26 November 2014

"Big Hero 6" Review

In the swathe of super-hero films it's difficult for new-comers to differentiate themselves. This year alone has seen five theatrical super-hero films with two of those belonging to Marvel's movie studios. "Big Hero 6" immediately stands itself out from its other theatrical counterparts in being animated. While based on the Marvel comic of the same name, the film itself is directed by Disney's animation studio, unlike other Marvel studio films which are only distributed by Disney. Furthermore, Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," while not the first film to be a more grim take on the superhero genre, has inarguably changed the way in which superhero films are not only seen as films but how are they made. "The Dark Knight's" influence can be seen in more recent superhero films such as "Captain America: The Winter Soldier--" a film which not only, thanks to cinematographer Trent Opolach ("District 9" and "Elysium") looks grittier than its prequel, but also thematically dealt with more serious issues than usually found within the genre. "Big Hero 6," however, is not interested in attaining a more realistic or darker feel. Instead, "Big Hero 6" embraces a brighter use of colors and silly jokes, all with classic Disney charm. The result is a film that, despite its PG rating, is worth watching to both fans of Disney films but also fans of the superhero genre who shouldn't be turned away by the film's aesthetic.

Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), the film's protagonist, is a 14-year old prodigy whose only interest is making money off of illegal robot battling. There's a mischievousness behind the boy-genius that's revealed when he innocently trudges onto a robot arena, losing his first battle and consequently most of his money, before revealing to be a hustler. It's this same mischievousness, however, that gets him in trouble with not only the police but also his older brother Tadashi Hamada (Daniel Henney).  In an effort to change his younger brother from underground fighter on his way to prison, to productive scientist, Tadashi takes Hiro on a tour of the university which he attends--a university that specializes in technology research. Here, Hiro meets Tadashi's friends and lab-mates. While all of Tadashi's friends bring something to the table and work together literally but also figuratively in helping the film to deliver its punch-lines, the person who stands out the most is GoGo Tamago (Jamie Chung). GoGo is written in a manner that breaks away from certain tropes, with the character delivering one line that goes: "woman up." Her brashness and head-first attitude also make it so the character stands out the most amongst the lab scientists.

Also worth noting in the above scene is the film's soundtrack. Within the laboratory both Hiro and the audience get to see futuristic technology in the works. The laboratory itself is a slick white recalling 2013's "Oblivion" which also presented its own future technology in a similar visual style. In order to fit the scene, the soundtrack evokes a sense of both curiosity and wonder, mirroring Hiro's own impression of what's going on. Furthermore, the soundtrack never attempts to place itself in the foreground but works as sub-narrative within the film. It's not telling us how we should feel about a scene or how we should interpret it but instead heightens the tone and mood that already exist within the film's visual narrative. Specifically, here, the soundtrack is also made to sound futuristic (although it's no Vangelis), and playful as Hiro goes through the laboratory seeing the different experiments and personalities behind the scientists working on them.

Finally, Tadashi introduces Hiro to his own experiment, Baymax. An inflatable robot, Baymax is a strange cross between a giant marshmallow in appearance and Terminator in his relationship to Hiro. The latter comment specifically refers to "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," another film where a young boy and machine form a close-relationship, albeit under very different circumstances. As Tadashi calls it, Baymax is a "health-care companion" able to scan humans, diagnose them, and then provide proper medical care. Baymax helps in not only developing Hiro as a character and person but also in delivering the film's best punch-lines in the form of repeating gags that know their place without becoming too repetitive or tiresome.

Stricken with awe, Hiro decides to enroll but needs to win the school's science competition, which he obviously does. Things go wrong, however. A fire breaks out and when Tadashi runs back into the building in order to save a professor, the school is engulfed in flames. It's a slow start that's deliberately paced in such a way but "Big Hero 6" is telling an origin story and rewards those with patience. Baymax is accidentally reawakened by Hiro much later and after a series of incidences, a super-villain is found and the film's plot begins to form. It's not contrived so much as typical. In terms of story "Big Hero 6" doesn't have anything too new too offer, and the mystery is sizzled halfway through.

Despite being an action film, "Big Hero 6" doesn't glorify or embrace its violence whole-heartedly. Quite the opposite, "Big Hero 6" encourages non-violence while at the same time stressing out the need for teamwork. Once again, the film's approach to violence is another way in which it differentiates itself from its other theatrical, super-hero film counterparts.

The biggest draw of "Big Hero 6" is its fusion of Western and Eastern culture. This can be seen in the film's setting which combines San Francisco with Tokyo. The result is "San Fransokyo," a city which architecturally encompasses both the sloping, concrete hills of San Francisco with the piercing skyscrapers of Tokyo.  Throughout the film, various shots are used to highlight the city's architecture which reinforce this cultural fusion. An extreme wide shot reveals that the arches on the Golden Gate Bridge take the form of Shinto Shrine gates, commonly known as "Torri." Wide shots that initially might seem to place a focus on Hiro because he is in the foreground, reveal the littered, neon, Japanese shop signs that decorate the city's alleyways but also linger in the back of the frame. It's a subtle way to emphasize the influence of the setting without ever detracting away from the main action. Robot betting is illegal, and only the shadiest-looking of people hang around these places, be it the ring-girl with an eye-patch or the crime boss known as "Yama."Furthermore, there's a racial diversity present in both the film's main cast but also the background characters who are in the frame long enough to only be caught by the most attentive of viewers.  The starkness of the alleyway and what alleyways connote--that is, a place inhabited by the morally corrupt, where vile actions take place--in combination with the bright signs, recall not only the Noir film genre but specifically, Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner," which combined the genres of science-fiction and neo-noir. "Blade Runner" used this genre combination in order to have similar aesthetic contrasts, such as the rain and darker color palette which occupied a future Los Angeles where flying cars roamed the sky but was also filled with its own share of bright advertisements that would grab your attention. Whether it's use of contrast that's reminiscent of "Blade Runner" or the wide of shots of a sprawling, nighttime San Fransokyo, illuminated by the various buildings that recall Fritz Lang's own vision of a futuristic city in "Metropolis," "Big Hero 6" still stands to be more than original in its setting's aesthetic.