Big City Heart
So, continuing on our tour of late 2014 reviews, I have recently seen Big Hero 6 by Disney Studios. I hadn’t any intention of watching the movie, especially after feeling rather chilly towards the children’s entertainment giant and their lacklustre Frozen mega-hit which served to demonstrate just how out-of-touch I am with the rest of the world. It also didn’t help that whatever fledgling interest I may have had for the flick evaporated after having to sit through Guardians of the Galaxy.
Yes, yes, I hate super hero movies–or as I like to call them “Stupid Hero Movies”–and was quite frankly ready to give popular blockbusters a skip since it seems the public is going through a really weird phase and I feel it’s safer to hunker down and wait it out. Of course, avoiding the megalithic reach of Disney and his cold, dead fingers is a near impossible task, especially as I have a habit of speaking to a number of women in my life. I was assured–quite voraciously I might add–that both Wreck-it-Ralph and Big Hero 6 were great movies. People even dared to go so far as to recommend I watch them even after I expressed my disdain for the unanimously adored flick about the Swedish girls and their boring life.
You’ll notice I didn’t write anything on Wreck-it-Ralph and that’s probably for the best.
Big Hero 6, however, is the more noteworthy of the two. I’ll jump right to the point: I think it’s “okay.” The biggest failings of Big Hero 6 is that it’s a Stupid Hero Movie released in a climate where movie-goers are tripping over costumed weirdos every other weekend. Narratively, it does nothing truly new or extraordinary. If you try and tease it’s characters and plot apart, it unravels rather easily. It’s competent, which is perhaps the best thing I can say. But it’s competency arises from it re-treading quite beaten ground at this point.
There is one thing, however, that Big Hero 6 does fantastically. Perhaps more than any other movie I’ve seen recently, and truly the only reason I kept at it and look at it fondly, is that the world of Big Hero 6 is just so damn interesting.
For those not in the know, Big Hero 6 was a comic at one point in time–thus explaining it’s unfortunate plotline. However, it takes place not on Earth. Well, more accurately, it does not take place on any reasonable facsimile of Earth. One thing that stupid hero movies do–and must do in order for the picture to work–is spend a gross amount of time grounding their comic book worlds in a very recognizable and verisimilitude world. We’ve long passed the days of George Clooney’s Batman nipple suits and a Gotham City that looks like it was ripped straight from Lovecraft’s most hideous cyclopean nightmares. The X-Men movies set the stage for comic book adaptations that are filmed with an intense grounding in our day-to-day familiarity and it has apparently produced a “gritty and realistic” aesthetic that has resonated with movie-goers. Thus, Nolan’s Gotham is very clearly New York. Iron Man unabashedly lives in Malibu.
Big Hero 6, however, is not. It’s location is San Fransokyo–some curious and compelling hybrid of San Francisco and Tokyo. It’s a world that’s strange and captivating. I found it hard not to get sucked in as we’re pulled over the Golden Torii Gate Bridge, the once familiar landmark carved into the iconic images of a Shinto shrine’s entrance. Great wind turbines bob in the air, tethered like enormous balloons and painted to inspire the recollections of the flying Koi during the Children’s Festival. Red lanterns hang from street cars while enormous neon signs in bright katakana fixate to the sides of downtown skyscrapers. The movie is very indulgent in its wide spanning shots of this inventive skyline where the old and the exotic are mixed into something almost familiar.
It’s really a brilliant mix of cultures done in such painstaking way to make the seams tying the two together indistinguishable. This extends to the main characters and their obvious Japanese heritage despite the movie’s stylistic renderings. Tanaka and Hiro are undeniably American for all intents and purposes, even as the engage in robotic sumo competitions or advanced robotics.
The best character of the show is the city itself and it’s a shame that something more couldn’t be done with it. Ultimately, the backdrop isn’t used for any clever thematic or even stylistic blending. The main villain runs around in a kabuki mask without drawing on traditional kabuki elements or traditions. There’s a heavy use of robotics throughout the film–echoing Japan’s leading edge in the field–without actually exploring any themes of robotics (displaced human workforces, moralistic questions of advanced artificial intelligences). There could have even been some exploration of the universality of the human condition by pulling on the shared elements of American and Japanese mythology and history but all of these things were missed.
At the end of the day, Big Hero 6 is a bunch of stupid action with some shoehorned morality shoved in at the last second that makes no sense. But it’s world creation is very intricate with painstaking detail done to even the smallest references. It’s a visual feast just as much as it’s a cognitive snore. I think it showcases just how samey and unremarkable this super hero phase really is. At any other release, at any other time, this movie would have been fantastic. As it stands, it’s kind of forgettable in a vast sea of similar faces. It’s a shame they couldn’t take this setting and do something really fascinating.
As is, it’s a really brilliant example of some clever world-building. Check it out for that.