simply can’t reach.
But it definitely looks great. Although gorgeous computer effects are pretty much par for the course these days, Big Hero 6 is wondrous in how it captures its characters, technology, and the larger world surrounding them. Each of the lead characters are very well designed, especially in the case of Go-Go whose interest in bicycling is reflected in larger legs than the typical Disney character, but whose catchphrase “Woman up” comes off at a desperate attempt at appearing empowered.
Similarly, the city of San Fransokyo very nicely combines real life architecture and geography of San Francisco with distinctly Japanese elements (although from a purely knit-picky point of view, it’s far too sunny and needs a lot more fog, like, everywhere).
A brief foray into another location reveals a beautifully imagined world of colorful, swirling gases resembling images from the Kepler telescope. The definite visual highlight is Baymax. The design itself is brilliantly consistent with his purpose as a gentle healing robot, and his inflated awkwardness makes for many of the film’s most enjoyable and memorable moments. Baymax is not the central character, but he is the reason any of it works.
It’s actually the strength of Baymax which makes Big Hero 6‘s missed opportunities that much more obvious. There’s a lot of great humor packed into the first half of the movie which suddenly disappears once the action kicks in. Similarly, Baymax, and by extension his creator Tadashi, is such a nicely formed character that others suffer from lack of development. The rest of the team aren’t given enough time to establish themselves as more than one-note jokes or as a formidable team of superheroes. They’re sidekicks doing grunt work while the real story happens away from them.
As demonstrated by Go-Go’s attempted catchphrase, there is also a strong sense of formula at work in Big Hero 6. Several scenes come off as obligatory more than essential – the cast introduction with single interests that form entire identities, the training montage, the show-off sequence, the sudden burst into a pop song now available for digital download – which probably works in delivering a quick jolt of information or emotion to the younger audience, but comes off as common or even manipulative to the adults.
The film’s stabs at making science look cool are great, but the science itself is so far off that it may actually discourage kids from becoming more interested in the subject, similar to how their parents all wanted to be archeologists after Raiders of the Lost Ark but quit when they learned it didn’t involve digging for treasure and melting Nazi faces.
The best material comes when the formula is broken. There’s a surprising intensity in seeing the film go dark, particularly in the hero (Hiro Hamada, probably the most obviously named main character since Snow Crash‘s Hiro Protagonist) briefly crossing into villainy. Big Hero 6 uses relatively brutal imagery, and a sudden cut to silence, to heighten tension and an exquisite sequence of short videos to stir more emotion than all the hugs, you-can-do-it speeches, and pop music cues combined. In the same way that Up and Howl’s Moving Castle expect more from their audience, it’s nice that Disney does as well. Children aren’t as dumb as most movies seem to think.
Yet for some reason these individual moments of humor, emotion, or intensity, never quite have the impact they should. The film moves from one thing to another so quickly that the effect is less like the proverbial roller coaster and more like riding up and down hills in a cable car. It seems so eager to never allow the younger audience to settle for too long that it doesn’t give itself enough time to hit the peaks that many similar films do. Yes, Big Hero 6 is fun, colorful, fast, funny, gorgeous, and likely to make the kids in the audience happy, but so many other modern animated films are all of that plus more, making Big Hero 6 in comparison feel disposable. It’s the new toy your kid will love intensely for a week and break in a month. Or the new big kid toy iPhone that will be obsolete next year.
I couldn’t possibly write this review however without mentioning the animated short “Feast” which precedes Big Hero 6 in theatres. It’s a gorgeous piece of animation that pushes away 3D computer images for a minimalist style, retro shading techniques, modern motion, and blur for depth. On the surface it’s a funny little story about a dog eating scraps while behind is a very simple and wonderfully told tale of love and loss and maturity. This six-minute short is precisely the kind of thing that appeals across the age gap of kids and parents, and is something that the kids can love now and love even more later.